Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Sculptor with a Vision: Martin Payton

A recent trip brought me to the Ohr O'Keefe Museum of Art in Biloxi, Mississippi, where fifteen sculptures from Martin Payton are on display in the African-American gallery for the exhibition Rhythm and Movement, Sculpture by Martin Payton. The show is the occasion to look back at thirty years of the artist's career with works ranging from 1979 to 2011. Well-known in New Orleans for his public sculptures from Savoy, 1990-2001, along the Poydras Corridor, Damballah on the Loyola University campus to the Contemporary Art Center's ceiling, his most famous piece in the city, Spirit House, 2002, was created in collaboration with his mentor John T. Scott. After getting a BFA at Xavier University, he studied under Charles White at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles where he earned a MFA. Payton finds his inspiration in dance, music, charismatic characters, creating works heavily influenced by his African-American heritage.

From the entrance, the visitor is facing a massive piece representative of the sculptor's technique, the assemblage of  recycled industrial steel parts. Referring to the carriers of torches during the Mardi Gras parades, Flambeau, 1997, defines the setting of the room with its symmetrical imposing shape dividing the gallery in two sides, each lined up with smaller sculptures on pedestals along the walls. Abundant leaflets are available, providing a short biography, artist statement, title and one line description of each piece. At first, the layout of the monochrome black sculptures appears monotonous and the silence becomes oppressive. Mali Andante, 2009, and Stitt, 2004, characterized by simple shapes assembled to create sober and harmonious pieces, are a great introduction to a detailed visit. Stitt, one of my favorite, is like a syncopation, a curved line suspended in the air, off balance, followed by its more elaborate version Dolphy, 2007, farther down. Three sculptures in the round, T-Bar Giga, 2009, Bamana Bourrée, 2009 and Mali Andante, 2009, are laid on dark steel pedestals muddling their silhouettes. In Jarrett, 2004 and Tyner, 2001, Payton provides visual cues about musicians and their instrument, but the two compositions stay flat and static. Sorcerer, 2010, is a more elaborate symmetrical sculpture, with a body surmounted by a symbolic circle and two antennae-like appendages while Ibeji, 2004, referring to twin births is a combination of two geometric forms, masculine and feminine.
At the end of my visit, I realized that most of Payton's sculptures were two dimensional. This is somewhat confounding in view of the artist switching early from painting to sculpting due to his interest in the three-dimensional approach of the latter. Apparently, working with welded steel requires the addition of heavy bolts resulting in two-sided compositions (one "good" and one "bad" side) displayed along the walls. However, the sculptures in the round would have benefited from a better location in the center of the room, enabling the visitors to appreciate them fully.
The unique exhibition allows a better grasp of the artist's work, heavily influenced by his mentor John T. Scott and one can appreciate the constancy of subjects, media and techniques over the past three decades. Related to music, natural forces (Kilimanjaro, 1999) or charismatic leaders (Avery, 1999), all of Payton's works aim to higher goals and gain from being interpreted in the context of culture, identity and heritage.
What shines throughout the show is the artist's ability to give a soul to the dark cold metal.

 photographs by the author:

""Dolphy", 2007
"Bamana Bourrée", 2009
"Sorcerer", 2010

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