Enrique Martinez Celaya: Fighting the narrative pull - Art Collector

Issue 56, April - June 2011

It’s hard not to. When you stand in front of a figurative painting, the mind searches for meaning, the story behind it all. But as Gillian Serisier writes, Enrique Martínez Celaya’s paintings don’t give in so easily. Instead, he fights with our need for narrative, setting up tensions and discontinuities intended to unsettle and disarm.

The work of Cuban-born artist Enrique Martínez Celaya is never quite what it seems. The images are initially charming yet as we come closer something desolate and unsettling is revealed. The paint becomes smeared, translucent layers refuse the eye’s focus, the figure is shown to be clumsy or the sprouting branch too clichéd.

As Martínez Celaya explains: “I think that because people get so seduced by images they overlook the problems the paintings bring forth, people tend to look at things lightly.” With deeper viewing, however, the narrative of Martínez Celaya’s figures becomes overwhelmed and obscured by the encroaching landscape as mood and emotion seep into place. His latest work continues this theme of exile and the displaced, where landscape is effectively an omnipresent god, unconcerned, non-interventionist and oblivious to the fragility and plight of man.

Martínez Celaya’s career to date has been one of extraordinary and exponential leaps. Born in 1964 in Cuba, he migrated with his family to Spain and then Puerto Rico, where he was apprenticed to an artist.

In 1981 he moved again, this time to Cornell University in New York state where he had won a scholarship. He was on the brink of completing a PhD in quantum electronics when he chose a different path. He found he preferred to spend his time painting and in 1994 he graduated from the University of California with a Masters of Fine Art.

Since then he has exhibited internationally with institutions including Simon Lee Gallery, London and the Berliner Philharmonie, Berlin. His work is included in collections such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum der Bildenden Künste in Leipzig, Germany. At present, he works and lives in Florida, where his Whale & Star Studio functions as both a publishing house and an art studio.

In October of 2010, Martínez Celaya installed a major body of work in the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine in New York. That his own stance is secular, though philosophically ethical, allowed him to question the innate assumptions surrounding the exhibition. “Painting for a cathedral is interesting because it must contend with a special kind of reverence,” he says. “When I told my dealers I was showing the work in a cathedral there were some concerns of possible religious readings. That, in the art world, is real danger – to talk about seriousness; authenticity. The context of the gallery is one sort of exhibition, but in a cathedral, people go with real issues, so the paintings must stand against that devotion, that state of being. That was, for me, more challenging than painting for a gallery.”

Concurrently, some 19 works from his series The Wanderer were exhibited at the Museum of Biblical Art, New York. Again, Martínez Celaya distances himself from the literal reading, preferring to undermine the subject in favour of the painting. “If there is a biblical reference, it is what percolates through life and culture, and so the reference has no specific pointer. Nonetheless, it is problematic and interesting to show non-religious art within the church. My desire is not one of storytelling, but rather to set tensions between the desire to narrate and the elements constantly undermining that desire. So I’m painting without the need to create a narrative, which often comes at the expense of the painting. It’s necessary to sabotage narrative readings because what interests me is the moment when life becomes discontinuous and that is not a narrative event.”

The work Martínez Celaya has created for his forthcoming exhibition in Sydney takes its central theme from a sculptural work of a young boy hauling a house on his back. While the initial image is compelling, there is something uncomfortable about the presence. The weight is strange, but so too is the lack of sheen, an effect created by welding and burnishing the surface to provide a metaphor of burning. For Martínez Celaya, it is a work that allows him to continue to “explore the facets of this space, this mental space I am exploring: of burden; memory; of landscape and what that does.”

The five paintings that accompany the sculpture are described by Martínez Celaya as “rougher in the way I handle them, less stable in the world they allude to, not just in terms of the imagery, but in the feeling I get. It is a slightly stranger world, a more threatening world.” As always, the work will grow with each viewing as painting and narrative tussle it out and the rich undercurrent reveals itself. •

New work by Enrique Martínez Celaya will be exhibited at Liverpool Street Gallery in Sydney from 23 April to 19 May 2011.

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