Whitehot Magazine

Martin Eaton’s Elliptical Invitation

Martin Eaton/Henrique de Franca, Surrender (1), 2019


By JONATHAN GOODMAN March 13, 2024

Martin Eaton is the owner and writer/art director of Cork Publishing in New York City. For his art exhibition, closing March 13th at My Gallery NYC, Eaton has presented nine stories, heavily based on dialogue. Each story is accompanied by one or two images, and the artist contributing that image is different for each one. The stories are quite short–usually two or three pages. Eaton communicates in spoken words the ideas the author wishes to communicate. But ideas usually need explaining, and as illustrated by the accompanying images, the picture carries considerable weight in elucidating the stories’ meaning (the tales tend to be allusive rather than transparent in their comprehension). By selecting, commissioning, and guiding different artists in their responses to his tales, Eaton begins a complex collaboration.  The vision of the artist follows, either openly or not, the meaning of the words, completed by another person’s illustration, render or hand crafted piece. Eaton has indicated that he directed the artist closely in the creation of a picture; at the same time, inevitably, those responsible for the art must have had their own understanding when they worked. Thus, the collaboration is major rather than minor, so that the richness of the words’ meaning grows.  

Martin Eaton/Ryan Van Dongen, 2 Graves (2), 2021

The relations between the two, writer and visual creator, is not clarified but exists tacitly. The image’s ability to comment and expand upon the narrative is nevertheless important to our experience of Eaton’s project. The story itself can be highly allusive, its meaning hidden in the exchanges of dialogue and picture. Yet it is not always easy to understand the meaning generated by the artwork, which is, after all, a different person’s reading of the text. Images, when they accompany words, enrich those words but do not necessarily explain them. It is up to the intuition of a person focusing on their relations to decide what and how the relationship works, and whether the collaboration makes sense as art. Eaton is not the first author to work with a visual person, but perhaps he is unusual in that he has given specific direction to the artists who illustrate the stories. So the illustration is more under control than we might assume.

You can see this happen in the nine stories in the show.  They proceed indirectly, by intuition. “Beg,” a flash fiction narrative of two pages, suggests violence and ends with a gunshot. Because so much takes place by virtue of dialogue rather than expanded prose in this compact delivery method, it can be a challenge to understand the story. But the intimation of harm is in the narrative from the start. The illustration, by Marina Ortega, is in brown, black, white and gray. The image concerns a young man grasping his fractured mind, an obvious allusion to the character’s mental illness, and depicts his final dramatic choice to take his life; in the illustration, his brains splatter upward in a black, jagged pattern.  

Martin Eaton/Ryan Van Dongen, 2 Graves (1), 2021

Another story, “2 Graves,” also concerns the intimation of violence, this time within a getaway car. Eaton’s language, direct and energetic with the energy of antagonism, serves the author well in the description of a life and death quarrel between lovers over an as yet unpresented slight. Two images by Ryan Van Dongen occur. One is an image of two skidding tire tracks that drift into total darkness; the one nearest us, to the left, thickens into thorn branches that rise up from the tread itself. These narrower strips follow each other tightly as they travel into the unknown. It is difficult to work out the meaning of this image, but perhaps that’s the author’s intent as he leaves the explanation of the character’s motivations hidden from us until the story's final moment.   

Martin Eaton/Nikke Naeme, Rush Hour (2), 2024

Even so, the image and narrative go well together in their intimations. Because the image is hard to deconstruct, we must understand it within the context of Eaton’s words, not always easy to comprehend. Instead, the story and illustration must be taken symbolically–a process that engenders a deeper meaning, albeit one whose meaning may stay within the author’s mind rather than easily being comprehended by his audience. The second image, that of a magnified woman’s hand, with broken fingernails, abrasions and a hint of a former wedding band, belongs to one of the combatants we must assume.  It is a splendid depiction of a female hand and one of a fighter. Van Dongen’s works invest the story with pictorial mystery and also remain striking images of art. Eaton seems to be reflecting on the marriage of rage and jealousy inherent in intimate relationships in the modern era and their proximity to violence accessed so easily by betrayal.

Eaton may be attempting anecdotes that cause us surprise and demand to be understood as part of an intuitive understanding of words and their effects on people. As a group, they seem to serve complex, anonymous relations of those in recent urban life. But he leaves us to determine the true meaning of the story and its collaboration with imagery that seems to purposefully be incongruent with the pictures that serve them. Maybe that is what Eaton wants–to keep us in suspense and propose a self-standing, and also hard to read, narrative that intimates its intention rather than openly declaring it.  

Martin Eaton/Nikke Naeme, Rush Hour (1), 2024

Time will tell us exactly what the stories mean. Meanwhile, we need to determine  their intentions now.  Eaton does not always make this easy to do, proceeding indirectly rather than by direct report. In “Rush Hour,” he talks about a woman named Kathleen, who has just been the victim of a sexual assault on the subway. Nikke Naeme, the artist, offers two portraits in color: the first, of a woman with a rather thin face and a damaged eye, painted slightly lower than the good one. This, we understand, must be Katherine and her inner frustration. The second image is a rendering of an angry, demonic image of a man, whose corrosive gaze and sharp teeth would cause us to keep our distance, were we to meet him in real life. The images stand on their own, or they suggest people or events in the text. Eaton’s elliptical phrasing makes us pause, suspended between the independence of the wording in regard to the story’s events, which Eaton consistently evades in favor of suggestive phrasing.  

Martin Eaton/Henrique de Franca, Surrender (2), 2019

The last story to be discussed is “Surrender,” a child-like voice depicting solitary play with toys in pre-adolescence. The image that accompanies the narrative is that of a small boy on the left, looking at an X-Wing fighter outline to his right, in grass, before the large roots of a tree. Relations between picture and words here are more easily parsed. The longing for lost youth...or dreams. Lost innocence. But it's a message hidden in distracting action intent, again, to force us to look deeper. The drawing, by Henrique de Franca, follows the tale quite literally in the first piece, while his second picture, a pile of plates branded with the logo of the Empire sitting in a sink of dirty dishwater, is intriguingly vague. Is Eaton wondering at the corruption of childhood through commercialization? Or does he mean to show us the banality of everyday evil introduced at our youngest ages? Unknowing gives Eaton’s efforts an added meaning, not necessarily determinable by reason. Perhaps this is the way we experience contemporary life. 

Eaton’s exhibition from his forthcoming coffee table book highlights collaboration in highly interesting ways. First, there is the hidden guidance of the author, whose storytelling can remain at a distance from comprehension. Second, the art serves two purposes: first, as accompaniment to the story; and second, as independent imagery alone. While the images do bear meaning in regard to the words, they are also interesting by themselves. Their discretion in regard to some easy understanding of the artist’s intentions tends to push them in the direction of independent status, which means that they do not always clarify the text. In a similar way, the sentences can be isolated from their determination of a narrative. The story’s events may echo and change, but doing so does not always provide an easy reading. In a way, this is much like urban life; random events can overwhelm New York’s inhabitants; we pass each other on the street without finding any connection with others. As a New Yorker, Eaton knows this well. The elliptical nature of his narrative not only generates concepts beyond the bent of the art, but then it is up to us to figure what and how they mean. The limits of investigation may show up very quickly after we begin to speculate, but then this happens inevitably with experience as well as art. If we need to elucidate Eaton’s intentions, we need to do so using our experience, too. WM


Jonathan Goodman

Jonathan Goodman is a writer in New York who has written for Artcritical, Artery and the Brooklyn Rail among other publications. 


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