A few nights ago, I had the privilege of visiting the Culver City studio of Enrique Martinez Celaya, whose work I have long admired, together with a small group from ArtTable. Martinez Celaya moved back to Los Angeles two years ago after a ten-year hiatus, during which time he lived in South Florida (where he retains a studio) and Berlin. Martinez Celaya is an old-fashioned artist in the sense that he paints in oil and wax on canvas and creates sculptures cast in bronze that are rendered in a representational manner. However, his works go beyond naturalism to embrace poetry, poignancy and wonder, being rich in implied narrative and displaying a deep-rooted humanism. Each provides a journey into its own world and experience. Each is layered in thought and shrouded in mystery.
The large, impressive studio complex is entered, appropriately enough, through a library. White, pristine and lined with books (poetry, literature and philosophy), photographs and mementos, it establishes the tone for the at once intellectually conceived and boundlessly imaginative art encountered within.
A five-foot-tall birdcage whose shape echoes that of the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s childhood home is among the first works encountered in the studio’s main gallery, which presents work the artist has retained for his personal collection. Entitled The Nursery (2015), the cage is inhabited by two flame-colored canaries, the brilliant orange mixed with their natural yellow coloration deriving from the carrots that form part of their diet. A Felix Gonzalez-Torres-like stack of xeroxed sheets of paper positioned alongside the cage feature an enlarged copy of a page from Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation; a single sheet also lines the bottom of the cage, catching the birds’ droppings. The piece pays homage to Schopenhauer’s intellect and ideas, while, as Martinez Celaya proffered in his journal entry (March 4, 2015), seeking to evoke a sense of the philosopher’s childhood loneliness.
Among the paintings nearby is The Burning (Mandelshtam), 2006, an enormous canvas representing a bird with spread wings who miraculously emerges from a burning tree (the title refers to the celebrated early 20th century Russian poet Osip Mandelshtam). The top edge of the painting reveals that underlying the gray sky of this darkly romantic landscape is another of bright blue. This is an exaggerated version of the unfinished or frayed edges often found in Martinez Celaya’s paintings, which, like the drips seen on The Burning (Mandelshtam)‘s surface, “fray representation” (to use the artist’s phrase), his desire being to reveal the illusion of his images so as to assert their place in the realms of mind and imagination.
Positioned alongside The Burning (Mandelshtam) was The Turn (2013), a painting of equal size, but of a contrasting temperature, motif and palette. Executed in grisaille, it too presents a large central mass, but here it is an iceberg isolated in a colorless sea. The juxtaposition of these works was “curated” to maximum effect and while they were executed years apart and belong to different series, they serve as a reminder of Martinez Celaya’s mastery of installation.
Martinez Celaya’s work has generally proceeded from one exhibition to the next. For each show, yet another body of works is produced whose forms and content are carefully orchestrated not only among themselves, but so as to unfold as the viewer moves through the exhibition (three-dimensional models of several of the spaces for which he has planned environmental installations hang against one of his studio walls). Each exhibition finds its inception in the artist’s journal in which he conceptualizes its basic themes and motifs. He draws in his writings upon philosophy, poetry and literature, upon fairy tales, dreams and childhood memories as well as upon his contemporary perceptions of the world and the experience of artmaking.
At the time of my visit, Martinez Celaya was preparing for show of portraits that will be held late this spring at the London gallery, Parafin. He was working in two separate studio spaces on about a dozen paintings, moving them along at different rates. Some were mere sketches, while others appeared finished (although he declared that even these would probably undergo change). Martinez Celaya paints directly on canvas, without making preliminary drawings. He indicated that although each work is begun as a portrait of an actual person–Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, for example, and other writers, as well as some well known artists and Pop stars–the paintings over time become generalized as he intends them to be representations of particular feelings or ideas, rather than specific individuals. An enormous child’s head in bronze (recalling Brancusi’s naturalistic Head of a Sleeping Child, 1908, but on a colossal scale) will be part of the exhibition. It will not be situated in the gallery, but on the city street about a block away, as a beacon for the show. The child’s head in this context would seem to serve as a symbol for human potential, offering the suggestion that if properly nurtured, the child might emerge to an adulthood of artistic fulfillment akin to that of the men and women in Martinez Celaya’s painted portraits.
In reflecting upon Martinez Celaya’s focus on childhood and naturalistic style of representation, particularly as seen in his works on paper in the studio’s upstairs gallery, I was struck by the compatibility between his artistic production and that of the New York-based artist Kiki Smith. Martinez Celaya and Smith share a preoccupation with implied narrative and fairy tales, as well as with flora and fauna. Although Smith tends to draw on paper rather than paint, both artists create richly evocative work in two and three dimensions, the latter ranging from freestanding sculptures in bronze to environmental installations.
The full spectrum of Martinez Celaya’s production–his paintings, sculptures, installations, writings and more–will soon be available in a major, large format monograph being published by Radius Books. It is the first book to span the career of an artist who conjures images that linger in the mind long after they are seen. One such work is Primavera (Spring), the first painting by Celaya that I ever saw. It is illustrated here in tribute to my treasured colleague, the late Paula Harper, who called the exhibition Enrique Martinez Celaya: Nomad to my attention at the Miami Art Museum in late 2007.
With thanks to Tellef Tellefson and Tessa Blumenberg of the Enrique Martinez Celaya Studio for the installation shots seen here.