The Voyages of En­rique Martínez Ce­laya

Em­pire: Sea & Em­pire: Land

Art On Cuba - - Cubans In The World - Rafael DiazCasas

Jack Shain­man Gallery / Septem­ber 10 – Oc­to­ber 24, 2015, Chelsea, New York

Me­taphors are the af­fir­ma­tion of po­etry and func­tion as the con­tent­ment of life. Many in­di­vid­u­als use them as pil­lars of ex­is­tence, like cycli­cal jour­neys through which they ex­er­cise lifepath con­ti­nu­ity. Em­pire: Sea & Em­pire: Land, the re­cent double ex­hi­bi­tion by En­rique Martínez Ce­laya (Los Pa­los, Cuba, 1964) at Jack Shain­man Gallery in Chelsea, is a com­plex al­le­gory to this process, a step into dark­ness, lone­li­ness and re­demp­tion as seen through the per­son­al­ized view of a whim­si­cal voy­age.

The ex­hi­bi­tion takes over the two pub­lic lo­ca­tions of the gallery, bring­ing to­gether a well cu­rated se­lec­tion of 27 art­works in­clud­ing paint­ings, sculp­tures and in­stal­la­tions—some of which were pre­sented as part of an ear­lier show at LA Lou­ver in Cal­i­for­nia. In Martínez Ce­laya's own words, re­fer­ring to Em­pire: Land (the solid base of the ref­er­enced cycli­cal process), “this project is a re­flec­tion on the seed of striv­ing, the soil in which that seed is planted, and why and how that seed is fed and wa­tered.”1 Mean­while, he de­scribes Em­pire: Sea as “a con­fronta­tion with the de­ci­sion to go some­where and the road un­folded by that de­ci­sion.”2

The show, at large, is a state­ment about process and tran­si­tion: mi­gra­tion as con­ti­nu­ity, mov­ing from one phys­i­cal place to an­other and from one state of mind to the next. Martínez Ce­laya pro­poses a nar­ra­tive with two main char­ac­ters which are avatars of hu­man­ity: the phys­i­cal be­ing (a boy) and the ethos or so­cial aware­ness (a uni­corn). They nav­i­gate a se­ries of at­mo­spheric moody paint­ings and in­stal­la­tions that have es­sen­tially en­crypted a sense of sad­ness and sor­row emerg­ing on both sides of the ex­hi­bi­tion. Martínez Ce­laya is ca­pa­ble of build­ing a com­plex co­he­sive multi-road nar­ra­tive in which view­ers can build every step of the jour­ney as they please, de­pend­ing on their per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence.

If the broader con­cern of Em­pire is our in­her­ent rest­less­ness, re­vealed through our love, dreams, lone­li­ness, nos­tal­gia, and de­spair, its fun­da­men­tal mo­ti­va­tion is the con­fronta­tion of be­ing and time. In this ex­hi­bi­tion, land is a metaphor for what is known, or at least imag­ined to be know­able. It be­comes a site of em­barka­tion as well as a des­ti­na­tion. The sea, on the other hand, is seen as sub­stan­tially se­cret, fa­cil­i­tat­ing the jour­ney while threat­en­ing to swal­low us into its wa­tery heart.

In Em­pire: Land the cy­cle moves through the earth, com­ment­ing on the voy­age of a boy-king who could well be a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the painter him­self, seem­ingly over­whelmed by the ways of new chal­lenges. This char­ac­ter is over­come, per­haps, by the state of mind pro­duced by his ideals of wealth and joy as op­posed to those of poverty and sad­ness, the di­chotomy be­tween dark­ness/ soli­tude/aban­don­ment and en­light­en­ment or as­cen­sion by knowl­edge (cog­nizance). The states of his jour­ney are care­fully crafted (con­structed); like a de­pic­tion of Je­sus Sta­tions of the Cross, they seem to be frozen flashes of his made-up re­al­ity.

