Chris Martin at the Corcoran: Painting Big

Staring into the Sun… (4→7→11), 2003. Oil on canvas, three parts, 143 x 129 inches each.

Last year the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, launched NOW, a contemporary art program that aims to feature emerging and mid-career contemporary artists. The Corcoran is a private museum with known for its proximity to the White House and its unique collection of American Art. Their most recent exhibition Painting Big, features a Washington-born, Brooklyn-based artist, Chris Martin. I saw the exhibition a few weeks ago with my family on their visit to DC.

The exhibition itself is in three parts, and is installed in several spaces throughout the entire museum. The first part is located in the museum’s atrium. Three large-scale paintings are installed in the public space, soaring above the ground floor to rest at the top of the second floor balconies. Each painting consists of bold patterns painted in bright colors that illuminate the building’s marble structure and converse with the columns that flank them. Martin says that these works, commissioned by the Corcoran specifically for the exhibition, are a kind of homage to the site and to his hometown.

Photo by Renee Alfonso

The second installation of the exhibit is in the museum’s Rotunda. The Corcoran normally uses this space for the centerpiece of their special exhibitions, or as an intermission between galleries, indicating a transition between spaces and the installations that reside in them. For Painting Big Martin hung numerous pieces salon-style, creating a volumetric impression that summarizes the span of his work. The paintings themselves vary in scale and are span the entirety of his career to the present day. They incorporate found objects and are sometimes laced with words that describe the moments pictured physically on the canvases.

Large paintings in a gallery on the second floor of the museum compose the third part of the exhibition. These works, while not as monumental in scale as the pieces in the atrium, also capture the aura and atmosphere of a specific time and place. Martin composed this series based on a visit to India, each piece documenting his experiences through his unique aesthetic and perspective. Each of the paintings takes up an entire wall of the gallery, one of them even spilling from the walls onto the floor in vibrant strokes of lush color.

Photo by Renee Alfonso

As you wander through the museum, there is a resounding presence to Martin’s work that is reinforced by the physical volume of his work. Whether it be the actual scale of the work as in the large paintings in the atrium, or the density of the collected paintings in the rotunda, or the immersive paintings of the Indian landscape, the visitor becomes acutely aware that they are inside Chris Martin’s world.

While I thought the entire exhibition was well done, I was particularly struck by the paintings in the atrium. In many of the previous exhibitions I have seen at the Corcoran, the statement pieces are usually reserved for the rotunda, but this time there seems to have been a conscious effort to have the commissioned works converse with the public more freely. The installation changes the environment of the museum’s entrance tremendously, illuminating the space together with the daylight wafting through the skylights overhead. There is a sense of warmth in the space that softens the surrounding structured marble architecture. The works however also posses a vibrant, pulsating energy seen through the rawness and materiality of the canvases. It was a refreshing interpretation of Washington that invites us look upon the landscape with adventurous eyes.

This exhibition was definitely an adventure in contemporary art exhibition. I hope the Corcoran’s future exhibits are just as exciting!

Here Comes the Sun…, 2004–2007. Oil on canvas, 143 x 129 inches. Photo by Jason Mandella via New American Paintings

White Bread, 2010–2011 | Acrylic and polymer medium on bread on wood, 24 x 20 in. Photo by Jason Mandella via New American Paintings..

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