Juxtapoz Magazine – O happiness! happiness!: Martyn Cross is in London

Hales is delighted to announce O happiness! happiness!, Martyn Cross‘s debut solo show with the gallery. The exhibition features new paintings that muse on Gustav Flaubert’s seminal book The Temptation of St Anthony.

Cross is primarily a painter engaged with ‘world making.’ The act of painting for him is a means to explore the inner life and strangeness of the ordinary. Each work begins in reality, with recognizable limbs and elements of landscape, which transform into uncanny scenes. Biomorphic landscapes speak to mythologies, but in Cross’s paintings the narratives are knowingly ambiguous. Familiar and mysterious, quiet and epic, scale and irregularity in proportion puzzles the viewer. 

Known for paintings which are deliberately hard to place in history, there is a timelessness to Cross’s works, reminiscent of unearthed artifacts. Paintings are made in contemplative layers; the pigments remain vibrant – his application and exquisite use of colour creates works that hum. Sanding and scratching the surface, Cross strives to make paintings that have lived a life, the trace of their existence evident. Monumental hangings speak to a heroic narrative of higher powers, presented alongside small paintings which are jewel-like and intimate.

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Cross has long been fascinated by depictions of the Temptation of St Anthony throughout art historyparticularly Hieronymus Bosch’s The Temptation of St Anthony* which is one of the more subdued iterations. Observing how formulaic the majority of depictions are, Cross notes a reoccurrence of ‘a wild looking Tony’ battling with demons in physical forms. Having read Flaubert’s Temptation of St Anthony this year, Cross was struck how easily the surrealist imagery was conjured from the pages. Reading the final paragraph of  Flaubert’s novel Cross has likened to finding his ‘holy grail’ – the words perfectly aligning with his practice and fostered a desire to make more work:

‘O happiness! happiness! I have seen the birth of life, I have seen the beginning of movement. The blood in my veins is beating so hard that it will burst them. I feel like flying, swimming, yelping, bellowing, howling. I’d like to have wings, a carapace, a rind, to breathe out smoke, wave my trunk, twist my body, divide myself up, to be inside every-thing, to drift away with odours, develop as plants do, flow like water, vibrate like sound, gleam like light, to curl myself up into every shape, to penetrate each atom, to get down to the depth of matter – to be matter!’

 For many years, prior to reading this affirming paragraph, Cross had been developing motifs that imbue the psychological and the otherworldly into landscapes. The works in the exhibition take The Temptation of St Anthony as a starting point – there are no physical manifestations of demons but rather explorations of ideas that align with Flaubert’s spirit and personal interest in matter woven into the story. The title of the exhibition, O happiness! happiness! directly quotes Flaubert, providing a wry commentary of a sought-after emotion, counterbalancing the darker, more introspective themes of the paintings. Cross states, ‘I think over these past couple of years, particularly with lockdown, we’ve all become a bit Anthony…Locked in ourselves with our demons…’ Billowing clouds, swirling waves, tumbling waterfalls, arching bodies, all-seeing eyes, oversized pointing fingers and blistering suns form visions of inward reflection.