Painter Celaya creates art for the artist’s sake
Enrique Martínez Celaya confesses to having a “very narrow and demanding view of art” – a statement that students in Celaya’s class last week at Anderson Ranch Arts Center, Painting and Meaning, seem unlikely to dispute. In class, Celaya has been critical of otherwise celebrated artists, and has been demanding of his students, at least some of whom have embarked on promising careers. In an interview, he was categorically dismissive of art that emphasizes literal content. “I find that kind of talk not as productive. People talk about political concerns, autobiographical concerns, what they want the art to convey,” he said. “None of these things are important to me.”Perhaps even narrower than the window of art that interests him is the audience that he hopes will find him interesting. Celaya says the audience he has in mind when he makes art – which overlaps entirely with those who influence him – are writers, not painters. And, he adds, they are all deceased: Osip Mandelstam, an early 20th-century Russian poet; Harry Martinson, a Swedish poet who died in 1978; Paul Celan, a Romanian-born, German-speaking Jewish poet who also died in the ’70s. Celaya mentions two better-known influences as well: Melville and Borges.”I’m painting for an audience that I have very much selected – the thinkers I like, the painters I like,” said Celaya, who is both a painter and poet himself – as well as a sculptor, essayist and former student of physics and quantum mechanics. “Very clearly so, that is who I am painting for and all of them are dead. Writing is a huge part of my work. They’re a huge influence on my work – not just the content, but the structure. People always think it’s the image, the content. But it’s more the character and approach to writing.”
Left out of his field of vision is the typical visitor to a gallery, looking to spend a half-hour being culturally enriched. “I can’t be worrying whether it will satisfy someone who spends 20 minutes a month thinking about painting,” said Celaya. After a second’s pause, he asked me: “Does that sound harsh?”It didn’t. Celaya, a very handsome 43-year-old native of Cuba, strikes me as serious-minded rather than hard-hearted. And looked at another way, he is not really painting for an audience at all – neither the dead poets, nor the casual viewer. The main purpose of his art is to serve as an instrument for Celaya himself to delve into the philosophical enquiries that occupy him.”I’m interested in art as an ethical enquiry,” he said. “Not that it has ethical content” – that is, he’s not trying to convey an ethical message to viewers – “but that it is a tool for a clarification of life. In practice, that means I’m often struggling with very fine philosophical distinctions to be useful to me as I move through the world.”When I asked him if could explain this philosophical quest, Celaya had an example at the ready. He mentioned “The garment,” an oil and wax on canvas, which is featured in his current exhibit at the Baldwin Gallery in Aspen. The painting features a woman, possibly a young girl, standing naked in an icy-blue landscape. One arm is cut off at the elbow. The figure had a pair of full arms when the work was started, Celaya explained, but as he delved into the piece, the body became partly dismembered.”I began to understand risk and fear,” he said. “That recognition allows me to walk through life differently.”Life seems often so difficult. At least for me. In an art work, I try to – try to; it might not be – make something larger than its limitations. That’s comforting. That’s a validation of life.”
Celaya has become a semi-regular summertime visitor to Aspen. But the coincidences that have piled up on his latest visit cannot be explained by his growing familiarity with the area.Two and a half years ago, the Baldwin Gallery scheduled the current exhibit, which opened last month and shows through July 23. (Celaya has been represented by the gallery since 1998.) The class he is giving at Anderson Ranch was put on the calendar last year. Sometime after the class was scheduled, Anderson Ranch decided to name Celaya the recipient of its 2007 National Artist Award; fortuitously, the Recognition Dinner at which he will be honored coincided with the exhibit and the class. (The event is set for Thursday, July 12 at the Snowmass Club. Also being honored, with the Service to the Arts Award, are Kay and Matthew Bucksbaum.)When Celaya learned that the Canadian rock band Cowboy Junkies would be appearing in Aspen on Friday, July 13 – the day he was scheduled to leave – he changed his travel plans so that he could catch the concert at Belly Up. Celaya is not only a fan, and not only a friend of the band’s songwriter and guitarist Michael Timmins, but a collaborator with Cowboy Junkies. Last year saw the publication of “XX,” a book that combines photos of the band, lyrics to Cowboy Junkies’ songs, and 25 of Celaya’s watercolors, matched to individual songs. The book, a commemoration of the band’s 20th anniversary, was published by Celaya’s own Whale and Star imprint.
“One of the things I love about them is it’s very existential, very complex,” said Celaya, who had the band play a song, “Mining for Gold,” at the opening of his exhibit “The October Cycle” – featuring all black paintings – a few years ago in Los Angeles. “But also very simple. There aren’t too many things going on there. You don’t see the grand themes at first.”Celaya’s early attraction to Cowboy Junkies came through seeing that he and Timmins shared a lot of concerns in their art. When Celaya first approached the band, Margo Timmins – Michael’s sister, and the band’s singer – thought he was a “crazy, lunatic kind of fan.” But Celaya gave her one of his books, and she saw the link between his writing and painting and the band’s music.Cowboy Junkies have put forth a serious, even dark vibe from the outset. The band’s name comes from “Cowboy Junkies’ Lament,” a song by the late songwriter Townes Van Zandt, in which he hopes he’ll die before things get worse. The band, like Celaya, gets much of its inspiration directly from literature; in an interview last year with The Aspen Times, Margo cited the influence of Cormac McCarthy, known for his tough-minded stories. The band’s sound is moody and atmospheric; Michael’s lyrics, which read like poetry, are addressed to death, loneliness, dark memories and, in the particularly chilling “December Skies,” which closes “XX,” Sept. 11.Celaya’s current show at the Baldwin Gallery bears the title, “another show for the leopard.” The pieces feature images familiar to his work: cold colors, naked bodies, blank expressions. An air of vulnerability lingers over the work.The “leopard” part of the title comes from Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s 1960 novel. The book tracks the fall of an aristocratic Italian family; the leopard, to Celaya, is a symbol not only of “a harsher, less controlled aspect of consciousness, but also the collapsing of Lampedusa’s family.”
Family, and its potential pitfalls, never seems far from Celaya’s mind. He has three children, all under 6. His last Aspen exhibit, in 2004, was titled “Boy,” which explored parent-child bonds, coming of age, and the vulnerability of children. The artist said that series raised issues of “the permanent versus the temporary. You become very aware when you have a kid of how temporary it all is.”For Celaya, engaging in art is a constant reminder of the struggle in life. The first part of the current show’s title – “another show” – suggests disappointment, weariness.”There’s a letdown. It’s another show – another time you have to walk through this passage,” he said. “It implies futility and that’s important. Making art is always struggling against the impossible. Not all art, but the art I’m interested in, the people I like, it’s always about trying to hold onto great complexities, and tries to give form to the inexpressible, the Kantian idea of the sublime. Because of that, art is bound up with failure.”The philosophical nature of Celaya’s work doesn’t negate the expression of emotion. But a viewer won’t find obvious, or overt emotions in his work. His subjects tend to be ambiguous, blank slates, taking in more than they reveal.”There’s always emotion in deep reflection,” he said. “But it’s not emotion that becomes happy or sad; it’s more complex than that. You look at your child, and it’s emotional. But it’s too complex to break down.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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