Pow Martinez. Courtesy SILVERLENS.
Manila-based artist Pow Martinez's expressionistic style is characterised by vibrant colours, crude aesthetics, and a satirical voice, with paintings often poking fun at the art market and revered art histories.
In Birthday Party (2018), three nude figures in a picnic scene recall Édouard Manet's famous Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe (1863). Rather than apples, cherries, and bread, Martinez's characters are depicted downing beers and feasting on platters of worms and faeces. These loud and vivid canvases take notes from Instagram compositions, reflecting on mass consumption, ostentatious lifestyles and influencer culture. Instagram Star (2017), depicts a deformed and busty influencer adorned with gold jewellery and platform heels, a beer and cigarette in hand.
Martinez's grotesque imagery, including mangled portraits, colourful dystopian backdrops, and hellish monster-like characters, often confronts conceptions of Philippine history and identity. In divine intervention (2020), a nude figure is on a video call with God, their home decorated with typical idyllic paintings depicting the Filipino countryside.
Martinez studied Visual Communications at the University of the Philippines and Painting at Kalayaan College. In 2005, he began exhibiting with now-defunct artist-run space Future Prospects in Cubao, the Philippines. Early works adopted a more sculptural, minimal style that integrated soundscapes and field recordings with found objects.
Separate from his painting practice, Martinez also produces experimental music under the alias 'Sewage Worker'. His latest release, VOL 1, is an amalgamation of atmospheric noise and techno—a gritty score to an imagined film.
While running parallel to his painting practice, Sewage Worker sonically shares textures with Martinez's paintings, albeit with a different palette. The sounds he has produced are cacophonous and dissonant, layered between glitchy textures and electronic elements.
Martinez has previously performed as Sewage Worker through experimental sound initiatives in the Philippines such as Subflex, Modified Signal, and Kamuning Public Radio.
The artist's turn to figurative painting as his primary medium was marked by his exhibition 1 Billion Years held at West Gallery, Manila in 2009, for which Martinez received the Ateneo Art Awards.
The show featured Martinez's 'amateurish,' thickly painted, and abstracted portraits of families, women, and sports teams coupled with tortured, burning, and hung figures, as a commentary on hyperrealistic painting as a practice of extravagance.
In 2019, Martinez was included in the City Prince/sses exhibition at Palais de Tokyo, Paris. This project was the artist's first experience working as a muralist, having been commissioned to paint the space's staircase.
As an exhibition, City Prince/sses sought to address the messy contradictions and barriers found among social, cultural, and political spheres within swiftly globalising and urbanising cities.
For three months, the Palais de Tokyo's steps, walls, and ceilings were adorned with the artist's striking, messy, and rough scenes that featured skeletons, burning churches, and camouflaged creatures bearing Armalites.
In contrast to 1 Billion Years, Martinez's more recent work in Sustainable Anxiety, the artist's 2020 solo exhibition with SILVERLENS, has an uncanny amount of detail—from the hairs on a horse's mane and camouflage patterns on a soldier's uniform to the paintings within these paintings—yet continues to employ the same chaotic energy of disfigured and cartoonish characters
In his panoramic, neon-coloured work subterranean city (2020), hands emerge from the ground in an impressionistic, apocalyptic scene where a soldier takes watch and a nude figure reclines on an armchair, goblet in hand.
Martinez reflects on his turn to painting and addresses his feelings towards authenticity in this interview, charting his current fixations ahead of a collaborative exhibition for SILVERLENS' online viewing room with Filipino artist Jigger Cruz this December, and a show with Yusto/Giner in Spain in January 2022.
AMThe first work that I saw of yours was at Ateneo Art Gallery for Ateneo Art Awards 2004–2013: A Retrospective. I remember seeing Family Portrait and B Team (2009) back then.
PMThose works were from my 'breakthrough show' entitled 1 Billion Years (2009). Before I showed them at West Gallery and the Ateneo Art Awards, I had some exhibits at the artist-run space Future Prospects. I think my work has changed a lot since those days.
I want to constrain myself and do something that I understand fully. Working with painting and traditional mediums is a deliberate choice.
