Sue Martin: Disrupting surfaces and breaking boundaries
by Laura de Harde
In 2010, Emeritus Professor of History of Art (UCT) and curator of the exhibition Lie of the Land (2010), Michael Godby, commented that historically the genre of landscape painting and mapping ‘represents a means of taking control over space’ (2010: 61). These visual techniques were employed by early explorers as a means of making sense of the unfamiliar territories they encountered on their travels. Godby noticed that an unusually high number of contemporary South African artists continued to perpetuate the practice of landscape painting by subverting it through a critical lens (2010: 61). Godby attributed the trend to ‘land and its history [continuing] to be such a fraught issue in [South Africa]’ (2010: 63). Today, many contemporary South African artists continue to probe the subject of land, confirming that Godby’s assessment holds true, a decade later.
South African painter and printmaker Sue Martin is one such artist who employs the dusty vistas, scorched by the African Sun, as some of the backdrops against which she grapples with her own positionality as a third generation South African (Image 1). Drawing from historical sources, her lived experiences, her travels and a selection of her own photographs, Martin builds up and disrupts the surfaces of her artworks creating a palimpsest of ideas, images, media and marks. Martin’s exploration of her identity is sensitive and purposeful. The textures Martin creates through the layering of paint and wax are prompts for the viewer to look closer and to scratch beneath the visually pleasing surface in order to unearth the layers of complex engagement. Martin skilfully manipulates both paint and surface to enable her conceptual framework to transcend an exclusively personal engagement with her subject.
In her most recent body of work, The Cartographer’s Notes (2019 – 2020), Martin paints directly onto topographical maps thereby disrupting the surface and breaking through the constructed boundaries both symbolically and conceptually. For Martin, maps symbolise the taming of the natural world, by employing what can often be the arbitrary demarcation of land (Image 2). Moreover, maps represent a momentary intervention in an otherwise extensive and complex history. Martin employs ‘veils of colour [that] metaphorically echo the many layers of meaning present in the work, as well as evoking layers of time’ (suemartinfineart.co.za 2019). Martin’s earthy colour pallet and her exploration of historical images provide a sense of continuity between each distinct body of work, spanning the length of her noteworthy career.
Since her first solo exhibition in 1999 Martin has exhibited extensively across South Africa with various galleries such as Knysna Fine Art, In Toto Gallery, Artist Proof Studio and The White River Gallery. Her series Urban Cowboys (2009) was acquired by the IEC (Independent Electoral Commission) and forms part of its permanent collection. Martin’s ability to weave ‘invisible threads’ (Kiefer 2011) between theory and practice, enables her work to retain an intimate sensibility while simultaneously connecting it to what the German artist Anselm Kiefer calls the ‘manifest cosmos’ (Kiefer 2011). To experience Martin’s most recent body of work, The Cartographer’s Notes (2019 – 2020), visit Knysna Fine Art and The Gallery at Grande Provence. In addition, The White River Gallery will be representing Martin at the Turbine Art Fair (2020) later this year.