STUDIO VISIT

Leslie Martinez Explores Trans Identity Through the Language of Abstraction

by Bryan Rindfuss
Photographs by Fabian Guerrero and Christopher sonny Martínez

Leslie standing in their studio. They wear a black shirt and jeans with neon birkenstocks and black ...
Photograph by Fabian Guerrero and Christopher sonny Martínez

Researching Texan artist Leslie Martinez is no easy task. When I mention this to Martinez—who identifies as trans and nonbinary and favors the pronouns they/them—in the artist’s Dallas studio, their gut reaction is plain and simple. “Good!”

There hasn’t been a whole lot written about Martinez’s work yet, but that’s about to change. Their exuberant mixed-media abstractions will be on display at Century in Strata, a solo exhibition opening at the Los Angeles gallery Commonwealth and Council on May 6. In early November, they will have a solo exhibition over three rooms at MoMA PS1 in New York.

Born near the U.S.-Mexico border in the Rio Grande Valley city of McAllen, Martinez grew up in Dallas and has been making art since childhood. “I used to watch a lot of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” Martinez recalls. “And the one thing I remember vividly were his lessons on how to draw things by making the biggest shapes first. There was one episode where he painted a robin, and I memorized how to paint it. I just remember at that moment feeling like, I am an artist.”

Photograph by Fabian Guerrero and Christopher sonny Martínez

Following that preschool-era revelation, Martinez—along with their twin sister—continued making art. “We were just like the two weirdos that were really good at art—to the point where the teacher would talk to our mom and say, ‘Look at these drawings, they’re kind of advanced,’” Martinez says. “And it kept happening all throughout school. I think you internalize that positive reinforcement, and you just keep going.” Martinez landed at an arts magnet high school and established a studio in their childhood bedroom. “There was a whole system that would allow me to change my paint water without having to leave the room so I wouldn’t wake my parents up,” they said. “I’d be painting at, like, three in the morning, four in the morning.”

Leslie Martinez, Units of Roving Brutality, 2023

Photo by Evan Sheldon, courtesy of the artist.

After graduating from high school, Martinez relocated to New York City for undergrad at Cooper Union. While studying painting, printmaking, and drawing there, they happened upon the work of Texan author and queer theorist Gloria E. Anzaldúa and her book Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza—an influential text exploring social and cultural in-betweenness. “Back then, I didn’t quite know how to describe myself or even how I was feeling,” Martinez explains. “Reading her helped me understand. I’m not easy to categorize on many levels, in regard to gender queerness and culture. So she’s been hugely influential in my formation and understanding of what the border means to me.”

Detail shots of Martinez’ works in progress

Photograph by Fabian Guerrero and Christopher sonny Martínez

Detail shots of Martinez’ works in progress

Photograph by Fabian Guerrero and Christopher sonny Martínez
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After graduating from Cooper Union, Martinez remained in New York and worked as a graphic designer for mass retailers like Forever 21, Target, and The Gap. Even the technical, detail-oriented aspects of those New York survival gigs—which entailed creating graphic treatments for garments—influenced the evolution of Martinez’s works, which typically involve tactile layers the artist creates with upcycled fabrics and a process they liken to “abstract sewing.” “When I’m in the studio working, sometimes I go back in my mind and I think about The Gap,” Martinez muses. “I think about the embellishments and treatments…All these edges and margins that get pasted down in my paintings have a very fuzzy relationship to that part of my path.”

After roughly 15 years in New York, Martinez enrolled in graduate school at Yale University. While they’re now creating vividly hued works, their Yale years were muted. “Grad school was all black and white,” Martinez says. “Some people thought my work was crumpled sheet metal, and then they got close to it and realized it was fabric dipped in concrete, painted gray. I was just very excited about the idea of something performing as something else—or this sort of complete material confusion.”

Photograph by Fabian Guerrero and Christopher sonny Martínez

The enthusiastic embrace of color that distinguishes their current work began when Martinez returned to Texas and started their transition in 2019. “One thing that people say about taking testosterone is that it enlivens your sense of color, which I think is interesting,” Martinez says. “I’m not sure I quite picked up on how that changed with me. But I think what inspired a desire to explore color was returning to a place like Texas where you have sunsets, skies, landscape, space, and air. I just became freer and more exuberant and happier.”

When I visit Martinez’s warehouse-like Dallas studio, kaleidoscopic canvases in varying stages of completion are propped up along the perimeter. Martinez begins by experimenting with the versatility of acrylic paint in bold mark-making, ethereal washes reminiscent of watercolors, and drippy layers applied with spray bottles. Stacked up on the floor, remnants of the artist’s “abstract sewing” process are poised to add dimension and depth to the abstractions. Canvas scraps, shop rags, retired studio clothes, curls of sawdust, and scabs of dried paint are salvaged, organized, and repurposed. Martinez’s studio is essentially a zero-waste environment. “The way I perceive these paintings is almost like an excavation,” they say. “We’ve dug halfway into the bedrock of the Earth, and we’re seeing these crumpled, confusing relics of a past time.”

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Despite its exuberance, Martinez’s work investigates serious and timely issues through its hard-to-qualify nature—transphobia and right-wing politics among them. “I’m trying to think about and grapple with the confusing, terrorizing politics of our time that revolve around right-wing fears and terrors of trans people—and these ideas of not being able to pin something down,” Martinez says. “The absence of the easily categorizable can be a form of terror for some people. And for others—like myself—it can be a form of liberation and power to play with uncomfortable feelings of confusion. I’m thinking about the terror of existence right now, and the emergent contribution of all of these sorts of politics around control of the body, and how all these institutions of politics are called ‘bodies’—like the legislative body. I’m just fascinated by the idea of what ‘body’ means right now.”

Leslie Martinez, The Urgency of Objecthood, 2023

Photo by Evan Sheldon, courtesy of the artist.

As we wrap up our studio visit, I ask Martinez how it feels to be gaining traction in Texas and heading back to New York in such an impactful way. “It’s affirmative,” Martinez says. “I feel like Texas allowed me to develop my work and find my voice—outside of the spotlight and the pressures in New York. If you really believe in your work, and you believe in yourself, you don't have to live there. We’re in a different time.”

Photograph by Fabian Guerrero and Christopher sonny Martínez