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Enrique Martínez Celaya: Nomad

by Peter Boswell


In the central painting of Enrique Martínez Celaya's new painting cycle, Nomad, a leopard moves through a wintry northern landscape. A native of the African savannah, it is out of place in this snow-covered realm. Rendered as a black silhouette, it is a phantom, a hole in the white expanse. The entire painting is rendered in shades of black and white, ranging from rich charcoal grays to creamy yellow whites. The paint handling is cursory, broad strokes and liquid drips. The landscape is largely defined only by a band of trees that mark the horizon. The overall impression is of harsh light. At the center is the dark form of the leopard, mysterious in its silhouetted obscurity and the incongruity of its presence in this Nordic habitat. He is a traveler out of place in time and space.

The painting is flanked by four large canvases, equally tall but not as wide. They represent the four seasons and are rendered in vibrant colors. In the center of each is a near-identical image of an adolescent girl bearing a leopard draped across her shoulders. The leopard hangs lifeless, in contrast to the muscled vitality of the cat in the central painting. Although the paint handling is also rough in these paintings, they are more heavily worked. Layers of translucent color create a complex, painterly space that stands in sharp contrast to the assertive flatness of the central painting.

The presence of the leopard-carrying girl in the four seasons paintings underscores the fact that it is the differences in the landscape that distinguish these paintings from each other. The landscapes have common features -- an elevated horizon, a river, a sense of vastness and emptiness -- yet clearly depict different locales. Like the leopard, the girl travels through time and space to unknown ends, though now he is her burden. Her repeated presence in these four scenes evokes a dream-like mix of change and stasis.

Nomad is an ambitious cycle of paintings that Cuban-born artist Enrique Martinez Celaya has created especially for this exhibition. Although themes of exile and migration have informed his work for years, it has only been in the past months that the artist has confronted them head-on in his work.[1] Martinez Celaya's family fled Cuba in 1972, when he was eight years old. In Guide, a fictionalized account of a journey in which Martinez Celaya considers the meaning and purpose of art, the artist writes, "I think I leaped from a cliff when we left Cuba," and concludes, "My exile makes me a stranger to myself."

The family moved first to Spain, then to Puerto Rico. When it came time for college, he came to the United States, getting his undergraduate degree in applied physics from Cornell University. He subsequently enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, pursuing a PhD in quantum electronics.

But Martinez Celaya eventually decided to abandon his career in science in favor of an exploration of philosophy and art, a move seemingly impelled by a sense of alienation stemming from his family's migration. "The questions science can answer were not the questions that were pressing on my mind," he has stated. The art historian Daniel Siedell has perceptively written, 'Although he ultimately chose to pursue art rather than physics, Martinez Celaya did not choose the 'personal' or 'subjective' over the 'universal' or 'objective.' He carried the scientific quest for objectivity, universality, and truth into his art-making. For Martinez Celaya art is... about using aesthetic form to reveal truth. And truth for Martinez Celaya is not merely linguistic or mathematical, but existential, incorporating both the objective and the subjective."[2]

Martinez Celaya was attracted in particular to the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, who argued that the only certainty in life was death, and that our task was to live a life of authenticity in the face of this inevitability. "Authenticity," Martinez Celaya wrote in a lecture given in Berlin in 2004, "involves living with the anxiety of death and creates responsibility for Being; certainty of the end means we are accountable in life. Or perhaps more concretely: we are accountable at every moment."

In light of Martinez Celaya's emphasis on art-making as an ethical enterprise, process has been an essential component of his method. The "working" or "worrying" of the painting is how, in the artist's mind, the painting eventually gains some degree of authenticity. Nothing that is easily arrived at is to be trusted. As he has put it, "Formal questions within the work are manifested in a constant struggle for meaning."

Until very recently, emulsified tar was a key ingredient in Martinez Celaya's painted works. One aspect of the tar that Martinez Celaya valued most, in addition to its dark, brooding sobriety, was its unpredictability. Depending on how it was mixed and how it reacted with paints and solvents, the tar would break down and change colors, ranging from deep rich blacks to dirty browns. The unpredictability of the tar, equivalent to the uncertainties in life, forced the artist to repeatedly rework his paintings, adding layer after layer, until he achieved a satisfactory result.

The imagery in Martinez Celaya's paintings would also undergo radical revisions in the course of their development. Figures and objects would come and go. Men or boys would turn into women or girls. Trees would turn into mountains into seas. Visitors to his studio were likely to be unable to identify works they had seen the last time they were there.

By contrast, Nomad, with its four seasons paintings framing the black-and-white central painting, is a set piece. Martinez Celaya knew exactly what he was going to paint when he embarked on the series. There was no search for imagery, no mountains that turned into trees, boys that turned into girls, or dark that turned into light. This is not to say, however, that process is not still a key ingredient of these works. Only that the process has changed dramatically and the quest for authenticity manifests itself not through changing imagery, but through wrestling with how that imagery is rendered.

