David Greenslade: The Autoschediastic Mandalas of Martin Langford.

Martin Langford, from Kenfig Hill, is a skilful storyteller. He’s lived a colourful life, mixing with an enormous variety of people. He has also spent time alone – solitary confinement and as a rural recluse. In 1981, following eighteen months on remand, he received a four-year prison sentence at the Old Bailey for marijuana smuggling,

He takes his interests seriously and with a large dose of caustic humour. The same with his approach to art. He has invented a semi-automatic, silvery drip-flow, quick dry, freeze-hold technique, the secrets of which he refuses to divulge.

This much is known:
Step one: he takes a sheet of paper and applies a slowly flowing liquid mixture.
Step two: tilting the paper, folding, holding steady – now concave, now convex the mixture runs, spreads, stains, and hardens.
Step three: let the image dry – appraise it.

The process isn’t finished as the image Martin selects will not stand alone but will be reflected and repeated as a part of larger set. As free and as uncontrolled as the original may be, it is not without a steering hand. “I make thousands of experiments,” he says. “The result may be unforeseeable, but I know what I’m doing.” Finally, by placing the unpredictable result within a diptych or a quaternity its impromptu vitality becomes geometrically stabilised.

Apart from the fact that it is he who applies the secret, inky-mastic, metallic mixture to the paper, Martin’s marbled, elongated forms are made with minimum interference. However, the minutely detailed, swirling turbine effect is something Martin is looking for, like panning for gold. Hundreds of intriguing, mucilaginous forms are rejected. Interfacial intensity and peripheral feathery ringlets are qualities that his mixture can achieve. The process is not haphazard.

Chance, accident and knowing when to stop play their role. The silver toned amalgam has the qualities of mercury. It elongates, sticks, has capillary edges and also (improbable) volume. The alchemical flux has a glutinous ability to flow back through and over itself – hovering between the qualities of paint, dye, glue, varnish and emulsion.

He assesses the virtues of each sinewy image with an eye towards its duplex or quadruplex possibilities. For now the details resemble skeletal glass, bony flumes with marrow of grit and plasma while the finished whole can take on a completely new appearance.

Art historian Peter Wakelin describes Martin Langford as a ‘magician’ who ‘casts an entirely different spell, with techniques known only to himself, which seem to travel into distant worlds of biology, metaphysics or science fiction.” (Wakelin, 1998) The Rorscharch Ink Blot test as well as pareidolia play their part. Martin uses them as a moment of decision when to stop his liquid actions. He himself doesn’t dwell on ‘seeing things’ but uses elements of projection to maximise hallucinogenic properties. “It’s up others what they see there,” he says.

Science fiction is a factor. For sci-fi effects, however, some borrowers of his work (for CD covers) add colour. Martin objects that colour overwhelms the fine detail his images excel at. He prefers their original icy glow.

Influences include Basil Wolverton at Mad Magazine and the ‘melting’ period of Salvador Dali. Ernst Haeckel (1834- 1919) German biologist and artist, using very early airbrush, is also very important.

Martin: “I took LSD in 1965 before it was well known. I was told I’d have a good laugh and I did before paranoia kicked in. It had a profound effect on my thinking. I entered Art School in Carmarthen and studied for 2 years. Later I spent three years in London doing menial office work. It was also a period of introspection and a search for meaning via various philosophies, psychologies and eastern religions. I learned Transcendental Meditation and continue to use a mantra but more as a relaxation technique rather than deep meditation.

German surrealist Hans Bellmer gets a mention, as well as American comic artists Robert Crumb and Robert Williams. Martin produces examples of their work. His flat is an archive of treasures – OZ, International Times and The Whole Earth Catalogue. Also Hapt, first produced in Bournemouth later Stroud – a gem of the 1960s.

Pushing the human form as grotesque caricature is a consideration. Equally subversive are his researches into the corrupting influence of American organised crime and the various ethnic groups involved especially Jewish, Italian, Irish and even Welsh in the form of Murray “The Hump” Humphries. His acquaintances include devoted Arthurian fantasists as well as contemporary gangsters. Chaos both benign and malignant hovers at the edge of his experiments.

Martin: I’ve always appreciated science, cosmology for a time, including Black Holes etc. I have had a long interest in Panspermia. I even attended a conference in Cardiff Uni where I met the major boffins involved and a few crackpots. For various reasons, it seems more plausible that microbial life came winging in from elsewhere on a comet and took hold when conditions were favourable. The idea pushes the origin elsewhere which irritates many who support biogenesis ideas.

As a child Martin grew up in a secure family environment. His father, Arthur Langford served as President of the Ice Cream Association of Great Britain. Langford’s ice cream was locally famous but going into the family firm was not for Marty the Martian. He left school at the age of fifteen and found a job in a shoe factory. After three years he quit and in his twenties reunited with his Garw Grammar school friend Howard Marks. Together they set up a global marijuana smuggling operation.

He recalls ice cream making with great affection – the heating, blending, watching the mix flow down cooling pipes and gather in open trays. This warm liquefaction and slow, cold coagulation echoes in the shapes of his art, the works he crystalizes and the works he rejects.

In prison he revised his pencil drawing but kept it private. “Too many cons,” he says, “ask an artist to draw their dog, or draw their girlfriend. It can become a nuisance.” He returned instead to collage using cut outs to play jokes on prison officers. On release he started using Photostats (a process of photocopying using negatives) to reproduce his art. The glowing preliminary negative and reversal of black and white prompted a new direction. He intensified his sudden engagement with Photostat and applied it to the viscous liquid he invented. While the earliest large scale works were cut and glued (where the joins can be seen) today’s technology accommodates images on screen and printing on a seamless single sheet. The early works are fascinating just because of the retro reproduction and the singular originality of the images.

Martin’s formal training includes studying at Carmarthen School of Art when Stanley Lewis was principal. He recalls Lewis, delighted that his teacher had his first one man show at the age of 101 (Lewis lived to be 103). He is also grateful for the rigours of traditional pencil work – again showing a preference for the qualities of silver and grey rather than colour. Martin recalls how, one day at college, following a period of free improvisation in the style of Jackson Pollock he seized upon an image of his own, ‘no bigger that your little fingernail’. This image captivated him and he found himself repeating it in dozens of variations. He believes that this moment still informs his art today.

Unlike Max Ernst who delighted in labelling his discoveries (frottage, grattage, oscillation, decalcomania) Martin has not coined a term for his own original method. The magic is in the alchemical compound. He confesses that asymmetrical composition remains unsatisfying for him. This seems reasonable when, after all, the irrational resists cerebral control.

Martin Langford’s art is cellular and primordial. His marks connect the contained with the uncontrolled just as cracks on a tortoiseshell connect a soothsayer with the beyond. Minute transparent detail and bold visceral gesture are what make them so compelling. Their fourfold resolution surpasses chance by presenting their autoschediastic origins in the form of an intuitive, fleshy mandala.

Wakelin, P; Art Review, April, 1998. No other information available


Click here for Martin Langford’s Images


David Greenslade is a widely published poet and prize-winning essayist. He recently co-edited William Brown in Wales and, in 2019, he curated Impertinent Distortions, a three-part art exhibition between Wales and Romania with its final installation at the Welsh Assembly Gallery.  Sometime in 2020, Contraband Books will publish his visual, multilingual collection, Ubiquitext  He lives in Cefn Cribwr, mid-way between Swansea and Cardiff.




  • murray grant

    amazing story Marty .. you have told us and hinted stuff over the few years I have known you but to read it in black and white is amazing .. Just like Marty ..amazing


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