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November 20, 2008 - January 3, 2009 at L.A. Louver Gallery, Venice

by Marlena Donohue

“The Savior,” 2008,
bronze, 66 x 26 x 135”.

“The Unwilled,” 2008, oil and
wax on canvas, 100 x 78”.

At the thinnest level, the person Enrique Martinez Celaya and the tenor of his work--contemplative, philosophical, quintessentially unfiltered and raw in the way childhood is--has been tagged to a small grab bag of true but not exhaustive rationales.
Always called up is Celaya's transnational displacement. We know he was born in Cuba; ferried to Spain as a youth, one imagines, escaping repression; then transplanted to Puerto Rico before finally ending up here. To deny this lack of mooring as key to such lyrically brooding work would be mistaken; to make diaspora a first cause or the meaning for such complex work about who we are and how we know is more mistaken still.
It’s also mentioned, almost like a news curiosity, that Celaya is a near doctoral candidate in applied and theoretical physics from none other than UC Berkeley. To foreground the immigrant and minimize the scientist philosopher is equally shortsighted. Because Celaya has worked with such intensity in painting, photography, sculpture, poetry, science and philosophy, he is often described via the tired signifier of “Renaissance Man.” Read his writings and see that he grounds his persona and practice not for one moment in the certainties of classical humanism, or the fixities of nationhood or even knowledge, but in the essential unfolding doubt and inquiry at the root of science, philosophy, and indeed art.

All this is evident in a current exhibition of encaustic paintings, watercolors and large scale bronze sculptures. Favorite visual tropes are here, like the child as wanderer, and the shamanistic powers of nature to heal or destroy, to reveal and obfuscate. Once again Celaya offers wall pieces mixed with installation objects. The latter include a compelling bronze reindeer sniffing a world not quite there, and a large totemic shrouded figure that is not nearly as convincing.
Indeed, the likely focal point of the show is “The Savior,” a roughly 5 x 10 foot bronze reindeer hauling, via a fragile filament coiled in its horns, an object that looks like debris, or like a mass of mangled tundra with a gaping rift in it. This animal’s sense of loss and of displaced purpose, a longing that is acute but never rises to a pitch we can actually grasp, sets the show’s tone. When humans long it is corny and tired--what else is new? When animals similarly yearn we a compelled to ask what that concept actually means.

It is interesting that an artist whose heritage brushes up against intense Catholicism, communism, privilege, privation, the heated tropics, the refined Castilian, the classical and a prevailing sense of both doubt and hope would fix on this animal trope again and again. In “Boy (very tired)” a child shares a frosty expanse with a nearby deer. In ancient classical iconography the philanthropist gentleman symbolized his generosity with the icon of a male figure bearing a lamb or a ram. Jesus became "the lamb" and “the shepherd.” Horned animals appear in rituals of revelation from Eurasia to New Zealand.
The paintings here in both huge and intimate scale revisit that frontal, consciously childlike figuration we know Celaya for. In “The Unwilled” a half dressed child in some dark tundra hugs a block of ice. Another boy is braced against nature with a heavy coat, but his spindly pubescent legs are naked and exposed as he gestures toward a horse. Less predictable are large almost cinematic landscapes like “Wind over the Poppy Field,” a sooty horizon dotted with red flowers somewhere between a brooding German like Caspar David Freidrich and the flat footedly innocent vision of the customs agent Henri Rousseau. We know Celaya to be an expert draftsman, able to render in a classically refined style. When he therefore backs away from pristine figuration both by the use of wax to refract light in 2-D and via the surface finish in 3-D, he strikes a conscious marriage between deep contemplation and unplanned discovery.
However he does it, the artist continues to ask: Why are we here? How do make sense of our inner and outer worlds? What does it mean to be so intimately locked in this personal body with its irrevocably visceral and fragile imperatives while being simultaneously responsible, bound ethically as public and sentient selves? Celaya has asked these tough questions via math, science, quantum physics and logic. He seems to have decided that the answers are so profound and perhaps unsettling in their un-answerableness that art is the one filter through which we/he can comfortably continue the inquiry. We’re the benefactors.