Working simultaneously on all five canvases, Martinez Celaya began each work by drawing its basic composition in black paint. For the most part, the basic features of the paintings changed little. Instead, the artist superimposed layers of translucent color to achieve a sense of depth. He then intentionally obliterated sections of the landscape with an alien color and forced himself to repaint the landscape, in his words "attacking" the image, "destroying" it in order to "see how much it could take." In this way, the artist tested his conviction with the image, reaffirming its 'rightness" or authenticity. Though the subject and composition may have been pre-determined, each painting was repeatedly fought for and recovered and in this way made "rawer" and "more vital."

In these works, Martinez Celaya has abandoned the use of tar, working instead with an oil-and-wax mixture whose effects vary from translucent washes to bright, bold colors. The result is a new coloristic freedom, as seen in the successive layered washes of the thinned oil-and-wax mixture in Verano (Summer), the strong solid colors of the flowers in Primavera (Spring), and the prismatic effects in lnvierno (Winter). Not surprisingly the most extensive use of bright color is in Otoño (Autumn). The central painting of the leopard has remained black and white, though Martinez Celaya worked the painting by adding different shades and densities of white and thinning the black to create shades of gray.

Though the feelings of alienation and homelessness found in Nomad may be rooted in the story of Martinez Celaya's exile from Cuba, there is little that is overtly autobiographical in these works. All of the paintings feature northern landscapes -- vast expanses of snow interrupted by the occasional tree, treeless meadows, or brilliant foliage. There is something odd about a Cuban artist painting such Nordic scenes, especially for those who subscribe (consciously or not) to conventional ideas of cubanidad. The barrenness of the landscape can be read as an expression of emotional desolation, but at the same time Martinez Celaya will speak about the clarifying, cleansing quality of harsh cold. His attraction to such a foreign climate is a measure of his sense of deracination and estrangement: it is when the environs are so alien to his experience that he begins to feel a sense of belonging, of not being out of place. Their very unfamiliarity becomes something of a comfort.

The attention to nature found in the seasons paintings reflects the influence of the writings of Harry Martinson, a Swedish poet, essayist and novelist who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1974, but is little known outside his native country. His life story has obvious attractions for Martinez Celaya. Abandoned at an early age by his mother, he spent his childhood in foster homes and never attended school after his thirteenth year. He went to sea at age sixteen, wandering around the globe as a deckhand on steamers before tuberculosis forced him to return to Sweden. His earliest books of poems, Ghost Ship (1929) and Nomad (1931) reflect the experiences of his seafaring years. Subsequently, Martinson became known for his nature writing, focusing on the landscapes of his native Sweden.

The four seasons paintings are united through the presence of the young girl. Even though the landscape around her changes, as does the time of the year, she is always the same. With the exception of Otoño (Autumn), with its flaming trees that obscure their surroundings, the landscapes she stands in are broad, open expanses that dwarf her presence. She passes unchanging through time and space, looking out at you the viewer to confirm her existence and acknowledge her plight. Like a figure out of myth or fable, she seems doomed to wander, eternally bearing her burden.

The leopard recalls Giuseppe di Lampedusa's celebrated novel of the same name. The "leopard" of the novel is Don Fabrizio Corbera, a Sicilian aristocrat who lives through unification of Italy in 1860 and struggles to come to terms with the prospects of his dying line in the new republic. In view of Martinez Celaya's own concern with death, it is possible to think of this series as a meditation on loss, on passage, on legacy. But rather than trying to pin down the meaning of this evocative series -- why kill the leopard? -- perhaps it is best to take note of some words Martinez Celaya penned in a notebook page as he worked on it: "I would like not to say much about the ideas. It only leads to confusion... The work is ­fundamentally ­ impenetrable to me. Why shouldn't it be to someone else?"

1. Immediately prior to the Nomad series. Martinez Celaya completed a series of eight paintings titled Paintings on the Duration of Exile.

2. Quoted in Daniel A. Siedell. "The October Cycle. 2000-2002." Enrique Martinez Celaya: The October Cycle, 2000-2002. Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery and Sculpture Gardens, University of Nebraska-Lincoln. 2003. p. 16.


About the author

Peter Boswell has been Assistant Director for Programs/Senior Curator at the Miami Art Museum since September 1999. He is responsible for oversight of all activities of the curatorial and education departments at the museum, including exhibitions and public programs. Exhibitions he has curated at MAM include Miami Currents: Linking Collection and Community (with Lorie Mertes and Cheryl Hartup) (2002); New Work: Donald Lipski (2002); New Work: Teresita Fernández (2002); New Work: Roberto Behar and Rosario Marquardt (2003); Between Art and Life: From Joseph Cornell to Gabriel Orozco (2004); Robert Rauschenberg (2005); Wangechi Mutu (2005); Mapping Space: Selections from the Collection, Vik Muniz: Reflex (2006,) Power of Ten (2007), and Jan Dibbets: Perspective Collection (2007). Prior to joining MAM, Mr. Boswell served for three years as Heiskell Arts Director at the American Academy in Rome and for 10 years on the curatorial staff of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Mr. Boswell has a BA with a major in Art History from the University of California, Berkeley, and an MA in Art History from Stanford University.


Resource Library editor's note:

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Mitch Snow, Communications Coordinator, Miami Art Museum, for his help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.


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