Sarah Martin: Expectations at The McGrath Gallery at Bellarmine University

October 29th, 2017  |  Published in October 2017

As a preface, I’m writing this piece whilst questioning my intent in writing it. This exhibition had some serious flaws. On one hand, Expectations was presented like a body of student work, t-pinned artist statements printed on printer paper and all; and the gallery wasn’t big enough for two collections of work, let alone two collections that didn’t speak to each other.

On the other hand, Meeting Expectations, one of the two projects exhibited, is an intriguing project that seems to examine gender roles in American Evangelical social groups in the 21st century through examining the ideals of heterosexual men involved in Christian dating platforms.

While veering away from sexual fantasy, Martin was able to garner the familial hopes of strangers: creating images that both gifted the participants the experience of some of those hopes as reality while simultaneously projecting its flaws to an unnamed viewer, and hopefully its participants as well. It’s psychological melodrama. It’s manipulative and, perhaps a bit mean spirited, but also kind and understanding in a way that I don’t think I’d ever be capable of being as an artist: that’s perhaps where my fascination lies.

Expectations is an exhibition combining two small collections of work, Meeting Expectations and Red States, created by the same artist: Sarah Martin. The exhibition is held at the Wyatt Center for the Arts in The McGrath Gallery at Bellarmine University, where Martin is the Masters of Fine Arts Chair as well as professor of photography and digital media.  Though the exhibition read clean and gallery ready at first glance, I soon became a bit confused about how I was to navigate the exhibition. Upon a glance around the room, there were no title cards and no title reference sheet (perhaps they simply ran out of title sheets and hadn’t replaced them yet). Second, after looking for an artist statement I was confronted with, what I’m appeared to be, multiple artist statements. One that was clearly in explanation of Red States and another that was very vague and really didn’t seem to point to or direct the viewer towards any lens or language in which to view and discuss either or both bodies of work. If it was simply a general statement concerning both groups of work, why didn’t the author make mention of either project? Also, less importantly but none the less— the statements were t-pinned to the wall; which within the context of a university gallery setting, read as lazy and/or excessively budget conscious.

Red States is a collection of photographs of the south that are vaguely familiar—images of abandoned Main Streets and waterparks, semi vacant hotels all dramatically lit. . . Red States is a collection of photographs that aren’t bad photographs; they just lack presence.

Photo stills and communication from Meeting Expectations, participant Illonois, 29. link to full video at bottom of review.

Opposite Red States is Meeting Expectations. Meeting Expectations is, an interesting piece of investigative journalism and performance art. Martin displayed a text that broke down the project into its parts, but there wasn’t a synopsis of any kind (even on her site) to further explain the project within it’s historical-political context. Here is what I pulled away from it: From personal experience Martin decided to confront a group of heterosexual males that she previously hadn’t considered for a monogamous relationship, and asked them to tell her what they imagined their perfect partner to appear and act like. Through this act, she was exploring gender normative roles in contemporary relationships, and the pressures placed on women by men to perform in a certain light. What was interesting to me was the response, which was enthusiastic, to say the least. Overall, Martin was able to convince strangers to provide her with an emotional fantasy along with their hopes, and retroactively, their aggressions.

Martin breaks up the project into three different parts or digestible key pieces of information for the audience. “Part 1” contains her backdrop: after her sixteenth post-college breakup, Martin decided to heed the advice of her family and friends and look for a “nice Christian man and consider “settling down””. An interesting idea considering the artist hadn’t thought of herself as a Christian in over a decade. “Part 2” consisted of Martin sending the following message to twenty different Christian men (through various Christian dating sites):

I want to know your vision of a future mate; the more detailed scenario, the better. I will act out that vision in either a video or photograph. The camera will be used from your point of view. Can you paint a scene for me? What would an everyday event look like? What would we be doing? What would I look like (what would I wear)? Feel free to message with any questions! 

“Part 3” is Martin’s explanation of the response. She received over twenty responses. She lost ten pounds to appease requests that she look more athletic. She changed hair styles, purchased clothing, and borrowed friends’ children to appeal to these anonymous men. The artist provided them with three opportunities (or two chances to communicate any room for improvement) to revise the outcome of her performed response to their request. Some were pleased after the first try, some became frustrated or even aggressive.

Martin included large (40”x 30”) print outs (alongside small prints) that included stills from videos within the same frame as the written dialogue between the artist and participant. Martin referred to each participant by their home state and age as to maintain their privacy. Illinois, 28 sent Martin this request: 

As a twenty-eight year who has had several relationships that were nice but just not the right person exist or have I created them in my mind to standard that is unattainable. This is where I really just ask the Lord to lead me because I am at a loss.  Half my best friends from college are married and half are single. My heart says God has not created me to be alone or celibate so I have hope that i won’t be alone. For me it has been very easy to go on lots of dates, but very difficult to find some that really sparks my interest. Maybe I should be thankful for this since it has made my search very binary. Perhaps something to illustrate the grind of everyday life connected to a beautiful partnership. Waking up at 6am sill tired as you look a the clock, you turn and look at me (aka the camera) with a tired half smile), get out of bed, no makeup, jogging clothes, and put your hair in a ponytail with a rubber band as I get up too, we walk out of the house into the semi light, give each other a high five, and begin jogging out together. You see our backs as we jog into the rising sun. These could be a series of pictures or just one. 

With this text Martin paired four black and white images that broke down his request into four parts. Martin waking and gazing into the camera, putting her hair up, raising her hand for a high-five, and departing for a jog. In this particular document, there is no before and after correspondence.

black and white collaged images from interaction with Illinois, 28. Excerpt from Meeting Expectations. Image provided by author.

The craft and curatorial (if any) direction of this exhibition was bad. Meeting Expectations is the perfect receptacle to hold the conversation of whether or not exhibition craft matters anymore. Does the craft and design of an exhibition really hold the viewers’ attention so that they can focus on the material and not on whether or not an image is crooked? Do Casualism and other similar philosophies also apply to photography? I think that within the context of this exhibition it does. It was distracting to not know where the artist was communicating her ideas. Otherwise, the project was more than commendable and empowering  and worth further investigation,and I’m left eager to see more of Sarah Martin’s work. I was not able to contact Martin for permission to link video of the performances, but if you find yourself interested, she has them available on her artist website.

–Megan Bickel

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