The Shock of the Now Issue 44
Featured Exhibition Text
Natalia González Martín
'A change (would do you good)' Solo Exhibition
Hannah Barry
8th June 2022

Change is afoot at Hannah Barry Gallery in Peckham, as Natalia González Martín presents the latest in a long lineage of artistic interpretations of Ovid’s magnus opus, The Metamorphoses. The lengthy Latin narrative poem, that traces a brief history of the Greco-Roman world and acts as a compendium for over two hundred and fifty myths, has previously inspired prominent artworks including Titian’s poesie series of mythological Mise-en-scènes, Velázquez’s arachnoid origin story Las Hilanderas, John William Waterhouse’s Pre-Raphaelite Echo and Narcissus and multiple Bernini marbles.

Painted on wood panels with soft washes of diluted oils, González Martín’s Ovidian maidens emerge from an amalgamation of personal preparatory photographs, stock internet imagery and art historical or religious references evident of the artist’s continued, perhaps unconscious, connection to the Catholic iconography of her upbringing. Turning her attention to the opening ten books of the immense manuscript, prior to the foundation and destruction of Troy, González Martín pays homage to the poet’s depiction of well-rounded women, both in their character and curvaceousness. Flawed, fallible and yet powerful in the face of abuses of power, these female figures subvert the stereotypes of fairytale femme fatales or demeaned damsels in distress, and stay true to the source materials’ sentimental surrealism.

Borrowing from book one, Daphne, Io and the Heliades sisters all appear at varying points in their mythological metamorphosis. We find the former, her shins scratched and scraped from fleeing Apollo’s unwanted advances, with leafy shadows silhouetted across her thighs as, post-praying to Peneus, her laurel tree transformation begins to take hold just out of frame. Elsewhere Io, the rumoured mistress of Jupiter unjustly turned into a heifer at the hands of a jealous Juno, embodies her bovine beauty, as the weeping pores of willowy poplars perform a particular ocular illusion, representative of those sorrowful sisters’ irreversible rooting after four months of unmoving mourning for their brother Phaëthon.

Nearby, the goddess Diana dries off, a curious cloud formation floating above her shoulder the only reminder of Acteon’s interruption of her afternoon bathing, an act of inadvertent voyeurism that saw the hunter become the hunted, transformed into a stag and torn to shreds by his own hungry hounds. Echo, meanwhile, endures unending unrequited love, lounging pool-side at the same spot where Narcissus, lured by the goddess of revenge Nemesis, became enamoured by his own reflection and, unable to avert his gaze, wasted away. 

González Martín embraces Ovid’s myth-making as an opportunity to further understand ourselves and others, exposing our errors in an attempt to avoid their repetition. And while such tall tales talk to fundamental truths - love, lust, desire, despair, denial, envy, grief - others entertain the pre-eminent poets’ penchant for artistic allegory, commenting on or criticising the role of art and, indeed, the artist themself.

And so Arachne appears as a spider scaling the floral folds of an exquisitely embroidered cloth, the shepherd’s daughter having been perennially punished for her arrogant exclamations of artistic expertise, above even those of the goddess Athena, and subsequent outshining of the dishonoured deity in a contest of craftsmanship that saw the challenger double-down with depictions of divine defamation. Finally, two cropped corporeal compositions capture light glinting off the smooth ivory surface of Pygmalion’s sculptural companion, the figure fashioned so faithfully that the misogynist, celibate Cypriot would fondle and eventually fall in love with its supple carved curves.

Throughout, González Martín’s smaller paintings serve to assist in an artistic worldbuilding befitting of Ovid’s epic, as a supporting cast of characters and a rotating suite of symbolic props - ripe fruits, draped fabrics and blooming flowers - offer added depth to both the exhibition’s protagonists and the carefully considered expanded narrative. 

González Martín’s bodies keep the score of the inevitable trials and tribulations that come from enduring their Metamorphoses reimagining, with grazed knees and the aforementioned scared shins. Furthermore, their humanity is placed at the forefront, as goddesses, nymphs and mortals alike are unable to avoid the omnipotent ageing process, succumbing to the wrinkles, grey hairs, moles and stretch marks that await us all. Imbued with relatability and grounded in reality, each subtle imperfection contrasts with their conventional flawless skin. Such empathy is again enhanced by the artist’s signature conflation of classicism and contemporary culture, as on closer inspection you begin to notice the slight skin imprints left by summer ankle socks, the immaculate manicures and perfect pedicures, the plucked eyebrows, rouged cheeks and glossed lips.

Ultimately, González Martín underlines the enduring influence of Ovid, and the lessons that can be learned from a reassessment or resurgence of myths and fables, narratives maybe overlooked or underrepresented in contemporary culture. The exhibition also encourages us to embrace change, as the sun slowly makes its way across the scenic sky of each painted panel, illuminating the individual stories before setting behind a hilly horizon. Day turns to night, ad nauseum, perhaps the most predictable yet unpreventable change of them all. Between dawn and dusk, as each principal protagonist meets their respective fate, time continues to move on around them, irregardless of any mythological main character syndrome. A reliable and reassuring reminder that at the end of the day, it’s not the end of the world.