Joe Light and Chris Martin: Be Natural

Be Natural: Joe Light and Chris Martin, Parts & Labor, Beacon, NY, 2021. Brooklyn Rail

I’ve always liked the idea of a well-conceived two-person exhibition feeling like a boxing match. Not so much in the trading of punches, but as an emotional journey. The blocks and jabs, combinations, choreography, and bobbing and weaving. Two minds so in the moment that everything else seems to move in slow motion. 

This is how it felt to see Be Natural: Joe Light and Chris Martin at Parts & Labor in Beacon, New York. Walking in, we know the storylines of the two painters and how they are stylistically linked. Martin’s career has been a gentle, deliberate burn. The consummate artist’s artist, his ingenuity and willingness to dive into possibility is that of tremendous envy from many younger artists. Light, famously, took to painting to proclaim his devotion after a stint in prison in 1966. His voice is sharp, urgent. Anything could be his canvas, his opportunity to communicate, to convert. The pair somehow arrived at the same place, having traveled from vastly differing directions.

Light was the ultimate journeyman, fringe contender. Born in 1934 in Dyersburg, Tennessee, he primarily worked on a farm in his youth until 1951 when he enlisted in the United States Army. After only months in the military, he realized he would be sent to the Korean War, leading to a self-inflicted injury to his arm and an accompanying discharge. On multiple occasions, he was incarcerated. During one stint in Nashville penitentiary Light met a rabbi, which led to his conversion to a self-constructed form of Judaism. He left behind all belongings searching for a wife and began hitchhiking through Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Tennessee, stopping to court various women. With all of the enthusiasm and intensity of a new convert, he scrawled divinely inspired texts on walls and highway overpasses as he wandered.  

This exhibition focuses on Light’s interpretation of the landscape. Despite the limitations of painting on found wood, wall paneling, and doors, there are no boundaries. He zooms in on the grand, the romantic, the magical other place. Painted on a thin piece of plywood with an acute angle sliced off the top, an untitled piece from 1988 hangs from a gallery pillar. It’s a landscape in that it resembles a landscape, but it also has nothing to do with the landscape. Composed of five separate and distinct, super-color-saturated layers of stacked earth: the brown earthy core, the tall green grass, a single yellow-and-blue bulbous flower, a red mountain jutting into a washed-orange sky). There is no acknowledgment of humanness. There are no shadows cast; we are truly alone on this pilgrimage. Light gives us a projection, an unearthly version of serenity. At his most mystifying in Be Natural (1988), each layer of the ground appears as an insulated island. Dominated by a dark pool of black paint, there is a small cluster of rapidly painted blue and red flowers. Out of that darkness comes pure hope. It feels as though he is young, giddy, working in haste to share the good news. In this abstract sublime, blossoms still thrive despite being deep in the shadows of the mountain. 

The boxer and philosopher Mike Tyson famously said: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” Martin feels like a brawler, someone who will stick their chin out to take the hit for chaos’s sake. His paintings are more curious, more scattered. They are funky fields of waves and scuffs, of distressed bumps and impure puckers of color. In Martin’s painting Flagstone (2008–11), we see several color shapes that should fit neatly together but instead are floating off in space. The stones have weightlessness to them. There is no rhyme or reason, no manicured symmetry that we usually get with flagstone patterns. No longer the burden of being bound together, each stone is free to explore independently. It’s a celestial landscape, a contradictory reality that we cannot hold on to. The painting is as welcoming as it is subversive. Martin invites us in to meditate on what constitutes faith. 

That’s the dance: Martin continuously pulls us in closer, invites us nearer to meticulously look at the energy of his surfaces. To look for clues about ourselves as to where he is guiding us. Light, meanwhile, continuously pushes us out further, taking a more distant vantage point in search of this state of faith. They are panoramic views of where he’s been, where he wants to lead us to. Whenever the exhibition really sings, the gallery, the curator, never get in the way. They simply provide the ring for two greats with similar goals but contrasting styles that bring out the best in each other—power punchers, professing the gospel of painting.