The Em­pire is a large-size paint­ing that de­picts an en­chanted bare pin­na­cle of a moun­tain with a mist of en­ergy mov­ing to­ward it, a sym­bol for hu­mankind's knowl­edge and wis­dom. The en­ergy, con­noted by what could be de­scribed as shiny clouds of blaz­ing stars, also il­lu­mi­nates the vast dark closed sky of The Known, a black paint­ing of a boy seen from be­hind watch­ing an im­mense piece of for­est burned be­fore his eyes. Mean­while The Crown is a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the boy-king, dressed with royal at­tributes (cape and over­sized crown), look­ing lost within an in­hos­pitable snow-white for­est. Per­haps The Prodi­gal Son, a brown and white paint­ing of a for­est cabin on a snowy land­scape, with no win­dows and an open door (where the shadow of a boy ap­pears) rep­re­sents his ad­vance­ment.

The Cas­tle, a can­vas, and The Believer, a sand sculp­ture de­pict­ing a cas­tle, rep­re­sent the ma­te­ri­al­iza­tion of The Ac­knowl­edg­ment, a paint­ing of a di­aphanous, liq­uid-like vi­sion of the same cas­tle be­fore an in­fi­nite sun­set land­scape. The three ver­sions of the cas­tle are me­taphors for the boy-king's em­pire: stages of de­sire, ma­te­ri­al­iza­tion and loss. In this sec­tion of the ex­hi­bi­tion, Land be­comes a stand-in for the past, present and fu­ture, em­body­ing the ten­sion of a life cy­cle.

The cy­cle of chal­lenge and re­demp­tion of the boy-king's jour­ney is built with an im­pres­sive sim­plic­ity through­out each art­work, but Martínez Ce­laya uses twisted in­ter­con­nec­tions of a nar­ra­tive with an ob­scure feel­ing and a dim nos­tal­gic aura of par­adise lost. This highly in­tel­lec­tual ap­proach to paint­ing does not al­ways trans­late rhetor­i­cally on the pic­to­rial level, be­cause at times the works, viewed one by one, do not fully carry their own nar­ra­tive and are only part of the larger pic­ture.

For Martínez Ce­laya mak­ing art is a way to map and de­fine a world of his own. Pic­to­ri­ally, his in­ten­tion is to com­mu­ni­cate a com­plex in­ner realm that quite of­ten is lit­er­ally hid­den to view­ers, through lay­ers of black paint that on oc­ca­sions build beau­ti­ful dark sur­faces with trans­paren­cies and translu­cen­cies. In­ten­tion­ally he likes to walk away from the un­nec­es­sary rep­re­sen­ta­tion of beauty, but he does not al­ways suc­ceed. In essence, he has a high con­cept of beauty, be­liev­ing in its mag­nif­i­cence and the in­ca­pac­ity of artists to en­hance it—an ed­u­cated po­si­tion that, to some ex­tent, gives his works an in-process feel­ing.

Tech­ni­cally, Martínez Ce­laya has a pref­er­ence for work­ing the can­vas with oils and ap­ply­ing wax. His sur­faces are worked over, es­tab­lish­ing a con­ver­sa­tion that some­how, from the be­gin­ning, gives voice to the cre­ative course, with im­ages re­in­forced or deleted up to the point where they feel right. He con­sciously avoids reach­ing the sub­lime and di­vine.

The works at the ex­hi­bi­tion are rep­re­sen­ta­tional paint­ings fight­ing the idea of “rep­re­sen­ta­tion” it­self, be­cause he is look­ing to de­pict high ideas not recre­at­ing a spe­cific re­al­ity. They are built fol­low­ing a process of lay­er­ing paint over and over as a way of com­mu­ni­cat­ing his cre­ative self, build­ing im­ages (paint­ings) as he de­stroys them. Only the can­vas edges re­veal the lay­ers of paint­ing; they become and re­main silent wit­nesses of the elim­i­na­tion and ad­di­tion pro­cesses to which the works are sub­mit­ted. In Martínez Ce­laya's con­cep­tion, the ir­re­triev­able loss of each coat of the work process is fun­da­men­tal, be­cause some­thing of it lives within the art­works, be­com­ing part of their ac­tive en­ergy.

