By Shemsi Frezel
“Broken Time: Sculpture by Martin Payton” Installation view
Martin Payton’s Balancing Act
On display now-February 11, 2018
John Coltrane once said “my music is the spiritual expression of what I am.” The simplicity of this statement underscores the one major goal of all artists, to have their work serve as a meaningful expression of some part of themselves. In “Broken Time: Sculpture by Martin Payton” an exhibition at the Louisiana State University Art Museum at the Shaw Center for the Arts on view through February 11, 2018, Payton’s work quietly and confidently communicates components of the his biography. The artist’s influences, interests, traditions, and memories hum throughout the exhibition giving visitors a sense of the “what” that makes up Martin Payton.
Divided into three sections: Man & Metal, Heritage & Homage, and Jazz & Improvisation the exhibition features around thirty works from the past twenty years of the artist’s career. Though Payton does not begin a work with a particular title or theme in mind, allowing instead the forms to take shape before naming a work; the titles of Payton’s works provide the key to understanding their meaning. Titles like Toussaint, Arpeggio for Louis and Mali Andante, Payton reveals his admiration for jazz and its musicians as well as his reverence for African culture and the experience of Black people in America. Many of the works on view contain some sort of circle in their construction which like their titles (Night Trane, Chucho, Sengbe) suggest a continuity amongst elements of the African Diaspora.
Ironically, the best evidence of Payton’s reverence is in an untitled installation from this year. The work consists of various metal scraps laid on the floor in the shape of the African continent. The pieces of metal all rest on a bed of sand. The names of orishas, deities in the Yoruba religion, are written along the western side of the continent where the Atlantic Ocean would be on a map. The exhibition wall text for the installation quotes Dr. Eloise Johnson’s writing about the work describing the pieces of metal as “mismatched objects strung out on the floor like possessions that have been destroyed in a flood and washed ashore.” Yet, each piece of metal is meticulously placed in a specific spot. The idea of something “washing ashore” denotes a feeling of happenstance but the orderly appearance of the work draws to mind the image of someone dutifully trying to put something together or maybe, back together. Here elements of the African Diaspora return to their point of origin. To stand before the installation long enough is to start to understand how Payton works. Pieces of metal start to transform into trumpets, shields, sousaphones, floral ironworks, shackles, and spears. The ability to visualize a work does not equate to the ability to realize a work. Understanding a part of an artist’s process only deepens the awe at the final product. How did this, become that?
Untitled Installation, 2017
The theme of improvisation in Payton’s artistic practice runs throughout the exhibition. In addition to not starting a piece with a particular title in mind, the artist does not make preparatory drawings for his works. And though Payton himself notes the improvisational quality of his process, studying art at Xavier University in New Orleans, earning an MFA from Otis Arts Institute in Los Angeles, and learning industrial welding give him the tools necessary to start each sculpture with a question and arrive at an answer. Payton converses with his metal letting the pieces speak to him then acting almost as a translator, he communicates their meaning to the viewer. In Griot an ankh, the Egyptian symbol of life reminds us of the griot’s role as keeper of traditions and genealogies . Against the white walls of the museum the shadow of Oshun, the goddess of love, looks like a heart. Magnolia for Emmett, a work made in honor of Emmett Till, features green glass bottles which reference a West African and then Southern African American tradition of placing bottles on trees to catch spirits. Similar to the jazz musicians he honors there is an intention in Payton’s improvisation, a need to express something about himself.
Magnolia for Emmett, 1997
Like entering a room of loved ones where one pays respect to each individual, each work in “Broken Time” deserves a moment of reflection. The works are commanding without imposition. They are heavy but light. Each sculpture has its own statement to make and Payton, ever the conscientious translator, unlocks the message. But like a room full of loved ones the works converse with one another and together they speak for Payton. These sculptures are his spiritual expression. Walking around the works, with each change in perspective something new, or old appears. At certain angles the original form of the metal emerges clearly as if Payton is telling the viewer we can take what we find in this world and create beauty.