Have you ever seen a fine art meme before? Mauro Martinez is a Texas-based painter who has made a name for himself by critiquing our internet-obsessed culture. Using his distinct, highly realistic painting style, he puts all of the memes, cursed images, and violence of today’s online youth on full display. However, his new set of paintings aren’t inspired by the internet this time, and instead depict tennis players in motion and cats flying through the air in place of tennis balls. Read what Mauro has to say about his new and introspective works called Practice Makes Purrfect, at the Unit London gallery, open until February 4th. 
Mauro, can you start by talking a bit about yourself and your art style? What was it that drew you to painting specifically?
Howdy! My name is Mauro Christian Alejandro Martinez, and I’m just a dude who loves to paint! Painting and I found each other during my brief stint at Art Center College of Design. Although I didn’t graduate, I often feel like the whole reason I was there was to discover painting and some really good friends I’m still very close to.
I think there is something about the long rich history of oil painting that makes me feel like I’m engaging in something meaningful and lasting. Painting feels very ‘lindy effect’ to me and I love that about it. It’s those same qualities that I try to consciously butt up against those of the meme, which are quick and ephemeral. There is a world of contradiction in merging the oil painting and the meme and that space has been my world.
So, your fourth exhibition at Unit London, Practice Makes Purrfect, is a different approach than your past artwork about the internet memes and gaming, yet it still is playful (no pun intended) and coded with an underlying theme that is more personal to you as an artist. Can you explain what these paintings mean to you in your artistic journey and what the process has been of creating this exhibition?
The original Practice Makes Purrfect was based on a ‘cursed image’ I found while making work for my first exhibition Big Mood with Unit London. I would describe my temperament as a painter as curious and restless, and above all, I try to honuor my temperament in my work. In honouring this temperament, however, I am sometimes guilty of not fully exploring the conceptual or technical potential of a given subject. In many ways, this exhibition was about challenging my own ideas about painting by leaning into the iterative process. I used Photoshop’s AI function to generate different shadows and even some actual cats.
The cat in place of the tennis ball in your new paintings is part of what makes them a bit comical, however, you describe that this motif is meant to show “the darker side of competition.” Would you say that this darker side of competition is a reflection of the battle with yourself as an artist, or with the public in the judgement of your work?
Richard Prince put it best when he said the art world likes to be hammered over the head with the same thing and this market convention is very at odds with my way of working. I make paintings that may look different on the surface but are united under the umbrella of memes, internet culture and, more broadly, our shared human experiences. I am an artist; I am not a brand or a stock, and my work is not fixed in place. These conventions are fairly new functions of the market and have nothing to do with making art.
My way of working naturally means that some of my work is more commercially successful than others and, unfortunately, an artist’s commercial success is directly linked to their ability to keep creating in a full-time capacity. Any artist who experiments is quickly confronted with this reality and they have to make certain choices at that point. The work in this show is very much a process of sifting through these issues.
I see myself as both the tennis player ready to do what is necessary to win, and as the cat having found himself free falling as a result of his own curiosity. Fortunately, I’m working with a gallery who sees the validity in this perspective.
“I make paintings that may look different on the surface but are united under the umbrella of memes, internet culture and, more broadly, our shared human experiences.”
Speaking of comedy, dark humour has always played a big part in your work, and can almost make your pieces a bit controversial. How did you come to take on this distinct style, and what has been the reaction from viewers?
I’ve been getting in trouble for my art since I was in grade school, so I think it’s always just been a natural extension of who I am. It could also be a cultural thing — Hispanics seem to always joke about the most messed up stuff and have a high tolerance for what is deemed offensive. Although I’m sure every culture has this to some degree. In that way, I don’t ever actually set out to be controversial or offensive or anything like that. My mantra is just ‘I wonder what would happen if I painted that,’ and that goes for everything from landscapes to memes.
I noticed that you also have a YouTube channel where you document your artistic process and share the details of your work. I found it interesting that your new paintings are a commentary on the isolation and judgement that come from the artistic process, yet you are sharing these intimate details of your process online at the same time. How has your YouTube account impacted or influenced your artwork, and what made you want to start making videos?
I don’t think the risk of judgment is any reason to limit my own reach. I share my work as broadly as I can because I truly believe in it. The Work In Progress series on my YouTube channel is an archive of everything I go through in preparation for a show or project. Everything from the bursts of inspiration to the most crippling moments of self doubt are laid bare for people to see. My hope is just to create a roadmap as a gallery represented artist for people who want to know what it takes to get here and stay here.
You mentioned that the book Bound by Creativity by Hannah Wohl is part of what inspired you to create your new exhibition, which argues that the artistic process is inherently sociological. What did you take away from this book and how are you incorporating that into your art?
Mainly, Hannah’s book taught me that this idea of creating paintings as a series or ‘companion paintings’ is a fairly new market convention. Creating work serially is not something that artists innately do, it is a specific construct that was developed to brand artists and sell the brand. And it’s honestly not my goal to try and dismantle this construct but to widen the possibilities. To that end, I developed my Instagram account very intentionally over a long period of time with an ethos of experimentation at the forefront, wrote these values directly into my artist statement, and found a gallery that shares these values.
The Unit London gallery, where you’re having your fourth solo exhibition since 2020, describes that they have “become synonymous with a pioneering use of social media and digital content.” As an artist inspired by the digital age, what about the gallery aligns with your artistic pursuits, and what has it been like working with them?
I absolutely agree with their description. I first found out about Unit London in 2015 when they had the Paintguide show, which was based on an Instagram account of the same name started by Henrik Uldalen. The account was revolutionary in itself because it was the first of its kind where well-known artists were chosen to share the work of their favourites. Seeing an exhibition based on this account was otherworldly to me and left me and many others with the distinct impression that this gallery had a big vision. And then, of course, they represented Ryan Hewett, who was one of my very first inspirations as a painter on Instagram.
Young artists, especially those who aren’t being churned out of art school as brand robots eager to fix themselves to a specific style or subject forever, are growing increasingly restless with this conventional way of making art. I think we live in a time where every aspect of personal identity is becoming increasingly fluid and it only makes sense that artists would naturally start to rebel against the fixed parameters of creativity within the market. Unit London sees this too and I view our partnership as a lifelong effort to make room for these ways of working. I feel beyond fortunate for my gallery and for the collectors that share our vision and support my efforts by collecting my work in the many weird forms it takes.
Your paintings are often highly realistic, including the artwork in your new exhibition. What was the decision behind painting photorealism?
I actually love this! This body of work is sort of beguiling in some ways. These paintings are actually the loosest I’ve made in some time and are a return to a painterliness I employed before choosing to explore photorealism. But my values and colour mixing retained a level of accuracy that often causes the viewer to overlook the chaos of the brushwork itself. This was done in a conscious effort to explore the artifice of the image — seeing how chaotic things could get without falling apart. There’s definitely more to explore within this concept alone.
Finally, now that you have exhibited a very different set of paintings from your usual work, where do you see your art going next?
Currently, I’m developing some text-based works that are presented as iOS or Android messages between two people. Both the recipient and sender are unknown but there’s definitely a bit of me in both. I think these pieces explore problems within painting itself as well as other subjects that are more vulnerable than what I normally make. They range from these sort of memetic conversations that most people can relate to to almost absurd snippets of the subconscious. I’m also developing a language in both abstraction and landscapes. Wherever the work chooses to go, I’ll be ready!