about the work

The bulk of James Martelli's work is narrative and uses roads and their environs as a stage set on which to play out dramas involving people and engines.

Cars and roads can function as both metonym and metaphor for broad social, political and even historical concerns. These concerns include the system of consumption and waste. Imperatives in our society, the two are intertwined and while they can be found in the structures which govern most of our behaviour they are played out spectacularly through the use of cars, engines and roads. Our lust for speed and energy is common to the individual, to our society and to our economy. In all instances it is self consuming.

Martelli has made images of joyriding and ram-raiding: these activities enact a catharsis of codes of consumption. Fagin’s Kitchen Crew (2008), an A1 drawing in ink on paper, was based on newspaper stories about a gang of adolescents on scooters who successfully raided a string of electronics shops in central London. The limited information on them, the fact that it happened at night, and that they were never caught gives an aura of myth to them and their activities, and mythology is an important factor in much of his work. Occupying as they do the ground between fact and fiction, mythical events give Martelli both the freedom to manoeuver and an engagement with historical and social reality.

Ned Lud (2008), an 8-foot painting made in his last year at the Royal College of Art, is named after the mythical leader of the Luddites, but the painting is set (perhaps) in the future and encompasses the anxiety that our way of life cannot continue. Martelli employs luminosity and transparency in his depiction of figures and engines in order to find parity between the two. The temperature of the relative components in an image is often as important in his representation of them as their tonal values. This use of an infra-red effect enables further comparison between bodies and machines.

Formally, his work relies on a strong sense of design and although he has worked across many different media, drawing is the starting point for all he does. Martelli's graphic work owes a debt to some of the best artists who have contributed to 2000AD, the cult British science fiction comic. The possibility of creating semi-realistic narrative scenes without copying photography is something he learnt from 2000AD artists and is a skill that sets his work apart from much current figuration. When painting he tends to employ a simpler description because, for him, painting is very much about materiality.

Works like Ned Lud and Motorway employ a large range of media in order to give distinct character and texture to the various components of the imagery. One of the mediums used in both paintings is bitumen, a component of tarmac, which is unparalleled in creating a sensation of ‘road’.