February 18, 2004
Entering into a discussion with Enrique Martinez Celaya about his art, one must come with his brain engaged. Celaya scoffs at the idea of art being about pretty decorations for the house. Aiming to have his art touch the human experience, Celaya’s work raises the same issues addressed by Heidegger and Schubert, themes of childhood and death, and contemplates the particular physical space that will house each of his series of works.
“People are so interested in paintings as decoration, something pretty to put on their walls, like another piece of furniture,” said the 39-year-old Celaya. “But I think, what else would you want to do with art? I’m interested in making a body of work that works toward clarifying life rather than making product or commodities.”
Celaya’s latest work, currently at the Baldwin Gallery, does plenty. “Boy,” a series of oil paintings, drawings and sculpture, examines the basics of humanity: the parent-child bond, our relationship with the natural world, a being’s cognizance of itself. The series also makes exquisite use of the specifics of the Baldwin Gallery: The front room holds light-hued paintings, serving as a visual contrast to the darker tones of the back room.
Though Celaya has no autobiographical intentions for the art, the “Boy” series draws on personal concerns. The predominant image in the series is a boy ” naked, alone, shoulders hunched. He is depicted at various ages, from infancy to adolescence. And he is generally found in the outdoors, amidst winter conditions. The winter scenes ” realized not only with the ever-present snowfall, but with Celaya’s icy blues as well ” are meant to fit in with the Aspen winter setting of the exhibit. But for Celaya, a Cuban native who lived in Spain and Puerto Rico before settling in his current home of Los Angeles, there is also personal history to the climate.
“When I first arrived in Spain, that was the first time I saw winter,” said Celaya, whose parents ” a father who worked on a sugar cane plantation, and a mother who taught literature ” moved the family to Madrid when Celaya was 8. “All that whiteness, all this coldness was a shock. Winter seemed like other, something external to myself. And winter seems to be like an internal landscape.”
The birth, nearly a year ago, of Celaya’s first son, Sebastian, got the artist reflecting back to his own feelings of childhood. (Celaya has already made a series of works, “Gabriela,” in tribute to his daughter, now 2 1/2.) Celaya’s thoughts turned to vulnerability, the cold, the transition from boyhood to manhood. He began making such works as “December 2003,” featuring a naked, faceless adolescent in the snow, possibly holding his penis; and “The servant as a child,” a sculpture in dirt, tar, straw and steel of a young boy, covered with a transparent silk gown.
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“The aspect of winter is the backdrop for the exploration of the theme in this show ” a boy, coming of age,” said Celaya. “It’s my life, his future, compressed together. It’s not autobiographical, but something I’m close to.”
Celaya relates the wintry tones, the lonely boy and the images of trees, rivers and birds to “Winterreise,” Schubert’s gloomy masterpiece of a solitary soul on a snowy landscape. In the way he reflects upon himself in the series, Celaya sees connections to Heidegger’s theories of existentialism.
“Part of it has to do with looking at a young boy,” said Celaya, a published poet who writes poetry related to each series and is working on his first novel. (His B.A. degree from Cornell is in physics, and Celaya did graduate work in quantum electronics at Berkeley before moving to the graduate fine arts program at the University of California, Santa Barbara.) “That forced me to go back and look at my childhood ” how do you make a boy into a man? Also, the regrets and questions of the past. And I overlay that with a future that my son hasn’t had yet. That allows me to explore preoccupations of mine ” questions of being and becoming, the philosophy of Heidegger. And within that, the question of the permanent versus the temporary. You become very aware when you have a kid of how temporary it all is.”
Parenthood also brings with it an enormous sense of vulnerability, which might be the foremost of the issues raised by Celaya. In “A plain path,” an infant is alone, on his back naked, outdoors, snow falling. What could be more vulnerable ” except possibly the parent observing this scene?
“The fact that they’re naked in winter ” at a very basic level, they’re exposed,” said Celaya. “They seem fragile and vulnerable. But I also want a certain strength to emerge from them.”
As if each work were not weighty enough, Celaya also conceives each series as an integrated whole. The way he has divided the Baldwin Gallery into light and dark works is dynamic visually and thematically. Among the dark-toned paintings is “The Future,” the one piece that features adults ” a man and a pregnant woman, representing the beginning of the boy’s life cycle. The sculpture “The child as a servant” is positioned at a back corner of the gallery, serving as a witness to the exhibit.
“I want the paintings to have a dialogue with each other and with the sculpture,” said Celaya, who recently left his 10-year position as an art professor at Los Angeles’ Pomona College. “I want there to be something that draws them together, to have a conceptual force. Paintings always have this implicit need for a witness. No witness, no engagement, no dialogue. And the answer is always outside the paintings. It’s in the interaction.”
For all the thematic density, however, Celaya’s work is remarkably accessible. Many of his paintings are, in fact, pretty pictures. Moreover, his imagery and ideas are so universal and fundamental that they can’t help but have an emotional impact.
“One thing you’ll never find in my work is anything that requires culture to understand it,” said Celaya. “The images are very plain, very simple. I use the building blocks of everyone’s experiences.”
Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com