AMHow would you say that your work developed since then?
PMAt the time, I was still learning about conceptual art. I had classes with 'father of Philippine conceptual art' Roberto Chabet and I was doing mostly experimental, 1960s minimalist type works. I previously had a work that was like a blank canvas with a speaker behind it playing field recordings. I was also working with some found objects back then. That was my exploratory, student phase.
To be honest, I think I got bored with myself. Doing that was like trying to please people older than you and trying to prove that I could do clever work. It wasn't working for me, and it felt like I was missing something. I instead ended up looking at artists like Romeo Lee and Manuel Ocampo.
I wanted to go into a more visceral, primal, and painterly world. Making clean work felt like a chore and during that time, painting was being frowned upon. I was also doing music then. It felt like I had two lives.
AMWhen did you start that shift in your work?
PMAround 2008. I was also working at an animation studio then, so I think I got frustrated and felt like I really needed to reinvent myself.
AMDo you think that working at the animation studio informed the work that you do now?
PMI think so. I was mostly doing background scenes for these animations while I was there. I think I got something from it subconsciously.
At the time, I felt like I needed to do something that I was comfortable with, something more true to myself, because I felt done with trying to be clever. I chose the path that felt right to me.
Before that shift, my work was all over the place. But now, I don't think I want to be an 'anything goes' artist. I want to constrain myself and do something that I understand fully. Working with painting and traditional mediums is a deliberate choice.
AMHow would you describe your artistic process when you make your paintings? Do you gather material from elsewhere or does it come from within?
PMThe subject matter for my paintings comes from daily life and mundane activities, like watching YouTube or browsing Instagram. Sometimes it's from interesting compositions of things that annoy me.
My work has a very sarcastic tone and acts like a pseudo-commentary. I kind of want to paint what we want to see. I sometimes think of it just like image-making; like a panel from a cartoon, or a punchline.
AMWhat do you mean by pseudo-commentary?
PMAs an artist, I don't want to be a current trend commentator. I browse the internet, filter some things from it, and then create subconscious images from it.
It's 'pseudo' because it's about what's wrong with the world, but it's not really direct or realistic. I feel like painting is my personal response to different scenarios, such as being a Filipino and addressing how we present ourselves in this world and how we are perceived.
AMDo you have any current fixations in your work that you find yourself drawn to nowadays?
PMRight now, I'm painting these images from White Castle Whiskey and Tanduay Rum posters that feature sexy girls on their calendars. Sometimes, I don't know where I get these scenes from.
I want to forget and erase the overcalculations of the academic side of art, which is why I see myself as a filmmaker or a comic book artist.
More and more, I want my paintings to be a super quick manifestation of what I'm thinking. It's not always consistent and it's always changing.
I like to make compositions based on Instagram influencers, like those posing in Dubaiand with shopping bags. To me, Instagram posts are a full, correct, and perfect composition. I think the culture of Instagram can be likened to the new nature painting.
AMInstagram as the new nature painting? In what way?
PMThe impressionists were outside painting nature. Now, nature is in our phones. Instagram can be kind of like wildlife painting, too.
I think of myself like a horror filmmaker. The paintings don't explain too much of themselves in a very conceptual way. I'd rather go into a kind of art-making that isn't too academic. I don't want to torture myself anymore. Maybe it sounds romantic or corny, but this kind of painting is something that I want to master.
AMDo you ever plan your compositions?
PMIt's hard to pin it down. Some compositions are planned only in my head. The images I pick are a mix of several different things. Maybe ten years ago I was more conscious about it, but now painting is like free jazz to me. I like the immediacy of being able to translate an idea into a painting.
We are bombarded with images everyday, so I can't really pinpoint where it's coming from or the hierarchy of it. There's a lot of subconscious ideas happening, too. Sometimes I also don't want to know where it's coming from.
AMIn a way, when we talk about immediacy in your work, it has a similar feeling to abstraction. Do you see your process in this realm?
PMYeah, I do. All images are flattened out to a certain aesthetic, and through painting, I make my own world. I want to forget and erase the overcalculations of the academic side of art, which is why I see myself as a filmmaker or a comic book artist. I want to fully embrace figurative illustration and the surprises of painting.
