French-born local Guy Martelet has always created tense temporal juxtapositions in his surreal but intricately rendered gouache compositions. In the first issue of Portland Modern, his spectacular "Walhalla" crammed ancient pyramids and ziggurats into the same space with a half-dozen baseball diamonds as if they were likely bedfellows. With his exhibition of new work at Chambers (much of which was displayed at the Affair at the Jupiter Hotel last fall), Martelet continues this exploration of antiquity's place among the contemporary with contrasting images of life and death. And while that's hardly new thematic territory for art, his mesmerizing execution manages to breathe something fresh into an age-old obsession.
In the best of these untitled works, Martelet focuses on a human subject framed by symbolic flora and fauna. In one, an Elizabethan-looking girl in a funereal fez-like hat returns the viewer's gaze with dispassionate self-possession. It's an unnervingly vacant look—made all the more unsettling by the fact that her face is worn with cracks reminiscent of those on centuries-old paintings. On either side of her, stalks of irises poke up, but their flowers seem to be wilting while vibrant buds appear poised to blossom. Orbiting her are three bird specimens, all apparently contorted into stiff, clutching positions by rigor mortis. These birds disrupt the work's sense of space; they seem to rest on the surface of the piece rather than inhabit the same plane as the girl and the flowers. And finally, a pair of bees—one crawling the length of her fez, another captured in blurry-winged flight—round out the work.
As he meditates on life and death, Martelet presents a puzzling logic. The youthful girl, for example, is literally disintegrating, while the birds, beautifully preserved, are unmistakably lifeless. The irises, on the other hand, at once function as signifiers of fading beauty and flourishing life. This liminal space between life and death haunts many of the other works as well, as a Madonna figure who cradles an owl is covered in shining, black beetles and the brim of a medieval cleric houses a murder of crows. For all of Martelet's astounding execution, it's his peculiar symbolism that makes these new works so arresting.