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Painter Martin Tucker Loved the Supermarket

By Steven Rosen · September 25th, 2013 · The Big Picture
ac_bigpic_roundingthirdbymartintuckerTucker’s 1996 painting, “Rounding Third” - Provided

The current Martin Tucker: Remembered exhibit at the DAAP Galleries on the University of Cincinnati campus spotlights a local artist — a retired art professor who died this year — whose work showed a keen eye for the seductive, colorful quality of American consumer culture.

The show, curated by DAAP Galleries Director Aaron Cowan from works lent by Tucker’s widow, Ruth, is eminently worthwhile. There are 22 oil paintings and 10 drawings. It’s up through Oct. 13 at the Reed Gallery inside DAAP; check daap.uc.edu/galleries for hours and directions.

As a topic for art, consumer goods have been around at least since Andy Warhol introduced his soup cans of the early 1960s. But Warhol’s work also introduced deadpan and irony to contemporary art — a critique on the banality of post-war American materialism. That became a hallmark of Pop.

Tucker’s work in this show, done in the 1980s and 1990s, doesn’t exude that kind of dryly clinical, distancing quality. But neither was it celebratory or sentimental. 

Virtually devoid of people, these oil canvases look at their mildly abstracted subjects/objects close-up and in isolation of their larger environment.  

His subject was often the fresh products sold at a supermarket — fruits, vegetables, fish — and it’s unusual to see them depicted in art in such an artificial environment. But the color makes them appealing and cheerful. Yet there is also weirdness present — as if the world they inhabit is not quite “normal.” In that regard, at his best his work is reminiscent of Wayne Thiebaud. 

One painting that encompasses all of these contradictions is “Toilet Paper” from 1997.

Wrapped, soft rolls are stacked and pressed together in a sumptuous display, although the perspective is compressed. They have individual beauty — predominately white but with streaks of color implying decorative packaging. 

It exudes pleasure from its lines, colors and shapes, until one thinks about the values of a society that so cherishes and fetishizes such a commodity. Is it capitalist excess … or do we just really like toilet paper? 

“Rounding Third” from 1996 stakes out a dizzyingly clever point-of-view inside a television showroom. The sets are pure, spare products — just black boxes (save for one that is reddish-brown). But each conventional screen has the same image, a Reds player at third base as a ball approaches.

The repetition of imagery is fascinating, because television price tags and triangular decals obscure the action in different places on individual screens. Is this a celebration of baseball (and the Reds) or a commentary on the “sellebration” of major-league sports in our society? This painting (a still life?) is as alienating as it is alluring. It also was a very neat way for Tucker to bring human beings into his work.

A 1992 painting called “Self Portrait with Hat” also tried to sneak a figure into the work but is too cute. The canvas is dominated by a large soft cap with all sorts of pins stuck in it, with a bit of a man’s forehead and eyeglasses at the bottom. 

It took a certain courage to make dark green plastic garbage bags your subject, as the artist did with 1996’s “Garbage Bags with Red Ties.” But the painting shows us that our eye — freed from our learned attitudes toward the “worth” of objects — is as attracted to the fascinating red bows of the ties atop the lumpy, shadowy green bags as it would be to a Christmas tree with ornaments. There are also empty paint cans and other artistic detritus depicted in this canvas.

Tucker must have loved the supermarket — he seems to have spent his time there staring at the goods the way others sit still to watch a movie. The results are paintings devoted to (and titled) “Broccoli,” “Pears,” “Eggplant,” “Potatoes and Onions,” “Strawberries,” “Asparagus” and “Crablegs.” 

Some of the works from the early 1980s, like “Eggplant,” have distracting decorative borders, but Tucker seems to have been wrestling with the proper way to present his favored objects from the start. He moved away from that framing crutch to just depict the food up-close-and-personal, with eerie blackness hovering in adjoining spaces. That’s a blackness one would never find in a real, brightly lit grocery.  

The result can be surreal. Large broccoli spears, bundled together with red ties, look both phallic and like an exceptionally dense forest on a dark night. And the long-tailed, orange, red and white “Crablegs” from 1983 appear to have flashlight beams and be floating somewhere in outer space. In the Crab Nebula?

It’s good to have Tucker so nicely remembered. 

CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: srosen@citybeat.com



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