In the bargain basement of North Park's Windmill Thrift Store, sculptor and mixed-media artist May-Ling Martinez works slowly down the shelves. She holds up an ashtray, then a glass candy dish. She studies a tiny, useless first-aid kit, a red velvet heart pincushion and a presentation box for jewelry. When she spots a cardboard box of kitchen utensils, she drops to her knees, like an archaeologist on a big dig. Here, in the detritus of other people's lives, she searches for artifacts of the '40s, '50s and '60s.
Martinez, 33, is tall and solid, with thick black hair that comes to a deep widow's peak and the serene gaze of a Goya duchess. When she finds something that interests her, her dark eyes sparkle; serenity gives way to a grin that's equal parts pleasure and mischief.
She examines a cooking fork, then a strainer whose paint has peeled from the wooden handle, offering each object a chance to tell its story. Rummaging in thrift shops is more than looking for materials, she explains: 'It's when I do some of my best thinking.'
Kitchen utensils and iconic images figured strongly in Domestic Deviations, her recent show at L Street Fine Art gallery downtown. In one of Martinez's installations, three angel-food cake tins hung on the gallery wall like bas-reliefs, their bottoms covered in '40s vintage fabrics, their center tubes reversed, now sticking out from the bottoms like narrow megaphones. A beaded chain dangled from each tin, and attached was some kitchen object, like a bone corkscrew handle, that was at once familiar and in this setting somehow mysterious.
'I like to take a common object, like these tins,' explains Martinez, 'and put it in a new context so it evokes new associations. The object has to feel a little strange. If it's too clear what it is, it's not interesting.'
No one at the show seemed able to walk past the tins without pulling each chain and listening to the recorded noises from inside the tubes
In her mixed-media collage 'Process of Thought,' Dick and Jane wander around, perky as ever, yet strangely dislocated in a cloud of glitter, and flanked by a curlicue from the wallpaper in your grandmother's front hall and a drawing of a brain that evokes every dull textbook you've ever slogged through. Lines connect the textbook brain to numbers in an old-fashioned typeface lining a sheet of ledger paper-the effect is both inviting and faintly ominous.
Martinez's pieces don't get in your face, but they get under your skin. Although she uses images and materials from an era too often presented in a wistful glow, Martinez's works are no nostalgia train, and the trip she offers her viewers is no easy ride. She uses familiar objects and images like Dick and Jane to invite the viewer in, but transplanted from their familiar context, these objects have lost their coziness. Her offbeat juxtapositions speak to our memory, reminding us that the worlds in which we originally encountered these icons were neither as simple nor as seamless as we'd like to remember them.
The L Street show was part of the San Diego Arts Prize recognizing Martinez as one of San Diego's most promising visual artists. The program pairs an established artist and an emerging artist for the show and gives each a cash prize. Ernesto Silva, the established artist paired with Martinez, praised her work.
'She has an elegant graphic style,' says Silva, 'and she describes what's most essential. Her images draw me into a world that's seductive. There's a contrast of innocence and disturbing possibility. It has mystery.
'She knows what she's doing,' he continues, 'and she's determined to express what she has to say. You don't always see work that's being done for the right reasons.'
There's no strutting or hyperbole about Martinez. She understands what it takes to make art and get it seen. Martinez moved with her parents to San Diego in 1996 from Puerto Rico, where she grew up. She studied graphic design, sculpture and installation art at Southwestern College. She made a studio in her parents' garage and started cruising thrift stores.
Martinez looks for every opportunity to show her work-she's built an installation in a vacant house in Tijuana, she's exhibited at student shows and she's made the cut at juried shows from Tijuana to Vancouver. Her work was also part of inSite, the 1997 cross-border collaboration, and has been seen at galleries and alternative spaces all over San Diego County. She's currently finishing up a master's degree in sculpture at SDSU.
Making art hasn't made Martinez rich. She still lives with her parents, who help her out financially. She drives an aging Jeep Cherokee that she'd like to trade in for a cheaper truck. She's picked up a little money as a teaching assistant, and she does chores for more established artists, like packing their work for a show. This past spring she worked as assistant to landscape architect Cheryl Nickel on a project at Hoover High School.
Back at the Windmill, the box of kitchen stuff yields no keepers. A roll of border wallpaper with a motif of spring flowers, its cheery bouquets buoyant with '50s suburban optimism, catches her eye. She's doing more paper pieces lately, and she looks for wallpaper with odd designs. She's also looking for tiny figures that sit atop wedding cakes.
Martinez is about to call it a day when she spots a pair of dark green fake-leather bookends with elaborate gold tooling. She dusts them off and then holds one against a wall, transforming it into a tiny platform for a tableau. A cake topper might be part of it. Standing in the aisle, oblivious to the clutter and other shoppers, she's working on a piece.
The clerk adds up her purchases-bookends, wallpaper, a package of picture wire and hooks. The day's expenditure totals $3.79. She's got a new stash of materials, and behind her eyes a sculpture is coming together.
May-ling Martinez's work can be seen at the 2006/2007 San Diego Art Prize Finale, an exhibition featuring all past Art-Prize winners, on view at L Street Fine Art, 628 L St., Downtown, through Sept. 30. 619-645-6593 or www.lstreetfineart.com.