Graham Martin: Using Architecture as a Portal

We had the absolute pleasure of interviewing artist Graham Martin, he (virtually) welcomed us in his new studio in South London, ‘Three Portals’ majestically hanging in the background.

Martin’s work is deeply rooted in architecture and how abandoned structures hold a special relationship to time. He explores these themes in relation to queer culture, cruising, and to his experience as a queer person.

Martin is currently pursuing his MA in painting at the Royal College of Art in London, returning to art education after several years of pursuing a career in law, having decided to embrace his passion for the arts and continue developing his practice.

MAD54: How would you describe your journey of transitioning from being a lawyer to becoming a full-time artist?

GM: Straight out of secondary school I went to Edinburgh College of Art where I completed the foundation course and began a BA in design and applied arts. But it wasn’t right for me at that time, I think as I was struggling with not really knowing myself, and I ending up dropping out. I went back to university the following year to study law and it would have been at least a couple of years after leaving art school that I began drawing and painting again.

“Going to art school felt quite radical in the late 90s/early 00s where I grew up. Art wasn’t really considered a vocation and so it wasn’t promoted as an alternative to traditional career options. Going to art school was to go against the grain of a more traditional state education. There was this idea of a “real job” and when I decided to take that route, it was really celebrated."

GM: I think a lot of queer energy in adolescence goes into excelling academically, something which is perhaps rooted in an infantile desire for validation. As a young person, I spent a lot of time compensating for this thing I knew, on some level, was different about me, which for whatever reason I understood to be wrong. Over time, conventional measures of success became very much conflated with a sense of self-worth and drove my ambitions to succeed as a lawyer.

After over a decade of practicing law, I got to a point where it seemed like my personal and professional life had run from me in a way and I was faced with a stark choice. The liberation of coming out gave me permission, I suppose, to reconsider all these aspects of my life and begin to live more authentically.

Martin’s decision to come out motivated him to continue pursuing his artistic career. Having resigned, he became a consultant and was able to develop his studio practice and later return to art school in London.

His work has always responded in some way to his surroundings: whether that was in Scotland in his earlier work or depicting the urban landscape when he first moved to London. Since then, much of Martin’s work has centered on the built environment.

MAD54: We see a lot of buildings throughout your work. Where do you think your interest in architecture comes from?

GM: Architecture has often been the point of departure in my work. In particular abandoned, derelict structures, places that retain traces of earlier incarnations, hinting at some former use, a sort of index of another period in time, places where you can drift and your mind can wander. I’m fascinated by sites that occupy the liminal space between a redundant past and uncertain future.

“These places are in limbo - a state of flux. There is no specific time period that you can easily attribute them to. In a way you kind of access a timeless space when you are there. You step outside of the present.”

Martin’s work developed into exploring queer culture in relation to these derelict structures in the series “Portals”. He explores cruising culture initially thinking about how queer people had historically occupied abandonded spaces to meet other men anonymously when homosexuality was a criminal activity. Across from Martin’s former studio in East London, there is an abandoned warehouse that remains undeveloped amidst the regeneration of much of the rest of the neighborhood. This space has become central to his current work.

'Three Portals' (160 x 255cm)

MAD54: What are some of the ways you approach connecting yourself with the main themes of your work?

GM: My recent work draws from the writing of David Wojnarowicz and photography of Peter Hujar and Alvin Baltrop, responding initially to their descriptions and depictions of cruising the ruined warehouses on New York's abandoned waterfront in the 70s and 80s, whilst considering parallels with cruising culture more generally.

I wanted to embrace a more phenomenological approach to making, tracing connections in my immediate surroundings through exploring this abandoned packing warehouse in East London, not dissimilar I imagined to those described by Wojnarowicz in his writing. My more recent paintings sort of began by chance as a series of what you might describe as enactments or performances within the space. Incorporating photographic images from these into my work felt like a new direction for me.

