For magicians and illusionists, mentalism refers to a type of trick that relies on the power of suggestion. Practitioners use mental acuity to create the illusion of mind reading or clairvoyance. In the world of contemporary magic, however, there are two kinds of performers. Some maintain themselves to be the beneficiaries of supernatural powers. This is a tough sell among skeptical present-day audiences, thus most magicians admit that their skills derive from other, more earthly means.
Like magicians working with mentalism, the paintings of Martin Golland use the power of suggestion to great effect. These representational paintings trade in description for proposition, lucidity for implication. In Golland’s exhibition at Birch Libralato, aptly titled “Shapeshift,” decayed architectural landscapes and debris-riddled interiors become chaotic sites of frenzied transformation and experiential splendour. His paintings perform a great escape, avoiding the easy cynicism that painting has been mired in for the last 30 years. Golland’s works are calculated suspensions of disbelief that solicit a similar deferral from the viewer. Rather than stringing together a set of satirical quotations, Golland returns to what good painters have always done: try to pull the rabbit from the hat.
In Main Brace (2007), a scrap heap of wood and nails and dirt and stone crashes through the canvas’s lower two thirds in a recession that clearly evokes Duchamp’s quasi-cubist stairwells. The muddy mass of lumber is ruptured by neon-orange spray-painting that depicts the criss-crossing pattern of a work-area fence. This broken plastic barrier ultimately gives way to a contaminated patch of mildly radioactive grass and a bullying grey sky. Like all of Golland’s best canvases, Main Brace combines a giddy array of complex and varied brushwork techniques with never-seen-those- before colour combinations.
Taken in its entirety, “Shapeshift” is a confident display that blends a Wanda Koopish get-it-right-the- first-time-or-trash-it sensibility with a John Brownish caked and reworked obsessiveness. These paintings conjure up an astonishing realm in which the scaffolding of Golland’s process is brought to the fore and laid bare. We can unpack the dense interactions of his loose brush strokes and absorb the luxury of their performance, yet we are ultimately thwarted in our attempts to uncover their secrets. Like the magician who admits to his trickery, Martin Golland is a painter who is coming clean. But he is still making magic.