The widespread critique that state violence disproportionately targets people of color shapes LA-based artist Patrick Martinez’s work. Inspired by the geographic and social landscape of Los Angeles, Martinez’s artwork is both nostalgic reflection and social commentary. His most recent art is featured at the Charlie James Gallery and the LA Louver; his latest show, “Po-lice” is currently on display at Occidental’s Weingart Gallery. The show, which is free and open to the public, opened March 23 and will be on display until April 16. The show serves as an avenue for Occidental and the surrounding community to critically examine how modern racial violence shapes our current sociopolitical climate.
Pieces in “Po-lice” feature large oil-on-canvas paintings, neon signs and video footage of violent police encounters, including a clip in which three officers on duty tackled a young black man to the ground and repeatedly punched him in the face. In addition to themes of race and police brutality, the exhibit also addresses the youth culture that contributes to American high-school experiences, questioning how the modern educational system intersects with race.
Rather than providing benches for gallery goers, Martinez took a more interactive approach by providing visitors with school desks to sit and write on. Papers litter the floor with titles such as, “10 Things to Do if Stopped by a Police Officer,” printed in both Spanish and English.
A large component of Martinez’s work includes large oil-on-canvas paintings of Pee-Chee folders, traditionally used by elementary students, popular for their depictions of sports. Each Pee-Chee image on display depicts an individual who died at the hands of police officers. In this exhibit, Martinez modernizes the Pee-Chee folders to question contemporary racial issues and how those intersect with the government.
“The format of the Pee-Chee folders has been in the American vocabulary for scholastic items since the 1940s, and they got popular in the ‘50s, ’60s and ’70s, also the ’80s. The original folder had kids playing different sports — tennis, football, running track — so I took that and I wanted to remix the images to fit today,” Martinez said.
Jessica Mitchell (sophomore) reflected on her experience viewing Martinez’s exhibit.
“I think that his work was effective in connecting public education with institutionalized violence against black and brown people … But the play on the Pee-Chee folders went over my head because I never used those,” Mitchell said. “Even without that, though, I think it’s easy to see he’s commenting on the school-to-prison pipeline and police brutality.”
One piece, “The Most Violent Week in America,” depicts the events of a single week in July 2016 when both police officers and civilians died as a result of police violence. Martinez contrasts the faces of the victims, police firing guns and other black and white images against a shiny gold Pee-Chee.
Ellen McDermott (first year), found the images on his Pee-Chee pieces especially poignant, as they expose the injustice within our legal system by using an all-American medium.
“He replaced the original images with those depicting police violence, and the drawings themselves channeled the sketches of a child doodling in class. The nature of the images combined with this really reached me,” McDermott said.
Another main focus of “Po-lice,” involved neon signs, based on signs found at ATMs and corner stores. When creating the neon works, Martinez collaborates with a team that gasses the letters with neon, which Martinez later assembles into phrases to form the full sign. Though Martinez’s pieces draw on the aesthetic of storefront signs, they are distinct in that they incorporate phrases from the Constitution and from rap songs. He selects aspects from well-known works so that the pieces serve as a bridge to connect with people. Martinez carefully selected the words he wanted to illuminate in an attempt to convey his message regarding injustice. In one piece with the phrase, “all men are created equal,” all the words but “equal” are illuminated.
“When I grew up, I was doing graffiti, running the streets with friends when I was fourteen or fifteen years old and I was listening to rap music. It wasn’t the most popular music out, so it became this language where everyone understands it — [rap lyrics] mean more than an actual word in the English language. Sometimes I’ll use it because it will bring the point home even more so,” Martinez said.
Martinez explained that the most rewarding part of creating this work is when he hears back from the families and loved ones depicted in his paintings. While Martinez feels that media erases the stories of victims of police brutality in a manner of weeks, he can cement their memory into history through art and continue the conversation about racial justice. He believes that the ties to real-world events and youth culture are applicable to students from all backgrounds, allowing viewers to step out of their comfort zone and face a difficult reality.
The show will be on display during gallery hours Wednesdays–Sundays until April 16. For further information, go to http://www.oxy.edu/events/patrick-martinez-po-lice.