Miguel Martinez | Poetic Portraits

By Bonnie Gangelhoff

Russian Girl, oil, 30 x 40.,painting, southwest art.
Russian Girl, oil, 30 x 40.

Nestled on a rolling mesa between the Rio Grande River Gorge and the western foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the breathtaking landscapes of Taos, NM, have lured artists for decades. But among the many who paint the magical light and lush panoramas, few have the intimate tie to the area that Miguel Martinez does.

Not only was the painter born and raised near the centuries-old Taos Plaza, but his family roots reach deep into Taos soil—at least three generations back. And although change has come to the once-sleepy art colony, Martinez says there’s comfort in knowing that some things about his world have remained virtually untouched since his Spanish ancestors first arrived on horseback in the 18th century. “The crispness of the landscape, the colors, the shadows and light on adobe walls—these are all still the same,” he says.

Susquehana, oil pastel, 23 x 29.,painting, southwest art.
Susquehana, oil pastel, 23 x 29.

Through the immense windows of his studio Martinez takes note of nature, watching shadows play across the precipitous slopes of Taos Mountain. The 28- by 48-foot space is situated on the Rio Fernando nearby, where as a boy he chased horses near the water’s edge. In many respects, Martinez grew up a “boy’s boy.” He loved cars, sports, and exploring along the dirt roads near home. It wasn’t until high school that he discovered his creative passion by taking an art class and winning first and second prizes in a student competition at Stables Art Center. For a time after graduation, he crafted jewelry with his brother, but a few years later Martinez took up painting with local artist Ray Vinella and found his calling.

Miguel Martinez. southwest art.
Miguel Martinez.

Today Martinez is widely known for his paintings of women—monumental works in which the subjects’ faces fill almost the entire canvas. In 1979, when he first showed his work, critics said that the paintings were too overpowering and intimidating. But Martinez argues now, as he did then, “Rules are meant to be broken.”

Spend a day with Martinez in his studio, and you might expect to see a model or two for his colossal, haunting oil pastels—perhaps a raven-haired woman with her head tilted somberly or an olive-toned beauty staring ahead seductively. But in fact, the women come from his imagination—or as he prefers to explain, “It’s just my subconscious working overtime.”

Overtime means rising early and working quickly. Martinez starts a new painting by covering the white space with paint because he detests facing a blank canvas. He then sketches out the composition and moves on to create forms and colors. It’s a little like building a house, he says.

The Cross of San Gabriel, acrylic, 58 x 46.,painting, southwest art.

The Cross of San Gabriel, acrylic, 58 x 46.

In this process Martinez attempts to give his women souls. “When I finish, I want them to look as if they live and breathe,” he says. Martinez can often see his moods reflected in their faces what he was feeling during the moments of creation.

To further humanize his paintings, he might name his subjects after women he’s met at gallery openings or during his travels. He sometimes even scours obituaries for intriguing names. Sophia from Tucumcari and Marisot from Maryland are among the women who have lent their names to his works.

Martinez seems to have an intimate understanding of his subjects. That’s likely because women have played a profound role in his life. His father died when he was 5, and his mother Rose raised him and his bothers and sister on her own. Today he’s married and has two young daughters of his own.

Perhaps this is where his inspiration was born. “It’s hard to say why I first painted women,” Martinez says. “When I thought about the strongest image I could possibly portray, the women came to mind automatically,” he says.

Decoration Day, oil pastel, 14 x 23.,painting, southwest art.
Decoration Day, oil pastel, 14 x 23.

Glance around Martinez’s studio, and it’s easy to identify his favorite artists—books on Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso, Rufino Tamayo, and Richard Diebenkorn are stacked on shelves and tables. On one wall hangs a pencil drawing by Diego Rivera, a sketch of the Mexican army during the revolution.

Martinez’s style straddles the boundary between abstract expressionism and realism, but there’s also a suggestion of surrealism. The glowing skin tones and pensive eyes of his women suggest a dreamy, mysterious mood. Sometimes the women populate terrain the artist has visited in his travels around the United States and Europe, but most often the background is filled with the adobe houses, violet mountains, and brilliant gold sunsets of Taos.

Winter in Chihuahua and the Rio Grande, acrylic, 40 x 42.,painting, southwest art.
Winter in Chihuahua and the Rio Grande, acrylic, 40 x 42.

When Martinez began painting women almost 20 years ago, they tended to look Hispanic. Gradually, though, their features have changed and taken on a more international look. But many still debate their origins: Is she Hispanic, Chinese, perhaps Indian, or Italian? According to the artist, it doesn’t matter; the women have become mythical, universal symbols of womanhood.

Even among art dealers who represent Martinez, analysis of his women varies. Cathy Woods, assistant director at Contemporary Southwest Galleries in Santa Fe, has watched people stand in front of the faces and cry. “Somehow they seem to understand what the women are feeling,” Woods says.

On the other hand, Taos gallery owner Michael McCor-mick believes it is the elusive quality of Martinez’s work that catches people’s eye. “One of the secrets of his work is that you can stare at the faces and not know whether the women have just stepped out of a chapel or a whorehouse,” McCor-mick says. “You don’t know if they are getting ready to smile or cry.” Martinez says there are no right or wrong interpretations of his work. His goal is to generate reaction. “A work is successful,” he says, “if it pulls an emotion out of people and they become involved in the painting.”

Though he is known for these portraits in oil pastels, Martinez experiments with different media and subject matter. He has worked in acrylic, bronze, ceramics, and oil to name a few. And on this particular day, the canvases around his studio reveal his current interest in painting landscapes. Lately his research has taken him back 400 years to when the Spanish first arrived in New Mexico. He is fascinated by El Camino Real—the road from Mexico City to Santa Fe—and how it might have looked when conquistadors, settlers, and padres traveled its length.

One painting in particular shows what explorers might have encountered while heading north to Santa Fe. The landscape is bisected by the silvery Rio Grande River; in the distance the mountains of El Paso rise amid the muted grays of a winter sky.

To his surprise, after the painting was completed, Martinez happened to come across a passage in the book Historia de la Nuevo Mexico, a book about New Mexico’s history that seems to describe the sense of the scene he had just imagined and painted: “Light snow had fallen as they approached the Rio Grande, and a cold wind swept the desert of northern Chihuahua.” He plans to include the passage in a description alongside his work for a coming show.

Martinez’s landscape painting is a way to cross the landscapes of his memory. In his work he’s often trying to recover scenes that are disappearing. The winding, dirt roads leading to the meadows and rambling streams of his boyhood are becoming harder to find. Open land is vanishing. Plaster cinder blocks replace adobe bricks.

He remembers resting against an adobe wall as a boy and feeling the warmth of the mud and texture of the straw. He recalls the quiet of the predawn hours when he crossed open fields in the snow, walking to Taos Plaza to sell newspapers. And at night it is the scent of piñon trees and the barking of dogs that takes him back to a simpler time before the roads were crowded with cars and people kept harried, hectic schedules.

“Once you have known and loved something, it becomes part of you,” Martinez says. “I’m trying to hold onto that in both my work and my life—what New Mexico was all about then and, to a great extent, what it’s still about today.”

Photos courtesy the artist and Contemporary Southwest Galleries, Santa Fe, NM; Adagio Galleries, Palm Springs, CA; and Michael McCormick Gallery, Taos, NM.