From the time he was a child, Max-Carlos Martinez has wanted to create art about his family. He traces his lineage which includes a santero (a traditional religious folk artist) back to the earliest Spanish settlers of the Albuquerque, N.M., area, 400 years ago.
Now 47, Martinez has finally finished the "pictorial survey of my family's culture" that he informally started around 15 years ago. The portraits, which span six generations, are now on display at the Sangre de Cristo Arts Center, as part of its Latino artists gallery collection.
"It's been my quest for so many years to see my family and to represent them in a positive and a cohesive effort that can enshrine them," he says.
Wild, blazingly colorful swirls form faces and bodies in Of Thee I See: Max-Carlos Martinez. With detail similar to that in magic-eye puzzles or psychedelic posters, the absorbing works pulse and roll.
"I just can't paint a classical portrait and feel satisfied with it," he says.
Martinez grew up in the 1960s and '70s in Albuquerque, in the poorest branch of his family. The success and wealth of relatives was striking when juxtaposed against the struggles of his own childhood. His father, a prominent Chicano activist, committed suicide when Martinez was 16 years old, and his family was ostracized by the community.
Martinez took a few art classes in high school, but never received any formal training. Shortly after graduating, he followed his dream and moved to New York in 1980. Even after being rejected from art schools, he remained determined to be a professional artist.
"I would paint 60 to 80 hours a week, night and day," says Martinez, who still lives in Brooklyn. "[I would] give myself simple rules, like, 'Four colors, one size brush, and paint this thing until it's done.'"
His family series features all of his seven siblings (either in individual or group portraits) and his parents. There are also three individual portraits of Martinez's father, including one that portrays the deep personal pain that led to his suicide and another that depicts him rising above that pain. The show includes self-portraits as well.
"Cultural Terrorism" frames a bust of Martinez in a border of art nouveau vines and flowers. The painting's title, written below in looping, delicate script, speaks to Martinez's own struggle for identity.
Martinez's main goal, he says, is to capture the soul of his subjects. Likenesses are secondary in his vision.
"[I break] the shape down smaller and smaller in search for a kind of spiritual essence," he says. "So, break down the surface of the skin to a microscopic point that would flow like, maybe, a soul would, and express something you don't see when you just look at somebody."
It is, he acknowledges, a raw approach.
"Some of these paintings have actually disturbed people," he says. "[But] if I saw your soul, I might freak out, too."