Itinerary of a Traveller through Darkness

The Nomadic Paintings of Martin Golland

It is often twilight, or just after, in the paintings of Martin Golland. The darkening air of the inner city is radiant with the light of electrical fires, the outlet overload of painted matter. Houses fall there—their collapsing girders like so many broken matchsticks—and rise again instantaneously; becoming incandescent, talismanic, nomadic. There are no circuit breakers in these pigment-rich fields, and structure ignitions are rife. Sirens split the night. A coruscating aureole of fractured arc light infuses infrastructure, boundary and threshold. It is as though we can hear the shriek of phones melting amidst the sizzle and smoke as the lines come down. Everything is coming apart, even as the melting fragments are fused back into new forms, new facades, electrocuting the retina. These paintings are unnervingly alive.

Over the last 10 years, Golland has executed what are arguably some of the most restless paintings being made today. Profoundly nomadic in their mien, with contents splayed out like warped architectures gone awry, they extrude upon us like rude kinetic tropes of the built world. Ravaged by fork lightning and deliquescing elements running amok, his paintings demonstrate that he is an able conjuror. He seeks to induce in his viewers something like wholesale disorientation, undermining our centredness with respect to what is depicted, and removing any sense of a secure foothold. His transient and turbulent scenes reveal the strange in the familiar, the exotic in the mundane. He pinions us between dream and nightmare, urban architectural remains and the nameless Other, which Rudolf Otto (the eminent German Lutheran theologian and scholar of comparative religion) called the mysterium tremendum.

Martin Golland, Foundation, 2014, 24 x 34 inches, oil on Mylar film. Private collection. Courtesy Birch Contemporary.

Golland received his BFA from Concordia University in 1998 and his MFA from the University of Guelph in 2006. He was born in Montpellier, France, and lived in far flung places across the globe before settling in Toronto and now Ottawa (where he is an Assistant Professor of Painting at the University of Ottawa). He shares a studio with his partner, the gifted abstract painter Melanie Authier. He has received honourable mention by jurists for the RBC painting award and was a semi-finalist three times. His paintings generate a sort of fluid electricity felt optically, imaginatively and, not least, viscerally.

In recent exhibitions in Toronto and at galerie antoine ertaskiran in Montreal, Golland showed works that seemed to be connected by jumper cables, each to each. The binary nature of his paintings—the incessant build-up of infrastructure imagery inside the painting while it is co-intensively broken down—is unique in contemporary Canadian painting. Indeed, his is one helluva balancing act between lived space and painted space, and one that has few equals. He holds it all taut and true between the pictorial basics of painting and its phantasmatic excess, even while teetering on the precipice of dissolution. He promises, and invariably delivers, an experience of vertigo and spatial estrangement.

All his paintings—from the early tondos of more than 10 years ago to the recent, large-scale works like The Archivist’s Etagere, 2012—have fuse boxes cabled right into their microstructures, and the wiring is not always up to code. The architectural structures of his imagined cities are systematically broken down and built back up into a maze of entryways, windows, stairs, passageways, terraces, rooftops and exits. Somewhere between fluid demolition and the avid fervour of construction, the assembled environments in his paintings—while always emptied of human figures that neither reside nor preside there, but may be said to abide there in absentia—leave behind resonant traces of the irreducibly human. As a given painting takes shape, his improvisatory flair radically opens up the parentheses on interpretation. His warped architectural constructs become phantom glimpses into the instability of objects—Wallace Stevens’s “the nothing that is not there and the nothing that is”—and provide an allegory for a new spatial experience outside both time and geography.

Bundle, 2010, 60 x 50 inches, oil on canvas. Courtesy Birch Contemporary.

The frisson you feel from spending time with these paintings is the result of their frenzied state of spatial warping, the gerrymandered housing for a Tesla coil—with high voltage, long-sparking displays along power lines that run through their charged cores. It is because Golland’s paintings are so charged that they plug into the viewer’s nervous system readily and well. He uses his paint as a means of blurring the distinction between representation and the irrepresentable, keeping the viewer off-balance, held between memory and desire, inside and outside, reverie and dread. He holds true to the fractured phenomenon of perception rather than any tidy, idealized order. He wants seizure, not stasis, chaos, not comfort—and real sparks all the while.