AMYou mentioned your music life earlier. Do you think that your experimental music project Sewage Worker is parallel to your art practice or is it one and the same?
PMI want to look at it separately. Before, I was doing things like sound installation, but now I don't want to look at it that way. I don't think it's going to be good for me to combine the two.
In some ways, I want to respect the 'tradition'. Music, for me, is freer and more improvisational because it moves with time. But with painting, I think about it more like referencing its history.
My music can be read in the tradition of the avantgarde, but artists who are also into experimental music are often doing things like high-tech minimal, black and white installation projects, which is not really like my work. My music and my painting practice don't feel compatible.
AMYou feel like the visual aspect does not match the sonic work and that's why you keep it separate?
PMYeah, it's separate and it should be that way for me. But they feed off each other. Of course, not directly or in a medium-specific way. I don't want to say there's a hierarchy, but I am definitely busier with painting, although I've been doing music for 15 years or so.
I also don't feel the need to market myself like a real band or musician. I find it interesting when people figure out that we're the same person. I don't really care if people see my music or my painting first. They're two facets of my practice. Other artists do it too, like David Lynch makes music and paints!
AMCan you tell me about your upcoming Online Viewing Room work with Silverlens?
PMI'm doing collaborative paintings with Jigger Cruz. We meet up, drink, and paint together. It's very casual and improvisational. We've currently been painting together on one four-by-five-foot canvas. We made two so far and we'll add maybe four smaller pieces.
More and more, I want my paintings to be a super quick manifestation of what I'm thinking. It's not always consistent and it's always changing.
AMAre each of the works painted by both of you together?
PMYes! Two artists, one canvas. Jigger and I did a collaborative project before in 2015 (No Singing Allowed, SILVERLENS), but I think we have improved and will make better decisions.
We don't want it to be super finished, elaborate, or overworked. It's been fun to just make marks. It should come out early December 2021.
AMHow many sessions have you had together?
PMWe've only had one so far, but we like it that way. It feels more immediate and of the moment. I'm also tired of having to deliver work back and forth because of the pandemic. Actual human interaction has been nice.
AMIs there an order for how you've been painting or do both of you work on it at once?
PMThere's no real order, it's basically just been like hanging out while there happens to be a canvas there. We drink, listen to music, stand up, paint a portion, and then rest, talk. It feels a little like unconscious painting or like a painting game. We wanted to keep it fun and not over planned.
AMDo you have any upcoming projects or anything you're looking forward to in 2022?
PMI have a show in Spain in Yusto/Giner Gallery in January, so I'm preparing for that. I don't work in a way with a single coherent idea. I want to do that kind of show and discipline myself, but it doesn't really work for me.
There are always so many things I work on at once. Sometimes the painting is ahead of me. Before I try to solidify a concept, the painting comes before all of the ideas.
AMIt's like when you talk so fast, and you don't realise what you're saying.
PMYeah. It's the daily practice of painting and image-making and its immediate effect. You can say it's all unfinished ideas, too. I think of my paintings as unfinished storyboards or sketches rather than finished masterpieces.
AMWhat are your favourite projects that you've done so far?
PMMaybe the one in Palais de Tokyo in Paris for City Prince/sses in 2019. It was a fun show. I did a large piece in the stairway and I painted the ceiling. I liked it because it felt very immediate and I needed to finish it in two weeks.
It was challenging—I was trying to be a street artist. It's hard to choose a favourite, but that one was memorable.
AMWhat draws you to paint?
PMLet's say, for example, that you're going to die next month or in the next two weeks and so you ask yourself to choose what kind of art context you'd like to contribute to. I'd choose painting because it feels real and natural. I no longer want to do things that aren't genuine.
Life is short and it's not worth doing things just to impress the art intellectuals or anyone else. I still want to master painting and be articulate about it; it's still exciting for me to explore it. Some people will say it's boring, but it's a classic, like playing the guitar or eating the food that you like.
I don't want to be too esoteric for the sake of it. I don't care if they say that art should move forward. To me, painting is still not finished. It's still emerging. —[O]