Portraits: Gabrielle Martin

Gabrielle Martin by Selwyn Rodda
Gabrielle Martin

Gabrielle Martin
Some artists impose themselves on a viewer with the in-yer-face force of their personality and grandstanding stylistic tics, and then there are others who, without succumbing to self-effacing blandness or false humility, are able to partially and patiently step aside, allowing others a space in which to reveal their own irreducible selfhood. Gabrielle Martin takes the latter approach in her paintings of people, which are at once portraits in the traditional sense, personal or public records of so-and-so who did such and such, and subtle and persuasive assertions of her own open, genuinely curious and deeply benign humanity. These memorable, beautiful paintings are a record of an engagement with the essential mystery of other people who come into her orbit and willingly assent to her respectful gaze, loci where alterity and self-portraiture, her own abiding, non-intrusive subjectivity, coexist in mild, yet compelling harmony. You feel her gaze is intent on truly acknowledging her subjects, and the look in their eyes is one of an avowal of this non-judgemental, intelligent scrutiny. In this way, much of the postural defensiveness of a person's social armature is set aside, and a more frank and whole-person presence emerges. A mutuality and trust is established, making these images resistant to objectification and caricature. These are paintings that partake of a profound, honourable yet uncommon lineage of images of human beings fully present to themselves and thereby aware how their presence impacts, however subtly, on others. These are paintings and paintings of people who want nothing from you but the recognition of a common and kind humanity. It is a great pleasure to recommend them to readers and viewers of Setu.
My World, My Images
Gabrielle Martin

I started painting portraits half way through my post-graduate painting course at the Victorian College of the Arts. It evolved naturally for me because I am interested in people. My two big loves outside of painting are literature and psychoanalysis. I am lucky enough to have undergone psychoanalysis and I think that has influenced who I am and probably how I paint.  I remember feeling in my early teens as if I was standing above an abyss.  Not because I had an unhappy childhood – on the contrary I had wonderful, supportive parents -  but just because it’s the human condition to realise not even your parents can protect you from suffering and death. I still feel as if the abyss is there, but doing analysis has made me feel that I am standing on a broad bridge.  I found doing analysis to be an interesting complement to painting people. In analysis, you are confronted with the paradoxical nature of the self. I think that helps you accept yourself and others in all their human complexity.

Painting portraits is quite an intimate process. The subject agrees to be looked at closely over many hours.  This potentially makes them quite vulnerable. That is their gift to the painter, and I feel privileged for the time I have spent painting people. My subjects are family members, friends, fellow artists and sometimes people who have inspired me, such as poet, Kevin Hart, and writer and philosopher, Raimond Gaita.

 I like the way the portrait genre provides certain parameters and yet within those there is the possibility of endless variety.  It makes sense to me that all art exists in a dialogue with the past. I also think initially painting people was a way for me to circumvent the loneliness of the studio after I left college. I was always painting in company.  The presence of another person brought its own imperatives and took away some of the existential angst of facing the empty canvas.  But now in my forties I welcome that aloneness.  The studio is like a church for me. As soon as I walk in there I put on Bach.  It feels like a sacred place to be alone with my own thoughts and to try to intuit what each painting needs in order to be complete.  I am happy to work more now from memory and imagination without a model, but I also feel enlivened by the presence of sitters when I have them.

I live in a small country town called Malmsbury, with my two children, Clara and Felix, and my partner Ian, who is a photographer. My first child, Felix, was born with a significant gene mutation. This means that now, at 12, he is still non-verbal and dependant on us for even his most basic daily needs. Becoming a mother and a carer made it difficult to paint for a while, as I experienced powerful grief and was also busier than I had ever been, with a dependent child and multiple medical and therapy appointments. But it also confirmed the depth of my commitment to making art and the necessity of doing so for my own mental health. I began to draw again when Felix was about 9 months old. It was a life-line that lead me out of my grief. I drew Felix while he was sleeping.  It was a way of expressing the unique beauty I saw in him.  I think it’s always about that for me.

 Both my children inspire me in different ways.

I had lecturers at college who argued that in the 21st Century, portraiture could only ever be a moribund and irrelevant genre.  That never made sense to me.  At the end of the day I think it is relationships that count, for all of us. And that is what a portrait is – a record of a relationship as it unfolds between the sitter and the artist, made concrete in paint.  In the 21st Century, in the age of social media, where we can present ourselves through endless glamorizing filters, I think the slow process of the painted portrait is more important, not less.  That’s not to say it’s the main game – I think film, television and the internet are that – but it is still a game that counts.  I am happy not be working on the main game – the quiet space of painting is what I love.

Website: http://www.gabriellemartin.com.au/

Marina and Astrid, oil on linen
Julie Irving and her daughter. Oil on linen, 122x107cm

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