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Life or Death?
6/03/09

Richard Mutz

Frankie fever spread through Milwaukee this past April when former Milwaukeean and Nohl Fellowship recipient Frankie Martin displayed her new work in an exhibition titled Life and Death? at The Green Gallery West. Included were several paintings constructed out of drop cloths from the artist’s studio, a window installation composed of found discarded materials, as well as a large video projection of a 5-part, two channel, video Who Died? A second video by Frankie Martin titled Born Again was presented in the John Riepenhoff Experience. This exhibition addressed what is left behind in death or through the discarding of materials deemed undesirable, as well as the reinterpretation of imagery and ideas from both current and historical conceptions of death, and the potential life these materials and ideas may have when re-contextualized through the creation of an art object. Though this theme was best conveyed through the paintings and installation, the focal point of the exhibition was the overwhelming video projection: Who Died?, which utilizes re-interpretations of common and cliché representations of death borrowed from contemporary popular culture.

Installation view                    
photo courtesy of the artist and The Green Gallery

Who Died? depicts figures clad in black robes, a funeral scene reminiscent of pagan ritual, various figures floating on a solid white background, and a band with a growling vocalist, borrowing from the aesthetic of early eighties heavy metal music videos and utilizing similar video techniques of that time. Most of the actors were shot separate from the background setting, creating an awkward relationship with the underlying sequence. This green screen technique seems to comment on the ephemeral nature of life as well as the transitory stage between life and death in the way the figures are disjointed from the background and float through the scenes, which is most striking when the contemporary figures are placed against video clips of ancient ruins or mountainous landscapes, as opposed to a solid white background. Nevertheless this ominous reading of the work becomes compromised with the inclusion of faint butterflies surrounding the heads of the actors or the addition of smoke rising from mountaintops. In adding these somewhat camp aesthetic elements, Who Died? begins to enter into the realm of the absurd, however falls short, and lacking a linear narrative, the work struggles to convey much more then a collage of ridiculous portrayals of death inspired imagery that lacks the level of sincerity that is needed to create a serious dialogue with viewers about the work’s intended theme of transition and death. Frankie does successfully convey an element of nostalgia, through the use of retro icons and imagery, and though this nostalgia is directed at individuals that grew up in the eighties, Who Died? also has the ability to embrace all viewers through the resurrected images and aesthetic that are often considered undesirable, here given a new contemporary existence within the piece.

Installation view                    
photo courtesy of the artist and The Green Gallery

The video loop Born Again is a recreation of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. Almost every detail of the original painting is set in motion in an elegant fashion, however after the initial response to the aesthetic beauty of the moving image, the piece becomes relatively uninteresting due to the lack of a new conceptual idea or an advancement in the existing narrative of the painting. It is important for artists to reinterpret and re-contextualizes the history of art, merging historical ideas with contemporary practice, and though the idea of Venus continuously in the state of re-birth functions well in demonstrating these ideas, as does the small scale of the screen in addressing the flexibility of video presentation in opposition to the physicality of painting, Born Again doesn’t push the idea of  re-contextualization far enough to advance any ideas of contemporary art forward. The video is nearly an exact recreation of the painting that offers little new information to the viewer.

If one has experienced the work of Frankie Martin in the past, one would have likely responded far differently to Life and Death? then another who has no prior knowledge of her work. Life and Death? does not reveal enough of the persona and aesthetic that is Frankie Martin’s trademark to establish an aesthetic credo: a merging of the late eighties through early nineties popular culture imagery infused with a valley girl and mall rat craft sensibility. Once one has experienced her performance work or watched a few of her videos, read her artist statement, or viewed her website, one’s perception and reception of her work changes. Frankie Martin is herself a performance and her portfolio compliments her often theatrical, well constructed artistic persona. This exhibition reveals itself as a body of work that must be viewed in the context of her larger portfolio to gain the appreciation of the larger art going public, which is the unfortunate fate of any small sample of Frankie Martin‘s work.

(visual arts archive)