Bursting with the vividness of SoCal summers, Ryan Martin’s portraits of gay, bi, and trans adolescent men are like a rainbow. Tender and fierce, their expressions appear more in flux than fixed on the page, more seeking than static. The artist’s first solo exhibition in New York City, Moxie is aptly titled. Martin’s newest series commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion, and is a veritable pageant of the pluck, nerve, and determination of queer adolescence.
With titles recalling the summer tunes of the Billboard Hot 100 the morning of June 28, 1969, the Moxie boys mirror Martin’s artistic process. He begins with figurative contour drawings of faces that drift off into the surrealism of their “headdresses,” guided subtly in their development by lyrics. Martin is motivated by the perennial search for self and the gradual crystallization of identity that define the adolescent psyche, giving ample leeway to unconscious inklings that guide his pencil across the page. Aesthetic choices–colored pencil on paper, for one–evoke his subjects’ youthful spirit. The result is a cast of androgynous teenagers who, like their predecessors, are ready to hit the clubs with verve; their gazes are Crystal Blue Persuasion and Good Morning Starshine, wistful and assured, vulnerable and resilient.
Haloed by iridescent flowers and birds of the tropics, Martin’s portraits reveal their unmistakeable LA influences. They are Hollywood cool and the summer surf, pop culture (like their namesake, the first mass-produced soft drink brand Moxie), and California sunshine. Their faces reflect the disorientation of discovery, “a new vibration” or the “spinning wheel” of the dance floor. Martin’s work captures their moment of transformation, mixing the turbulent highs of adolescence with its lows. His subjects are just learning how to stand out as individuals while finding their place in a community, one with a past and present marked by adversity. Ringed with gold leaf haloes in tatters, Martin’s Don’t Let The Joneses Get You Down portraits evidence that struggle, with bruised eyes and bloody noses alluding to the high rates of violence disproportionately inflicted on LGBTQ people. The formative pride his work describes is hard-won, reminding us not to forget the open hostility of the current administration toward LGBTQ civil rights even as we celebrate the progress of the last fifty years.
On view at Elizabeth Houston Gallery from June 26 through August 15, Moxie is Martin’s first solo exhibition of drawings. Known for his intricate and dreamlike paintings, the artist has honed a palette that matches the season’s festivities. He enhances that signature rainbow aesthetic here with expressive pencil marks, collage, and mixed-media elements, by turns amplifying and obscuring the mental states of the queer youth he depicts. As for those teens, the words of Gloria Gaynor’s iconic gay anthem are apropos: they will survive.