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October 19, 2002 - November 30, 2002 at Griffin Contemporary, Venice

by Nancy Kay Turner

“Landscape (Breath)” (detail), 2002,
oil and tar on canvas, 78 x 100”.

“Light,” 2002, oil and tar
on canvas, 72 x 66”.

“Boat Boy," 2002, oil and
tar on canvas, 78 x 100”.

“The Transpierced (Morning),” 2002,
oil and tar on canvas, 100 x 78”.

Tar: A dark, oily, viscid mixture consisting mainly of hydrocarbons produced by the disctinctive distillation of organic substances such as wood, coal or peat.

Cuban-born artist Enrique Martinez Celaya's enticing, large-scale, black tar paintings from the October Cycle are not what they seem. At first, one is struck by the their very starkness. They seem to be attempting to articulate feelings that are pre-verbal. Images float to the tip of consciousness or the tip of the tongue but cannot be described. Each painting has a subtle narrative that is gently laid onto and into the all-enveloping, mysterious black void.

In Landscape (Breath) there is the outline of a man, apparently lost in thought, head bent forward. A gauzy aura encases him in a moth-like chrysalis. Like an x-ray, we see inside this Everyman. But unlike an x-ray, which is only black and white, we can see a red streak, like a bleeding heart at the core of this figure. A larger, barely discernible black shadow clings to the figure, and hovering above it is a horizontal evanescent presence that seems like two connected ghostly figures. The figure, hermetically sealed by the rich, thick tar, is stuck--whether by his own thoughts, pain or isolation is not clear.

Celaya's ability to suggest complex relationships with sparse and reductive means is demonstrated in the extraordinary dyptich entitled Rosemilk. At first glance this seems like a landscape. A small tree with two limbs overlaps a larger tree trunk with two outstretched limbs. However, the meaning and relationships in this evocative and poetic work begin to shift and change as you continue to look. The trees become more human: the smaller tree suggests a child reaching for a parent. The outlines of the second figure remind one of a person with outstretched arms, and even suggest Christ on the cross. This elegant painting, with its beautifully drawn, breathtakingly simple calligraphic line contrasted against the painterly background filled with solids, voids and drips, suggests the state of yearning.

In the spiritual painting Light Celaya again mines complex relationships from a minimum of visual clues. An almost formless, barely discernible form exists in a gorgeous, velvety brown surface. There is the suggestion of a duality, as the image can be seen as a tree trunk with two limbs, or a human with a torso and two outstretched arms. Between the limbs, a burst of light emanates. When this image is seen as a landscape, the light appears to be sunlight filtering through the trees. When read as a human being the light appears, like Kirlian photography, to be the traces of energy flowing from the brain--perhaps a rumination on creativity.

Many of the works seem autobiographical, such as Boat Boy. Celaya and his family emigrated from Cuba to Madrid, Spain, and eventually ended up in America. In this nostalgic painting a large, folded newspaper boat floats ebulliantly forward as it heads into the unknown. We can see that the buoyant boat is bound for a tumultuous and dangerous waterfall. The tension between these two large and equally compelling images is stark. One can speculate on Celaya's own personal diaspora and extrapolate to the Cuban refugees as well. At the same time, the image is evocative of the journey each of us takes from childhood to adulthood. Celaya's work is extremely personal yet, paradoxically, universal.

In Seated Figure Celaya once more ponders the meaning of "home" or "homeland," producing one of his most poignant images. Here we see the outline of a seated man, his head and profile drawn with certainty. His body is drawn a little more tentatively, and his feet literally disappear. The figure looks towards a small black, floating house. This is not a real house or home, it is the idea of a house. The reflection on what a house or home means leads one think of belonging, comfort, protection, privacy and family. Expressions like "there is no place like home" or "you can never go home again" kept popping into my mind as I looked at this meditative image.

In the startling The Transpierced (Morning) Celaya once more posits his silhouette of a man leaning expectantly forward, almost tilting. This image evokes the senses more than any other painting in this cycle. One is aware that the silhouette is without eyes, without ears and is moving forward by touch and smell. His outstretched hand seems to be feeling for obstacles in his path. But instead of obstacles, there is a beautiful patch of flowers. At the top of the canvas there is the hint of a room, with walls and a ceiling. Perhaps the figure is learning to think outside the box.

As a body these dark, rich and brooding paintings suggest deep feelings of loneliness, abandonment, yearning and desire for connection. All this feeling and emotion somehow manages to tumble forth from seemingly still and mute canvases.