Carol Cheh on Daniel J. Martinez

By Carol ChehMarch 10, 2024

Carol Cheh on Daniel J. Martinez
1:1 invites writers to reflect on a single work of art with focus, care, and imagination to expand how we view, receive, and write about art. 1:1 is organized and edited by Annie Buckley.


The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority has been commissioning major artworks for its rail stations through the Metro Art program since the early 1990s. While the format has been streamlined and standardized for newer works, a look at the oldest projects reveals a time when wilder visions were possible. Such is the case with a fascinating Daniel J. Martinez installation for the El Segundo C Line station.

Whether you approach this station by car or by train, you can’t miss its loudest statement: a 45-foot-tall steel mesh sculpture of a hand poised to launch a paper airplane, looming high above the streets on the station’s elevated platform. It’s an arresting way to signal that you have arrived at the city of El Segundo, a historic major hub for aerospace and defense production. This bold opening gesture is at once aspirational and cheeky.

Upon entering the station, the intrigue continues. Hands reappear as a recurring motif that forms the station’s railings. Modeled after the artist’s own hands, these have a jarringly lumpy, fleshy texture. The ascending stairs are etched with inscrutable phrases such as biofeedback, Pac-Man-strategy, white knight, warbrides, isolation tanks, and Freddie Mac. Some letters appear right side up, others upside down. In the waiting areas, riders don’t find the usual communal benches but rather a series of individual metal chairs with an aesthetic that calls up early-20th-century science labs or defense command centers. Spaced out and facing different directions on a largely barren, windswept platform, the seats appear disconcertingly lonely, punctuated only by a few telescope-like instruments jutting from the ground between them. Six standard analog clocks on the two overlooks above the stairs show six different times, but no indication as to which time zones they reference (if they reference time zones at all).

While there are several other elaborate and kooky Metro station installations—notably the ones on the B Line through Hollywood—this one has an unusually dark, sinister undertone that reaches more toward critique than celebration. Sitting in those foreboding chairs, peering through “telescopes” not focused on anything in particular, I couldn’t help but think of the DHARMA Initiative, that mysterious and ill-fated astrophysics experiment evoked in creepy black-and-white found videos on the TV show Lost (2004–10). Martinez’s installation, like the initial discovery of those videos, provokes more questions than answers. The recurring hand motif seems to assert a sense of individuality and human touch in this space of industrial technology. The steps’ phrases and the discombobulated clocks destabilize the viewer, while solitary chairs and instruments can put one in the role of either commander or test subject. Instead of vaunting El Segundo’s aerospace achievements, Martinez inserts a palpable sense of unease.

Transit watchers have long criticized the C Line as the “line to nowhere,” noting the odd route that it stakes out between Norwalk and Redondo Beach. Martinez’s installation seems to play to this description, conjuring a distant and dubious past that points toward an unknown future.


Featured image: Daniel J. Martinez, For Your Intellectual Entertainment, 1995. Created in collaboration with Escudero-Fribourg Architects, Metro C Line El Segundo Station, El Segundo.

LARB Contributor

Carol Cheh is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles.


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