Philadelphia-based Virgil Marti titled his first solo show at Locks after Forest Park, in his native St. Louis. A tribute to the hippie culture he witnessed at the park as a kid in the 1960s, the exhibition brought together a selection of his little-shown, large-scale tapestry-style landscapes (from 2001) and his more recent arboreal benches and sculptural mirrors (from 2013 and ’14). The result was a modern-day Arcadia that filled the gallery’s first floor space, offering homages to figures ranging from the Romantic poet John Keats to artists Paul Thek and Mark Rothko.
But rather than the lush plantlife of a typical park, Marti’s gardenlike installation offered artificial versions of nature. For each of the three 7¼-foot-square tapestry works on view, he appropriated landscape imagery from a book titled Scenic America, and printed it horizontally doubled-Rorschach-style—on a piece of fabric, which he then had quilted and stitched. Into each image he incorporated a too-perfect rainbow, enhancing the synthetic quality of the hallucinogenic scene.
Four of Marti’s bench sculptures were placed around the perimeter of the space. Consisting of tree trunks and branches cast in cement and grapevines cast in aluminum and steel, these pieces conserve the natural shapes and textures of the original materials, petrifying and immortalizing them. Most dramatic is The Golden Bough (2013, 42 by 37 by 13 inches)—cast from a split tree trunk and featuring a gilded grapevine protruding from its top. Named for the branch required for Aeneas to enter Hades in Virgil’s Aeneid, the sculpture evokes the underworld, as does the show’s centerpiece, Monstrance. This latter work features the death mask of John Keats resting on a satin, python-patterned pillow set atop an intricate web of aluminum-cast grapevines. In the show’s catalogue, critic Hilarie Sheets notes that Marti sees Keats as the original hippie-poet. Conceived as part of Marti’s 2013 Matrix project at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn.—where the artist discovered the Keats mask, which the museum loaned to him for this show—the work was inspired by Paul Thek’s effigy of himself as a corpse in the 1967 work The Tomb, also known as Death of a Hippie.
Interspersed with the blankets on the walls were four looking-glass sculptures made of MDF (all 76 by 36 by 4 inches). Laser-cut in a shape that mimics a Chippendale mirror, the boards are topped with urethane casts made from floorboards in the artist’s former studio. Bearing the rough texture and grain of the original wood, the pieces were then silver-plated and coated with tinted urethane. The final surfaces are semireflective and display horizontal bands of color that evoke Color Field painting—particularly the most intensely hued one, The Purple Mushroom, which ranges from pink and purple to blue and gold. The palette of the other three is softer and more neutral, suggestive of Hudson River School painting. The reflections the four mirrors offer are blurry, prompting the viewer to look inward for a sense of self, much as Mark Rothko’s canvases are said to do.
Throughout the show, Marti fused sculpture with painting, the natural with the synthetic, and the high-minded with kitsch. The resulting installation served as a shrine to his fallen heroes and to lost paradises, real and imagined.
Underscoring the natural origins of many decorative motifs, much of Virgil Marti’s past work has channeled organic energies into installations of ornamental excess. By contrast, his recent exhibition was relatively subdued, even funereal, and seemed to suggest that the impulse to decorate often accompanies loss and mourning. This theme was announced by Memorial Garden (2008), a large wallpapered partition that confronted viewers as they entered the gallery. The wallpaper repeats and refracts a photograph of a gravesite festooned with artificial flowers, small stuffed animals and a blue wreath whose dangling ribbons stitch the entire pattern together. Cleverly, Marti filled all the negative spaces with dark brown flocking, a velvety material common in Victorian wall treatments that here suggested plots of freshly turned soil.
Beyond this wall, one encountered a spare display of two new sculptures in the main room. Arrangement in Black and Blue and A Pot of Paint (both 2010) resemble large, circular banquettes, their central backrests radiating numerous seat cushions skirted with fringe. As its Whistlerian title suggests, Arrangement in Black and Blue is expertly upholstered in mostly dark fabrics, including an indigo satin and brown faux fur. Its companion, by contrast, is decked out in loud floral chintz, platinum pleather and other, pink and peach materials. While these colors and patterns seem gender-specific, one needed the press release to learn that Marti conceived them as portraits of his parents. But as many other artists have demonstrated, the human body is often invoked by domestic furniture. Indeed, one yearned to get comfortable on the inviting cushions, the better to contemplate Austrian Swag (2009), another customized wallpaper, which surrounded the viewer with the convincing illusion of loosely gathered fabric. Its wraparound image of satiny white drapery lent the room a hushed and slightly ghoulish atmosphere; each 4-foot-wide segment vaguely resembled the interior lining of a coffin.
Time-tested vanitas motifs appeared in the remaining components of the show. For Object Relations (2010), an installation in the back room, Marti created three plump, fur-covered, heavily fringed ottomans. Each a different size, they were clustered together like a family unit; the largest was pierced by a chrome-plated branch that doubled as a candelabra. Huddled under burning candles held aloft and dripping wax, the trio of tuffets seemed engaged in an obscure ritual. Equally haunting were eight ornate “mirrors” hung on the walls in both rooms. Although carved from weathered plywood, they gained a rococo elegance from scrolled silhouettes and chrome plating in various pastel colors, including shimmering shades of citron, lavender and powder blue. Up close, one realized that they produced no legible reflections. Reduced to a dim blur, the viewer became a ghostly protagonist in Marti’s well-appointed mise-en-scène.
Photo: View of Virgil Marti’s exhibition, showing (on walls) Austrian Swag, 2009, with (left to right) Arrangement in Black and Blue and A Pot of Paint, both 2010; at Elizabeth Dee.