The Artwork of Gabriel Martin

Despite the outrage of many in the art world, the painting sits on the second floor of the Tate Modern. Art critics have spent hundreds of hours staring through computer screens at this seemingly unremarkable painting trying to understand what it did to earn its acclaim. It’s not that the painting was bad, it was a simple watercolour of a wooden memorial bench standing alone in an empty park, but its placement next to some of the world’s greatest pieces of modern art must have felt like an insult to their intelligence.

Despite this outrage, the painting was one of the galleries' most popular. More interestingly, the critics who made the journey to see the painting in the flesh would, without fail, rewrite their scathing reviews. Abigal Jones, a critic who gained great traction for her initial critique of the painting, described seeing it in the flesh as ‘incomprehensible, both terrifyingly unfamiliar and deeply nostalgic.

The artist, Gabriel Martin, was a notorious hermit. This is the first of his pieces to ever be placed in a gallery, and despite its success, he has consistently declined every newspaper and news channel that has asked to interview him. You would think a new artist would be eager to capitalise on this traction, but he seemed extremely unwilling to talk about his work. As a journalist at a small newspaper, I thought I had very little chance of getting to speak to him, but when asked he accepted, though he provided no reason why. I had seen pictures of the painting, but it seemed like it could only be fully understood by going to look at it, so I went to the Tate to see it for myself.

When writing this article, I struggled for a long time to put into words the feeling that I got from the simple painting of a park bench. Jones was right in her descriptors, there was something strangely nostalgic about what I saw, but that was not the only feeling. One look at it created a rising in my abdomen like the feeling of going down a drop on a roller-coaster. I suddenly understood why people came back again and again, why they spent hours staring at a water-coloured park bench because the feeling was addictive. I had felt it in flashes before but had never experienced it so completely. Something in my brain was reaching, trying to grasp something. What I was trying to grasp I don’t know, I don’t think anybody who stares at that unremarkable bench knows what it is that they feel, but that didn’t stop me from staring. As if I was looking into a dark hole, knowing that every time I looked, I would see the same constant darkness, but being unable to stop myself from looking again.

When Gabriel Martin came in for his interview, I asked him several questions but given the circumstances surrounding his death, it felt wrong to publish the whole interview. There was one answer however that feels as if it might shed some light on this incredible painting. When asked about the public response to his painting, he responded with confusion

‘If I’m honest, I never really understood the response. I’m glad that it produced such emotion in people, that was the goal, after all, that’s the goal of all artwork. The thing that confuses me is that people seem to think it’s a painting of a bench,’

This surprised me, as I had seen the painting myself, but I supposed that modern art was all about interpretation, so I questioned him on what he thought his painting was.

‘It’s not a bench,’ he responded, ‘It’s a door,’

I asked him a few other questions about his work, and his unwillingness to talk to journalists about what he had created, but he seemed erratic and anxious about answering them, and his answers made very little sense to me. Five months after this interview Gabriel Martin hung himself in his apartment building in Hackney. When the police searched the building, they didn’t find a suicide note, but they did find a folded piece of paper containing a rough pencil drawing of a double doorway. This drawing was folded in half, and inside they found hundreds more drawings and paintings of a seemingly random array of everyday objects, with some more benches, as well as telephone boxes, streetlamps, and fences. When asked about these drawings, the officers described nothing out of the ordinary except a small, creeping feeling they couldn’t quite identify.

In the months since his death people have come up with many theories about this now infamous painting, and yet nobody knows why this simple park bench created such strong emotion in those who viewed it. The more cynical in the art world have described it as mass hysteria and have equated those frantic paintings to the final desperate ramblings of a madman.

Whether Gabriel was mad or not we will never know, but what cannot be doubted is the feeling that was created by these paintings. It was as tangible as the glow of the moon, or the breeze coming through a door that’s been left ajar on a summer evening. Most significantly it was a feeling that, despite many efforts, has never been replicated again.

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Lily Brock

Lily Brock

My whole life is defined by abstract vibes that can only be explained through confusing metaphors, and these are some of those metaphors