I call to meet him at the Architectural Association, where he is preparing, for the AAI SALON show at their Bedford Square premises on May 1, to exhibit an inflatable sofa designed by a Dutch furniture company that he is painting on with a combination of special paints and sealants that won’t react adversely with the robust PVC. I somehow neglected to ask him about the obvious S&M connotations.
After attending schools and colleges in Kent and Oxfordshire, Martyr won a place to study his BA at Slade, progressing to study his MA at RCA, from which he graduated in 2007 – a spell in New York sandwiched these two programmes. He has since shown across Europe, the USA and the Far East, acquiring along the way private commissions as diverse as for ABN Amro in Sydney, Vidal Sassoon in Los Angeles, the British Consul of France and a glut of other individuals, particularly in Italy.
Word of mouth also bought to one of his shows a professor of the Architectural Association, whose interest was stirred by the architectural and pneumatic qualities of his work, felt to synergise well with the AA’s 2009 projects. He was thereby invited to join the AA as a ‘professional participant’ in their inaugural ‘International Professional Studio’ programme, in which a group of architects, designers, engineers and other professionals give some of their free time, of which there may be much in a recession, to work with students and with each other, out of their comfort zones, on projects that may result in an art installation, a building proposal, a piece of literature, or whatever their collaboration conjures. He is also teaching a Foundation course at the AA and feels it to be a generally enriching experience – it is a massively important organisation, and he is ‘there to make waves’.
As his work seems to be primarily concerned with money, and its accumulation and maintenance, I ask him where he, as an artist, stands within the ‘art as cash cow’ or ‘art for art’s sake’ debate. His answer is refreshingly unambiguous. ‘Let’s not be romantic here,’ he says. ‘Art is a business. You only need to look at the way galleries operate to see that it is a business, and it is only in the last ten or fifteen years that artists have come around to the idea. I am a professional. If I don’t work in the studio from 9am to 8.30pm I won’t make any money. I have no other job. This is it.’
He adds that ‘it’s the biggest compliment an artist can get that someone is willing to pay money to take your work away and put it up behind their desk’ or whichever side they hang. Fine, he has to ‘make paintings to make a living’, but worries for the time when he might have to make compromises in his art in order to sell it, and requests to be tapped on the shoulder and advised to stick to his roots 'before going through with that ad commission for LIDL'. A painting takes a long time to finish, but once it is done, it exists by itself; he no longer owns it, and there can be no sentimentality.
Martyr quickly refutes my suggestion of anti-capitalism in his work. ‘It is about the sexy rhetoric of big business, big-cock capitalism, the phallic towers of rich industrialists, pure expressions of wealth and power encapsulated in the emphatic words and images of the Financial Times or Economist, satirised. When someone buys work like this they do so to take the piss out of themselves.’ They have the money and power to lean back on, in lieu of an inflatable sofa. 'Dream! Do! Dare!' roar the charging rhinos.
These pieces comprise contemporary images, in common with those of M.I.A., particularly in the repetitive use of Mercedes-Benz logos, and the propagandist references of Marinetti, Mussolini and fascism in the economy of images and words. ‘All modern advertising,’ he points out, ‘uses these tried and tested methods.’
Finally, I put to him the JJ Charlesworth quote that ‘the British mainstream public no longer knows whether to support contemporary art or kick its fucking head in.’ ‘Who gives a fuck about what the British mainstream public thinks?’ he half says, half laughs. ‘Art is the most elitist thing on earth. The most valuable thing around the dinner tables of the middle classes is to be able to talk in an educated manner about fine art, high literature and classical music. You don’t want everyone understanding.’
I have to agree with him, even if I would class myself as a member of the everyone. In his world of private clients and big-business commissions, all is well.