Natalia González Martín Creates Surreal Visions of Solitude through Religious Iconography
Natalia González Martín’s latest body of work splashes in the uncanny valley, reveling in the reality of painted droplets and the surreality of their shadowless environments. Individual body parts appear in unspecified yet sensually specific moments. A hand holds grapes, a foot steps on grass, bodies sit contemplatively. Painted in oil, Martín’s works refer to the long European painting tradition in medium and also in iconography. A frequent visitor to London’s museums, Martín often draws connections between the past and the present.
Her current solo exhibition “Las Soledades,” which means “The Solitudes” in Spanish, is on view through March 12th at Steve Turner in Los Angeles. Martín, whose earlier work drew on medieval imagery, once again plumbs the past to explore our own times. Martín now turns to the Desert Mothers, early Christian women ascetics who sought solitude in the wilderness, and Mary Magdalene, who became a hermit after Christ’s ascension. Wanderer / Caminante (2021), for example, repeats the upturned eyes of so many Renaissance Mary Magdalenes. Painting in isolation last year, Martín wondered about historic women who lived solitary lives by choice rather than by circumstance.
Martín further isolates her women by cropping their life-sized bodies into small frames that invite viewers to peer closely. A single hand against a blue sky pinches a fruit in One Alone Breaks the Fasting / Una Basta Para Romper El Ayuno (2021) as berry-red juice curls down her wrist in a heavy droplet. If you look closely at the ankle in Succumbence / Sucumbición (2020), it’s marked by a faint impression of an elastic sock—a tiptoe of the 21st century into early modern iconography. In the painting, the manicured foot treads on a snake, recalling the Virgin of the Apocalypse or even the Greek mythological figure Eurydice. The isolation of individual body parts in Martín’s work creates ambiguity. The time might be now or the past; the figures could be a specific person or everywoman.
The fruits in One Alone Breaks the Fasting / Una Basta Para Romper El Ayuno and Only What’s Necessary / Solo Las que Hagan Falta (2021) could be a desert Eucharist, the ritual consumption of grapes that reference Christ’s blood. Certainly, the juice tracks staining the woman’s body—interior veins turned visible—suggest a religious connotation, but Martín envisions something more equivocal and related to the ritual of everyday life. “You cannot escape it,” Martín said in a recent interview with Artsy. “One very clever thing that Christianity and many other religions have done is making very daily tasks and turning them into something mystical and divine. It was very clever to use something like wine that people enjoy quite often and turn it into a ritual moment.”
Martín’s work refuses any simple answer. “Sometimes the thought of something can be more unsettling than the actual version,” the artist said. Martín borrowed the title of her show from Luis de Góngora’s unfinished 1613 poem. “[Its incomplete nature] allows you to project onto it without ever finding resolution,” Martín elaborated. “I’m interested in suggestion. I believe that if I’m explicit, a lot of the things I want to express will be said too quickly.”
The eroticism of the female bodies in “Las Soledades” also needs to be understood as unsettled. The folded legs in Love Me Not / No Me Quiere (2021) and gentle touch of Even Love Needs Something / Incluso El Amor Necesita Algo Que Tocar (2021) play less with the titillation of a 1940s pinup, and instead reach towards the desire to connect, historically, bodily, or otherwise.
During last year’s lockdowns, Martín sought out London’s parks, reveling in their grass and feeling connected to the world. When she drenched her fingers in water, Martín connected to nature. “In the world, being present, your body is going to be affected by whatever is going on around you,” Martín added. “It’s solitude, but—if this makes sense—not isolated.”