This ex­hi­bi­tion by Martínez Ce­laya is a state­ment about process and tran­si­tion: mi­gra­tion as con­ti­nu­ity, mov­ing from one phys­i­cal place to an­other and from one state of mind to the next…

At many lev­els his work gives the im­pres­sion of cre­at­ing a mys­tery, which also func­tions as a bar­rier for the viewer. He shies away from us­ing a di­rect nar­ra­tive, choos­ing in­stead to cre­ate po­etic phrases that are in­tended as in­ter­con­nec­tions from art­work to art­work. This is also a method used by Martínez Ce­laya to de­pict time with the pace that flows through­out much of the Latin Amer­i­can cul­tural con­text, a cu­rios­ity built after his in­ter­est in physics and phi­los­o­phy.

Em­pire: Sea is a pas­sage through the ocean. It re­flects the ethos of a per­son who has mi­grated, go­ing from one shore to the other, and its iconog­ra­phy achieves, at times, the om­nipo­tence of the bib­li­cal tale of Moses part­ing the sea to save his peo­ple. The nar­ra­tion in­volves fun­da­men­tal ques­tions re­lated to ex­ile: how the feel­ing of be­ing an out­cast and an ex­pa­tri­ate is, from the lonely trips to the big stam­pede, from the sole rafter in the Caribbean to the re­cent pil­grim­age from Asia to Europe. As in Land, the art­works are cre­ated us­ing dif­fer­ent medi­ums re­lated to the role they have within the nar­ra­tive.

The jour­ney is an ex­plo­ration to­ward the con­flu­ence, the shore, as a point of en­counter be­tween sea and land. This time it is the uni­corn (ethos) trav­el­ing to­ward The Watch of the Tri­umph, a can­vas de­pict­ing a dark cas­tle, per­haps the same one we saw in Em­pire: Land. The voy­age con­tin­ues in The Long Dream, a can­vas in which the uni­corn swims into a dark sea in­tend­ing to reach a shore. Mean­while it goes from The Be­gin­ning, an im­pres­sive can­vas of a night­time view of a dark sea un­der a moody sky, in which the quiet­ness of the serene si­lence of the sea builds up a dis­con­cert­ing feel­ing. The uni­corn (ethos), in an in­vis­i­ble man­ner, then passes through The Reign, a de­pic­tion of an an­gel­i­cal heav­enly seascape of the mo­ment after a thun­der­storm, in which light fil­trates through the clouds and over the sea.

The in­stal­la­tion El Cam­i­nante (The Walker), made by three burned chairs aligned in a row in dif­fer­ent states of de­te­ri­o­ra­tion, with one act­ing as base for a col­umn of ten suit­cases painted black, is per­haps an ideal metaphor for the ex­pe­ri­ence of mi­gra­tion. As life moves for­ward and we build new ex­pe­ri­ences, less mem­o­ries are kept; all the same, the bag­gage of the self con­tin­ues to pile up never leav­ing us.

The Relic and the Pure per­haps is a stop and an end in the jour­ney. In it, a boy, in a pos­ture of fa­tigue sug­gest­ing the end of a bat­tle, is rest­ing his head over the dead body of a stingray on a pier. The car­ti­lagi­nous body of the fish, with one eye re­vealed to the viewer, sug­gests a baf­fling hu­man­ity and trig­gers the ten­der­ness of the scene, im­ply­ing how our bat­tles may be shal­low or deep, like the di­verse types of habi­tat a stingray can have in the sea. The paint­ing has an in­scrip­tion in Span­ish: “el fuego de las alas para vencer la soledad y la ausen­cia” (the fire of the wings to over­come lone­li­ness and ab­sence). The Span­ish in­scrip­tion al­ludes to how in­tense a bat­tle can be for mi­grants to fight soli­tude and mem­o­ries of the lost places that had given form to their per­sonal his­to­ries.

