Patrick Martinez’s ‘Ghost Land’ Conjures Up a Disappearing Los Angeles

Martinez’s soon-to-close solo show at San Francisco’s Institute of Contemporary Art showcases the artist’s take on urban landscapes lost and destroyed.

A view of an installation of multimedia art in a gallery space with exposed ceilings
“Ghost Land” Installation view, 2023. Courtesy of artist, Charlie James Gallery, and ICA SF Impart Photography: Glen Cheriton

Patrick Martinez grew up in Los Angeles. When he was about twelve years old, he and his older brother and some of their friends started painting on walls—an activity that would ultimately influence the way he sees the city. Thirty years later, Martinez has a talent for noticing things that are disappearing and using them in his multimedia landscapes of Los Angeles made of materials the city freely offers up: iron safety bars, banner tarps, spray paint and distressed stucco.

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Those landscapes are instantly recognizable, as are the works in his Pee Chee series, which often refer to police violence, and his neon signs, which he uses as political expression. All three are on view in “Ghost Land,” Martinez’s soon-to-close show at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), San Francisco.

In “Ghost Land,” Martinez has done something new with the title piece, creating a large-scale sculptural installation that is essentially a painting visitors can walk through. Without sketching out what he was going to do, Martinez started with a 1980s-era mural by East Los Streetscapers in LA’s Boyle Heights: Filling Up on Ancient Energies, commissioned by Shell Oil for the side of a gas station. The gas station is now a car wash, and Martinez saw the mural destroyed.

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“It looked like sculpture, and there was painting on the cinderblock knocked down,” Martinez said at a talk at ICA. “I thought, this is a new way that I want to communicate painting or everything I know about painting in a sculpture.”

“I connected that to my cousin who I lost during that time,” he went on. Martinez realized he wanted to paint some kind of memorial to him. “The Streetscapers’ mural had this profile of this brown kid who was transitioning into a Mayan sculpture. I thought, ‘I’m going to do my version of that with my cousin.’”

Other themes emerged as Martinez worked on the piece, which he topped with breeze blocks. On the back of it, he painted things that tied in with his connections to the San Francisco Bay Area, including a nod to La Raza in San Francisco, where his cousin’s brother did silk screening, and Huey Newton, the founder of the Black Panthers in Oakland.

Christine Koppes, ICA’s curator, and director, Ali Gass, have been encouraging artists who show there to try something that pushes their art in a new direction. When the institution first opened in October of 2022, inaugural artist Jeffrey Gibson, who is Choctaw-Cherokee, told them he’d been thinking about land acknowledgements, and Gass and Koppes went along with Gibson’s vision, making openings in the floor to expose the soil underneath.

“We’ve been prompting every artist we work with ‘What is the thing that’s on your mind that you’ve been wanting to do?’” Koppes explained. “Patrick said, ‘What if I made an actual wall?’ It all started with that question: ‘What if instead of a landscape piece that looks like a wall, we make a wall in the round?’”

A multimedia painting with a portrait and phone number and lights
Patrick Martinez, ‘Zapata Landscape’, 2022, Stucco, neon, mean streak, ceramic, acrylic paint, spray paint, latex house paint, banner tarp, rope and LED sign on panel, 60 x 120 inches. Courtesy of artist, Charlie James Gallery, and ICA SF Impart Photography: Glen Cheriton

Martinez’s landscapes in the ICA show use nontraditional materials—as in Zapata Landscape, which has a painting of Mexican revolutionary leader Emilio Zapata alongside a pink banner tarp with a phone number and LED lights—to capture the feeling of Los Angeles. “I always think about when Robert Rauschenberg would talk about really experiencing where you’re living,” he said. “Because all these materials are fleeting, they’re being broken down, they’re already discounted, no one pays attention to them. I’m telling people to look again, check this out—the LED lights are just as important as the portrait of Zapata next to it.”

Martinez was accepted into the art academy at his high school after showing them his book of graffiti. Students in the program could take classes at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, from which Martinez graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts (with honors) in 2005.

That’s where he started making his Pee Chee folders: a take on the vintage orange-yellow folders with an inside pocket for school kids to put their papers. They were, according to Martinez, more generic back then, portraying police presence in schools. Ten years later, with the explosion of videos showing police violence, Martinez started memorializing the victims of that brutality, like Eric Garner, who was choked to death in 2014 after being arrested for selling loose cigarettes. During the pandemic, Martinez made a folder with hand-painted portraits of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, and people could get a print after sending in a receipt of a donation to social justice organizations. In the ICA show, one of the folders on display has a picture of Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who knelt during the national anthem to protest police violence.

Two paintings of people on orangy yellow canvases
Patrick Martinez’s Pee Chee folders. Courtesy of artist, Charlie James Gallery, and ICA SF Impart Photography: Glen Cheriton

Another one depicts young people in caps and gowns, graduates of a violence prevention and leadership program operating in the neighborhood called Alive and Free. Those illustrations of the graduates are also on a basketball court a few doors down from the ICA. Ever since seeing the court, Koppes felt it would be a great place for public art. Her colleague, Thea Anderson, looked into who runs it and found out that the Warrior Community Foundation (associated with the Golden State Warriors basketball team) redoes courts. The ICA partnered with them to create the Dogpatch Community Court.

“We introduced them to Patrick, and they loved his work,” Koppes said. “They’re also just super supportive, and whatever Patrick wanted to do, they said, ‘We love it, let’s make it happen.’”

Martinez likes having his work on a basketball court because populating spaces that aren’t museums or art galleries with art and connecting with people who don’t go to those places is important to him. “A basketball court is just another one of those places, and trying to kind of bust those doors open from the museum and contaminate other places and spaces is something I’m always down to do.”

Martinez also wanted to highlight the work of Alive and Free. “They help high school-age Black and Brown youth go straight up into college, and their alumni do really well,” he said. “It’s the flip side or the celebratory version of what I’m typically doing with the Pee Chee folders.”

Ghost Land” is on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art, San Francisco through January 7. 

Patrick Martinez’s ‘Ghost Land’ Conjures Up a Disappearing Los Angeles