Common Thread

(Jason Huang)

In a flashing red cardigan and a stunning turquoise dress, Victoria Martinez makes her way from one darkly clothed huddle of people to the next at Cobalt Studio in Pilsen. She inflates the atmosphere with new life every time she flashes her rouged smile. This energy is also present in her work–as a whole, it seeks to rejuvenate a jaded city.

Her exhibition, “Other Side Breathing,” is a collection of textile pieces inspired by various sites around Pilsen. Having grown up in Pilsen, Martinez has never forgotten her beginnings. The seven diverse locations she’s selected for her artwork range from a glass-paned door of a taco shop to the rusty gate of an abandoned mall. Together, they recall her childhood memories of walking and talking in packs with her friends along the neighborhood’s streets.

Walking around the exhibit, I was struck by the honest, embroidered passion in each piece. “I want my art to evoke nostalgia, to be eye candy,” says Martinez. “I want people who walk by to stop and appreciate the space around them. I want them to appreciate their land and landscape.”

Martinez’s work is brazen. Brightly colored and roughly stitched, her art doesn’t seek to impress. With materials ranging from scarves and sequins to balloon scraps, place mats, plastic flowers and children’s socks, each piece is a collage of brilliant patterns and jolting hues, inspired by common objects you can find around your home.

“Jackpot at the Mini Mall” patches two different fabrics with a complex pattern of muted browns and spotted swirls stitched on top. She tops it off by attaching balloon scraps, obviously from the Halloween section, to the sides. Another piece, “Authentic Tacos”, seems like a deconstructed Mexican dress with a warm orange patterned rectangular body beneath a rainbow-sequined collar. In the center lies a ring of white plastic flowers. Her pieces are simple yet stunning, both unintimidating and evocative.

Martinez works with textiles, but instead of creating out of expensive fabrics or over-priced materials found in high-end art stores, she focuses on materials either donated or found in thrift stores. “The materials I use can be found in the thrift store down the street. People don’t care about what they throw out, but I see the potential in them,” she says. Martinez shops at the local thrift store and grabs random stuff off the shelf to transform them from forgotten fragments to symbols of renewed life, drawing out connections between the separate components. There is a history behind these items, Martinez tells me, and what enraptures her is the mystery behind them.

Whereas most knits stitching is usually hidden, Martinez allows the thread to remain visible. What may seem like hurried or amateur stitching is part of her effort to make her work accessible. “Some people can be intimidated by something like an art gallery, so that’s why I put my art in the streets. I want to make it as accessible to regular people as possible,” she explains.

“Other Side Breathing” is about a return to a time of a grounded heritage, a time of celebration and festivity through cultural identity. She hopes the art’s embodiment of her personal affair with Pilsen will spark others to remember their own histories. “Other Side Breathing” aims to show the art in the everyday, the memories contained in the things you pass on the street. Ultimately, her own art will return to the street–Once the exhibit in the gallery is over, Martinez will install her art in the seven designated sites that her work draws from, “to rest, live, or disappear.”

As I leave the gallery, I am directed by her final piece, “Forward to 19th Street.” In it, an arrow made of quilts, tablecloth, and other fabric points through the gallery’s open door, out into the city where memories are made and, hopefully, remembered.

Cobalt Studio, 1950 W. 21st St. Through April 30. Hours by appointment. Free. (773)644-1163.