Martínez Ce­laya crafts im­ages in com­pres­sion, pil­ing up large amounts of in­for­ma­tion at once, and does not play the pic­to­rial game of need­ing to be beau­ti­ful. Over­all, the paint­ings in the show con­vey dis­con­cert­ment and the soli­tude of space, ges­ture and ac­tion. De­cep­tively sim­ple, his com­po­si­tions look and feel fresh even though be­ing the re­sult of a long process of cre­ation and de­struc­tion.

His icono­graphic world is full of po­etic im­ages that are sin­cere, some­times au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal, and that sup­ple­ment an ex­po­nen­tial value of his own con­structed per­sona as an in­de­pen­dent thinker. Nonethe­less this pos­ture, which is a com­bi­na­tion of main­tain­ing a dual pro­file as a pub­lic per­sona and artist/ge­nius, at times seems to be a re­al­ity TV per­for­mance. In a given way the sense of over­in­for­ma­tion about and around his prac­tice cre­ates a par­al­lel noise that some­how kills the mys­tery and en­chant­ment of his al­lu­sive pic­to­rial world.

For Martínez Ce­laya, art is an eth­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence with the po­ten­tial of be­ing an ac­tive part of life and a way of search­ing for mean­ing and for our­selves. He came into the arts with an un­com­monly high­end back­ground in sci­ences, after re­al­iz­ing that the an­swers he was look­ing for in the uni­verse could only be an­swered by art, not sci­ence. He re­ceived an Ap­plied and En­gi­neer­ing Physics De­gree from Cor­nell Univer­sity, a Quan­tum Elec­tron­ics Masters from the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, and later stud­ied art at Skowhe­gan School of Paint­ing and Sculp­ture in Maine.

As a Cuban Amer­i­can deeply rooted in the United States, after liv­ing in Spain and Puerto Rico, Martínez Ce­laya is a cross gen­er­a­tional artist with a mul­ti­cul­tural life ex­pe­ri­ence that well in­forms his body of work. He ap­proaches art as a way of shak­ing off his own per­sonal his­tory, with the in­ten­tion of cre­at­ing an ex­is­ten­tial view in­formed by phi­los­o­phy and lit­er­a­ture.

The com­plex­ity of Martínez Ce­laya's per­sonal ex­ile does not ex­clu­sively come from leav­ing Cuba, a country in which he felt out of place. Rather, his per­sonal jour­ney of ex­ile ex­tends across a large pic­ture of his fam­ily's his­tory, start­ing from the time his grand­fa­ther im­mi­grated to Ha­vana from Malaga, Spain, some time dur­ing the past cen­tury. It is very re­fresh­ing not to see ob­vi­ous traces of Cuba in his work, even though he em­braces those years liv­ing in the is­land as a part of his life and re­mem­bers them with sad­ness and joy. All the same, icono­graph­i­cally his work shares a num­ber of sim­i­lar­i­ties with a se­ries of multi-gen­er­a­tional artists with a Cuban back­ground and com­mon life ex­pe­ri­ences, in­clud­ing Chris­tian Curiel, Her­nan Bas and An­thony Goicolea.

Martínez Ce­laya is plan­ning to show his art­work in Cuba for the first time, dur­ing a one-man show at the Na­tional Mu­seum of Fine Arts in Ha­vana, pro­jected for 2017 as part of an in­ter­na­tional itin­er­ant solo ex­hi­bi­tion. ƒ

The Prodi­gal Son, 2015 / Oil and wax on can­vas / 102 x 124 in The House (from the Land), 2015 / Oil and wax on can­vas / 12 x 16 in Cour­tesy the artist & Jack Shain­man Gallery

The Relic and the Pure, 2013-2015 / Oil and wax on can­vas / 61 ¾ x 79 ¾ x 2 ½ in (framed) / Cour­tesy the artist & Jack Shain­man Gallery

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