By: Joseph R. Castel
Cesar Chavez confronts Andy Warhol. That’s how I would sum up Narsiso Martinez’ recent art exhibit entitled “Tender Leaves” that just recently closed at the Charlie James Gallery in Los Angeles. Except, unlike most of Warhol’s famous work, Martinez’ art has soul. The Southern California artist pays homage to the farm worker in most of his creations that he sells from five to eight thousand dollars apiece through the Charlie James Gallery. He also has permanent installations in several prestigious museums. Not bad for an artist whose professional career just started a couple years prior to the pandemic. He graduated from California State University, Long Beach in 2018 with an MFA in Art, but prior to college, Martinez bused tables for many years when he first arrived in Los Angeles in 1996. He also picked apples in Washington state alongside many farmworkers.
His farm work fused into his artwork as he began sketching the people beside him in the orchards and fields of Washington. Martinez’ drawings and mixed-media installations center on the lives and the labor of migrant agricultural workers. He creates these evocative portraits on discarded produce boxes that he himself collects from grocery stores.
Martinez sat down with Adelante for an interview regarding his prolific work as an emerging artist.
Adelante: Your mixed media of your drawings overlapping the advertising on the produce boxes reminds me of Andy Warhol, who mashed up advertising into pop art. Is there any politics behind the food packaging and the workers?
Martinez: When I first started working on cardboard, it was more for aesthetic purposes, but soon after I realized the potential of overlapping my drawings with the logos and brand names already printed on them. It was like starting up a visual conversation with farm workers and the agribusiness. It led me to wonder about the differences of life styles of the farm worker and that of the people behind this corporations.
I feel like any work about farm workers or any oppressed and underrepresented group is political. I realized this when I was in art school. I thought I was just making art about my coworkers and my own experiences. Yes, it is about that, but it is also about giving voice to the voiceless, about using my platform to shine a light to the people who are greatly responsible for the food we consume every day and they are not being treated fairly.
Adelante: Do you think you’ll move on to other subjects?
Martinez: As long as there are workers struggling in the fields, I will do my best to keep making art about them. Even if I move onto other subjects, it would be related to the working class, the underrepresented, or minority groups that need a platform.
However, I feel like there is still a lot to say about our food production and what we consumers demand, more variety, more exotic produce, maybe even more aesthetically pleasing produce. I’d like to explore farm work, farmworkers, and food production at a global level. I plan to travel to other countries and visit, for example, the banana plantations in Honduras, the coffee plantations in Colombia or learn how cocoa beans are cultivated and harvested in Africa.
Adelante: When is your next show?
Martinez: I have a show opening in early March of this year at Arte America, an art center in Fresno. I believe it opens on the 5th to the public, and it focuses on the Oaxacan community and about their contributions to society here in the United States and in Oaxaca Mexico.
Adelante: Did you always want to draw as a child?
Martinez: Don’t we all bring drawings home from school when we are kids? For some reason we abandon our creativity while we grow up. I’m glad I never did.
Adelante: What did you learn about being a farm worker up in Washington? Had you done that work before?
Martinez: I helped my parents in the fields growing up in Oaxaca Mexico. Farming in those times was more about survival. The village depended on the rain to water their lands, and fertile lands were very limited. The harvest during the season had to last for the whole year. Here I learned that farming is mainly for profit, unfortunately, benefiting only the owners.
I also realized I was struggling as much as my coworkers, perhaps in different ways. They were struggling to support their families, and I was struggling to support my studies. In addition, I learned that I was and continue to be a part of that community.
Adelante: Who is your greatest influence and why?
Martinez: The artists who influenced me to paint about the working class and peasantry are Vincent Van Gogh and Jean-Francois Millet, European painters from the 1800’s. Their landscapes and peasantry scenes I learned while in art history class at Los Angeles City College. Their work brought memories for me of when I was growing up in Oaxaca. When I was in graduate school, I understood the importance of conceptual art. The work of the Mexican muralists, especially David Alfaro Siqueiros who inspired me to keep shining a light on the social and political issues of our communities.
Adelante: What kept you going all those years of going to school, and working?
Martinez: I got kicked out in 10th grade back in Mexico. I failed too many classes. I guess I wasn’t interested in learning. However, when I was taking English as a second language classes, my teachers encouraged me to study towards a high school degree. They made me believe that I was capable of critical thinking and that I could achieve any goal I wanted, so getting a college degree became my ultimate goal.
During difficult times I thought I’d be selling my paintings by the Santa Monica Pier or Venice Beach. One of my teachers once told me that I shouldn’t worry about making money while in school. She told me just to focus on finishing my studies and money would come along. She was right.
This changed after graduate school when I started working with the contemporary Charlie James Gallery.
Adelante: Indeed it has.
To learn more about Narsiso Martinez and his artwork, visit him on