The Voyages of Enrique Martínez Celaya
Empire: Sea & Empire: Land
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.
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
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