Tom Martinelli’s Abstract, Optically Laced Paintings Ask Viewers to Look More Closely

In a show that harkens back to the 1990s, Tom Martinelli’s early paintings, made from layered swaths of translucent color, feel ageless. The New York-born, New Mexico-based artist has explored a brand of abstraction that pools Abstract Expressionism, Op Art, and new approaches that riff on printmaking and digital printing (championed by Wade Guyton and Christopher Wool, to name a couple).

Born in Queens to a father who specialized in offset printing, Martinelli grew up watching ink separate, accumulate, and roll off the press. His 1991 “Vertical Paintings,” the focus of David Richard Gallery’s current exhibition, grew from Martinelli’s childhood fascination with layered color and form. Achieved by pouring different pigments from alternating sides of the canvas, the striated canvases play with the space between accident and control, structure and spontaneity. Like hybrids of Barnett Newman and Morris Louis (Color Field pioneers who experimented with stark vertical lines and fluid pours of paint, respectively), Martinelli’s paintings pair ethereal color with organized space. He adds to the approach of his abstractionist elders an interest in optical effects and illusions.

In Untitled - 9137 and Untitled - 9113, strips of paint build into an edged, idiosyncratic gradient across the tall canvas. Hard and soft edges have different occupations within the composition—they divide, bleed, and overlap. These varying contours give way to new relationships between colors. Ranging from mauve to ochre, and interspersed with blue and green, the spectrum resembles a test strip from an inkjet printer, static from an unreliable analog TV, or—more calmly—a deep summer, dusky sunset. In any conjured association, colors shift from harmonious to dissonant in seconds. 

In his smaller, square works—like Untitled - 9102 and Untitled - 9130—Martinelli’s layered stains feel more intimate and less associative. Form and color seem to be the sole focus here, as the eye becomes occupied with how one stain flows into the next, how another takes precedence, and how slight irregularity (of line, pattern, hue) turns into visual energy. In a 1995 interview with ARTnews, Martinelli gave us a glimpse into the drive for his abstract, optically laced paintings: “I like Jasper Johns’s crosshatch paintings for the same reason, the way he messes around with the logic of regularity. It’s about making you look closely at something you might otherwise neglect.”

Alexxa Gotthardt

Vertical Stripe Paintings” is on view at David Richard Gallery, Nov. 25, 2014–Jan. 10, 2015.

Follow David Richard Gallery on Artsy.