Exhibition Essay (Ari Myers)
The Valley is pleased to present Purple Martin, a solo exhibition by Chicago-based artist Robert Martin. Their work seeks to demonstrate a reality of queerness in rural America in order to combat the insidious notion that it is somehow unnatural, unprecedented, and thus unwelcome. Invoking José Esteban Muñoz’s theory of queer futurity as dependent upon an awareness of a queer past with the intention of critiquing a heteronormative present- Martin’s painting practice engages with history, offers an alternative record of the present, and envisions a utopic future.
Nodding to the history of Midwestern bars cleverly and covertly named for flamboyant birds to signal their openness to a queer crowd, such as Cardinal Bar in Madison, Wisconsin; Purple Martin is named after the communal yet elusive member of the swallow family. Many of the paintings in the exhibition are layered with imagery referencing the artist’s growing archive of materials relating to queer Midwestern history. Much of this archive was inherited from their uncle and namesake, Martin ‘Marty’ Ross McRoberts, who passed away in 1994 from complications of HIV/AIDS. Robert Martin was born and named for Martin Ross just months after his tragic death, and as such, he represents a crucial link in the artist’s queer lineage and a keystone figure in understanding their own identity. Marty, an artist in his own right, has long made appearances in Martin’s paintings. In Purple Martin, Martin includes Marty’s illustrations, advertisements, photographs, and even his clothing. Marty’s presence reminds us that we are living the utopia of our forebears. As we live our ancestors' desires and dreams, their memories carry us onward.
Members of Martin’s chosen family appear in this body of work as well. Justin and Kat- queer friends from the artist’s hometown, canonized in their depiction as figures of security in their gender presentation and sexual identities, and firm in their positions as community leaders. Nate, the artist’s husband, also a foundational figure, appears in this body of work in multiple timelines. Figures from imagination bask in the light of the Purple Martin too; drinking, dancing, playing pool, and cruising Grindr. The paintings in Purple Martin together furnish a fictional queer dive bar and its patrons, all awash in an otherworldly magenta glow. This mood lighting is a tool of world-building, the artist seeks to elevate Midwestern dive bar aesthetics to a higher plane.
These establishments have, across generations, served as clinics, community centers, churches, meeting grounds, escapes and sanctuaries. By providing space for queer culture, these otherwise banal drinking establishments evolve into invaluable landmarks, thus becoming anchors for history and storytelling. Because of their prominence within marginalized communities, these spaces are also targets of hateful violence seeking to erase queerness, especially outside of urban areas where rhetoric against difference is often strongest. The recent aack on Club Q in Colorado Springs took place as Martin worked on this body of paintings, rendering the significance of these spaces and the need for their existence even more clear. Exploring the subtle moments of exchange within the fictional Purple Martin, the artist dually pays homage to the utopias of their queer elders and generates a vision for the future, imagining a space where queer people can live safely, openly, and joyfully.
photography by Brad Trone