When I ask her which issues are eating at her these days, artist Holly Ballard Martz digs her nails into her studio table in a mime of frustration before flashing a wide smile. “All of them,” she breathes, and then launches into a litany. “Immigration, reproductive rights, income inequality…money in politics period. I’m really upset with Boeing right now.” This list, which she adds to throughout our interview, informs Martz’s work directly, but her deft hand with materials and clarion sense of beauty result in work that is powerful regardless of her viewer’s political persuasions. She may personally seeth at our current political and economic situation, but Martz’s elegant and forceful work leaves the door open for interpretation. “I don’t want to dictate what people get from it.” she says.
Martz’s latest endeavor, The Greatest Show on Earth, opens today (Apr 12) and runs through May 25 at Method Gallery. An installation of American flags sewn together to create a circus tent, The Greatest Show… creates a dizzying total space with red and white stripes made up in vinyl on the floor. Before it’s installation, Martz had never seen the work in its totality. “I’ve wrestled for months,” she explains, “I’m just sewing and hoping.” The resultant piece will remain empty for viewers to fill with their own ideas about this “symbol that’s so rife.”
Flags have been a part of Martz’ work for a while now–sewing and bleaching them– actually “RIT color remover took the color out.” Surprisingly, these blatantly political works have not received much backlash. “We’re so polite here,” she says of the Pacific Northwest. When she showed outside of Seattle (a famously blue city) a vietnam vet was upset by her treatment of the flags, but mostly she’s received thank yous. “I would never want to disrespect people in the military. [The flag] represents all of us. It’s not this rarefied thing.” Treating a fraught symbol so materially has taught her a lot. Martz first tried imported vinyl flags before settling on high quality cotton. The color saturation and quality of the fabric is more uniform and weighty. “I’ve always loved sculpture and assemblage,” Martz explains. And flags are ideal because “I can fold them and put them away.”
The connection between materials and ideas is profound in Martz’s work. “I love objects and I’m a collector of language.” she says. Her strong relationship with her daughters, 25 and 23, also informs her perspective. A series of croquet mallets tipped with glass hemispheres lays on one shelf in her studio. She pulls out the first in the stack. A tiny, perfect representation of the surface of the moon can be seen in the glass, and the mallet’s front edge is inscribed with the word LUNACY. She points out the historical pseudoscience which connected the moon with insanity, a connection to be found in the etymology of the word itself. The piece was inspired by Martz’s daughter’s battle with depression. “I try to make them visually appealing, even if it’s a difficult topic,” she says of all of her work. She wants viewers to be “drawn in because it’s aesthetically pleasing and then…get a punch.”
This “punch” is perhaps most evident in danger of nostalgia in wallpaper form (in utero), an installation of gold colored coat hangers formed in the shape of the female reproductive system and arranged to resemble a damask pattern on a gallery wall. The piece is gorgeous and terrifying at once. The fight over reproductive rights is surely one of our country’s bitterest points of contention, as evidenced by multiple draconian laws being passed or proposed by red states now that the Supreme Court is expected to be friendly to overturning Roe v.Wade.
It can be difficult to remember in a time when we’re drawn into our tribal corners more than ever, but Martz compares Americans to “siblings growing up in the same house.” In the same exhibition, she framed a gold rorschach-like double map of the country, pointing to the fact that when it comes to deeply existential issues of what it is to be American, “we all interpret something different.” Martz doesn’t pretend to offer solutions through art, only ways to discuss the extremely difficult issues. Like all of us, she feels her way through this uncertain moment in history with the tools that she has available to her. “What makes us American is luck of the draw,” she admits. And when it comes to artwork, “I think it’s more gut.”