In the series “Pleasure Scene”, Martin makes reference to the role traditional organizations like the church play in the oppression of queer people. He mentions that in this latest work (currently on view at MAPA Fine Art) he wanted to create something more celebratory and hopeful around queer culture. He aims to deconstruct the oppressive narrative and rhetoric around it.

MAD54: How would you say your work has become more celebratory?

GM: I wanted to avoid literal narratives and adopted a more philosophical line of enquiry, drawing upon a number of voices within the vast canon of queer theory, including Jack Halberstam’s writing on queer temporality and José Esteban Muñoz’ case for finding utopia in the present. In the context of the themes I’m exploring, it’s both nostalgic and speculative - stepping outside of the linearity of straight time, as Muñoz describes it.

Muñoz argues that queerness is essentially about the rejection of a here and now and an insistence on potentiality or concrete possibility for another world. For me, this idea of queer futurity applies in the depths of the subconscious long before we understand, come to terms with and ultimately embrace our sexuality. Thereby, whilst not actively rejecting the heteronormative here and now, we nevertheless unconsciously step out of the linearity of straight time in pursuit of this other world.

'Cruising Post Capitalist Ruins' (160x250cm)

GM: Two of the paintings from "Staying @live" are based on photographs I took on the island of Mykonos when we were traveling in Greece, which itself has longstanding links to gay culture. When we were driving around, we would come across these abandoned concrete structures, which seemed to be the blue prints for houses. They all took the same form, a series of intersecting and stacked concrete frames. Although the structures are perhaps a consequence of the 2008 economic crisis, they felt reminiscent of the historical ruins that are more customarily associated with ancient Greece. They were imbued with this latent potentiality. At that time, I was reading Cruising the Dead River by Fiona Anderson. Anderson suggests that time itself was in ruins on New York’s abandoned waterfront in the 1970s, writing that the material decay of the warehouses and their queer erotic appropriations suggested the possibility of temporal overlap.

With this idea of time in ruins, I wanted to revisit some of those histories written in the margins and reframe personal experiences in the shadows as a way of deconstructing the oppressive narratives we have grown up with and internalised, narratives that have become so deeply ingrained in our collective consciousness. Thinking about cruising and its associations with wildness, I instead wanted reframe and celebrate these aspects of gay culture. I was thinking about accessing this moment, prior to the onslaught of AIDS, before the stigma and shame associated with it became so deeply imbedded in the gay experience.

'Wild' (2020)

Martin’s work continues to use architectural structures as points of access and connection to time but now with a greater sense of freedom in connection with his sexuality. “Wild” is a painting from a photograph taken on the island of Mykonos. This time, there is no architectural structure to capture time. Instead, there’s Martin’s own shadow, reflected on the dry vegetations hovering over the bones, acting as a link between the present moment, and the living and the dead. Besides exploring cruising culture and queer temporality, Martin has always been interested in protecting the environment. He majored in Environmental Law and ecological concerns have also been a focus in his earlier work.

MAD54: One of the works we see at the MAPA Fine Art exhibition quotes “The unifying lens of the anthropocene”. Can you tell us more about this?

GM: It forms part of a series of paintings and prints where I was exploring some of the themes that arise in J.G. Ballard’s novel “The Drowned World”. I was working on the piece in the show around the time that Trump withdrew the US from the Paris Agreement. I was horrified by that. My law degree major was in environmental law and the focus of much of my writing and research at that time was on the unregulated global industries that are some of the largest contributors of emissions that drive global warming. That moment of undoing brought a lot of my thinking around that time back to the fore. The text in that work is a reference to a passage in the IPCC report, which first outlined the climate change impacts that could be avoided by limiting the rise of global temperatures to no more than 1.5% above pre-industrial levels.

Graham Martin’s work is a reflection of self and it continues to evolve with him. From his personal journey of accepting his sexuality, his longing to access different moments in time and being able to directly experience the themes in his work. Martin’s work clearly attests to the relationship between personal development and artistic expression.


To see more of Graham Martin's work, make sure to visit his website.