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Bernhard Martin


by Gesine Borcherdt
Translated by Siobhan O’Leary
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For many on the German art scene, Bernhard Martin (b. 1966) has always been the man who played “painter prince,” complete with rings, Rolex and gold tooth, not to mention a studio loft in Berlin and a mansion in the country. A brilliant outsider who rode the nostalgic wave of New German Painting, Martin started studying at the Kasseler Kunstakademie at the age of 16 and swapped artwork for onion soup in the bars of Barcelona. His paintings from the mid-'90s are a kaleidoscope of sensory overload, combining classic nudes, fragmented spaces, stray butterflies, languishing eyes, winter landscapes, advertising logos and more into a kind of postmodern hysteria.

But that was then. Now, Martin squats in a back courtyard in the Hackney section of London, stacking wood for his tiny fireplace. He shipped his worldly possessions here a year-and-a-half ago to try something new in two damp floors of space, withdrawing from the hype of the Berlin art scene. All that remains of the man he was before is the gold tooth and this fabulous, unnerving hubris. But there’s no more Rolex, no ring and no mansion -- because it burned to the ground.

“That’s how it all started,” said Martin, rubbing his hands together with glee when I met with him in London in the fall. Late autumn in London is cool and damp, but that doesn’t bother someone who can talk himself into top form in seconds. “I don’t want to own anything anymore. The less you have, the more intensely you live,” he went on. This Zen approach may be influenced by Martin's current reading, which includes the philosophy of Byung-Chul Han, who speaks of “hyperculturalism” and of “the tired society.”

Martin has built his home into something of a monk’s cell: what it lacks in material goods, it makes up for in spiritual energy. And his new paintings have also been pared down -- no more whirling karaoke shows or soap bubbles in semi-abstract living rooms. The motifs, however, are less monastic, with eyes and mouths and fingers replaced by cunts and cocks, with prostrate figures and enraptured bodies in misty watercolor spaces.

The show at London’s Union Gallery, which has taken place in two parts, running from last fall through the spring, is titled “Bel Cazzo-Vita Figa,” or Cock-Pussy Life. Viewed as a series, they function as a moribund bacchanal full of vaporized surrealism, latter-day kin to Dalí's soft self-portraits.

“I wanted to close up the bag of tricks, to reveal less,” said Martin, as he fumbled his way into his tracksuit jacket. “I used to work according to the process of addition. Now I leave a lot of the raw canvas blank and display images directly on it that are totally intense and simple but also sensational!”

Martin's scenes are overlaid with a sense of melancholy. Men are hauled off or demonstrate how weary they are; E.T. emerges as an auspicious icon; a woman’s devotion explodes into clouds of kisses, or she mauls a voodoo doll with needle and thread. These works are about desire and the abyss, the murder of passion and its alternatives -- hidden fears, deadly obsessions, total freedom and fatal devotion.

“My pictures are negative, but in a beautiful, unreal sense,” explained Martin. “I harmonize the evil with the unfathomable.” This sounds a little like a fairytale, and it’s fitting, then, that Martin, who grew up in Kassel and regularly explored the woods -- that is, the realm of Grimm -- confesses a penchant for the tragic.

“When a German goes into the woods, it means something different than if a Canadian does it,” he explained, referencing the mythical gravity that runs like a black ribbon through German art history. But although Martin clearly identifies his spiritual home, he continually speaks of the “mind-hungry traveler” who "can no longer find adventure in the Western world -- except in the mind or in one’s own sexuality.”

He wants to illustrate just that in his painting, but Martin’s view remains distant. The quest for true intimacy, a familiar theme, is here presented under a thick layer of frosting that leaves the audience out in the cold. It’s a conceptual coldness that Martin uses to dissect the malady of the postmodern man, of the “mind-hungry traveler,” who longs for impressions and chokes on them at the same time.

Hemmed in heavy, silver-plated frames, these paintings demonstrate something else: the art of reinventing oneself while defending one’s own position. The layer of gold leaf hidden beneath the silver is a sign that his bag of tricks isn’t sealed just yet. Prices range from £10,000 to £60,000.

“Bernhard Martin: Bell Cazzo-Vita Figa (Part One),” Nov. 26, 2011-Jan. 21, 2012, at Union Gallery, London; “Bernhard Martin: Bell Cazzo-Vita Figa (Part Two),” Jan. 28-Mar. 3, 2012, Union Gallery, London.

GESINE BORCHERDT is the editor for contemporary art at Artnet Magazine Berlin.