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Leslie Martinez, "The Secrecy of Water"
Blaffer Art Museum, University of Houston, Houston, Texas
Review by Donna Tennant

Leslie Martinez, “Filament Jetty,” 2022, fabric, paper scraps, charcoal, fine ballast, pumice and acrylic on canvas, 96 x 144 x 5”. Courtesy of the artist and AND NOW, Dallas


Continuing through March 12, 2023


Seven monumental paintings by Leslie Martinez brim with rivers and drips of yellow, blue and green acrylic interrupted by masses of manipulated materials that emerge from the surface as though thrust up by forces from below. Red stains are like blood in the water, and clouds of white suggest polar ice. Martinez uses color and texture to express powerful emotions that are intensely visceral. These dense abstractions incorporate materials that have been stretched, twisted and crumpled before being fused into the surface. According to Martinez, the paintings have been worked and reworked over time — sometimes as long as two years — and it shows. By recycling used studio rags, bits of old canvases, scraps of paper, crushed rocks and more, the artist transforms the surface into a map of visualized emotions: pain, pleasure, anger, fear, regret, and joy. 


According to Martinez, these paintings were partially inspired by a period of severe drought in Texas. The landscape was like “scabs over a human body — dehydrated and trying to heal.” Growing up, Martinez and their family frequently drove from Dallas to their ancestral home in the Rio Grande Valley and back. The south Texas landscape was burned into their memory, along with border patrol checkpoints where they were challenged and made to show proof of citizenship. These threatening, discriminatory practices were internalized by the artist. Martinez’s father was one of 13 children who had traveled with their parents as migrant farm workers looking for work. The incorporation of recycled materials integrally into these paintings may date back to the artist’s upbringing in a household where everything found a use.


Martinez takes a compelling approach to abstraction with a multifaceted technique that opens up endless possibilities. Identifying as transgender and gender-nonbinary, Martinez channels the emotions of not-quite-belonging into the work. Just as water heals the parched landscape, Martinez’ total immersion in the creative process results in transformation and resolution.

Blaffer Art Museum, University of Houston

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