Etiler, Bostancı, Arnavutköy, Ataköy, Humacao, Yukarı Ayrancı; Golland lived in all these places and more during his childhood. These exotic locales were often in a state of accelerating growth and change at the time. It could be said that he is celebrating constructed place in his paintings. More likely, he is mourning its absence since home and its horizon of groundedness is never what he experienced when young. Yet, he is no nihilist, no hopeless cynic. He still wants to believe.

Golland the painter (and the person) embraces a truth inherent in Don DeLillo’s prophetic novel The Names, 1982, “How do you connect things? Learn their names.” Learn their names. Well, he was forced to. His early life was framed by moving incessantly between countries and continents. He lived in almost 30 different houses by the time he was 16 years old. Athens, Istanbul, Ankara, Miami Beach, Puerto Rico, you name it, almost all of them situated in makeshift communes composed of other hippie families, friends and like-minded travellers. This kind of itinerancy, emblematic of a counter-cultural sensibility that his parents adhered to, has its counterpart in the nomadic thrust, warped spaces and temporal shifts of his paintings. A “being in but not of the world” as he puts it, enacted literally in real space. It shaped his values. He soon played by his own rules and formed his own moral code, under his own steam, without advice or instruction from church or mentor. Jasper Johns once famously said that in the Deep South, where he grew up, there was no art, so he had to invent it for himself. So, too, did Martin Golland. Not only that. He had to invent the idea of home and hearth within his own head.

He adapted well and quickly to all those locales and the cumulative assimilation of diverse and often contradictory cultural information would later feed his art. The concept of home for him was the facetted accumulation of all of these early experiences, tempered by the knowledge that where you lived could change with a moment’s notice. He could never rely on the rootedness of a place, or slowly savour the stability of its occupation with an eye to the future, I mean, a home lived in and cherished for a prolonged period of time. Those nomadic beginnings have a very real bearing on his art. Indeed, he understood the survivalist necessity for lightning-fast adaptation, and the associated excitement, by his own admission, appreciably sharpened his senses. It kept him on his toes and, because he was homeschooled, he had time to explore his immediate environment without any governing authority or parental restraints whatsoever. This would hone his improvisatory skills in real time—fine training for the painter he is.

Archivist’s Etagere, 2012, 108 x 60 inches, oil on canvas. Courtesy Birch Contemporary.

DeLillo held that to be a tourist is to escape accountability. The young Golland was no tourist, nor was he a citizen. He was, in fact, an involuntary voyeur. To be a voyeur doesn’t mean an escape from accountability but a transient acquiescence to place. Continuously displaced, he accumulated experiences rather than possessions, and his notion of freedom was organically defined by his ability to drift easily and with anonymity, and to hoist anchor at a moment’s notice. He was a child of a 1970s hippie alternative lifestyle slowly transformed into anti-social religious zeal and one that he later successfully escaped altogether. He escaped into art.

At the core of DeLillo’s The Names is the problem of language. Language is the way we connect with the world; it is a means of opening the world up or of controlling it for our own purposes. This dual concept of language exists in a state of reciprocal, unresolved tension throughout the novel. For Golland, it would be painting rather than language that would be a means of control—not over the external environment but over the internal need to express the flurry of what he had in mind to say in images. He uses the vantage point of his life experiences to interrogate accepted meanings around art. Those experiences provided the metaphoric scaffolding for his paintings and, of course, immanent housing for some very consequential painting ideas. His paintings seem wholly energized from within. They exert a magnetic pull on the somatic and imaginative livelihood of the viewer, perhaps because his own early experiences of displacement, placelessness and loss were felt so deeply, learned so well, endured for so long, enabling the later expression in his paintings of new and unforeseen forms of spatial warping.

To read more of James D Campbell’s article on Martin Golland, order Issue 131 or subscribe.

James D Campbell is a writer and curator in Montréal who is a frequent contributor to Border Crossings.