About his classic novel, The Old Man and the Sea, author Ernest Hemingway is quoted as saying: “There isn’t any symbolism. The sea is the sea. The old man is an old man. The boy is a boy and the fish is a fish. The sharks are all sharks, no better and no worse. All the symbolism that people say is shit. What goes beyond is what you see beyond when you know.” Taking on many of the same images in his latest exhibition, “Empires: Sea” and “Empires: Land” which occupy both the 513 West 20th Street and 524 West 24th Street locations respectively of Jack Shainman Gallery – I don’t think Enrique Martinez Celaya would say there isn’t any symbolism in his works – but I imagine he would probably say, whatever you think they mean, you are probably wrong. Nevertheless, I say, it’s well worth the try.
Unicorns, German shepherds, boats, the sea, a child, an old man, castles, flowers and other recognizable forms recur in his paintings. Yet, there is nothing easy about this exhibition. Sure, it’s visually stunning – and often daunting in size with a visceral presence that is not apparent from the photos – but it’s deep. All of Martinez Celaya’s work begins with writing. There is a small accompanying pamphlet “Empires” written by the artist and many of the paintings include text. The exhibition is deeply layered, textured and melancholy. Like “The Invisible “, a sculpture of a boy in the corner, even the paintings, appear to cry.
Martinez Celaya’s “search for understanding and meaning” has taken him from science to philosophy to art – with a degree in applied physics and electrical engineering from Cornell University and later leaving a Ph.D. program in quantum physics to pursue a MFA, which he earned with honors – he has explored art in all its varying forms – painting, sculpture, words, music and video – Martinez Celaya has tried them all – searching for a language to convey meaning to a world both known and unknown.
“The Innocent “for example, is not a picture of a happy unicorn frolicking with his canine companion in a field of wishes. It’s a profound image of a mighty steed and more likely, a formidable and potentially vicious fellow traveler. And even while the dandelions may look pretty – they are dreaded weeds which keep coming back unless you remove it all the way down to its root – yet, at the end of their lifecycle, ironically we pluck them to make “wishes.” “The Castle “and “The Crown “in Empire: Land are equally as mesmerizing.
A few blocks down, the seas in Martinez-Celaya’s paintings are dark and threatening, and the light refracting off the waves from the night or stormy sky only make it more foreboding.
While the artist makes no direct references to current events, the image of the boy, resting on a young stingray in “The Relic and the Pure” is quite prescient of the now almost iconic photo of the Syrian child washed on shore just months ago on a Turkish beach. Made well before this tragic event, to me it speaks to the “moral complexities” of a world indifferent to tragedy, not directly involving them, and memories of a child-like purity with strong, yet ephemeral, connections to other living creatures.
Much has been said of Martinez Celaya’s own “migrancy” – his early years in Cuba, the family move to Spain, Puerto Rico and lastly the U.S. This experience, living in “Empires” such as the U.S. and Spain who in early days had colonies across the globe, the “independent commonwealth” of Puerto Rico and his origins in the fiercely defiant Cuba – once an enemy of the U.S., now on the way to friend – whether he acknowledges the autobiographical elements in his work or not, Martinez Celaya is uniquely positioned to take on this topic. Yet he is clear to say, that by Empire, of course he doesn’t mean “Empire” but our own independent Empires –‘empires of everyday life.” And it’s true. We don’t live in “Empires”, these collective geographical territories per se – but from birth, we are independent souls, coordinates on a map, charting our own destiny, which ultimately, for all of us, ends in death.
Like the old man, in the Old Man and the Sea, “He no longer dreamed of storms, nor of women, nor of great occurrences, nor of great fish, nor fights, nor contests of strength, nor of his wife. He only dreamed of places now and of the lions on the beach.” Not a frivolous, “pick me up” show for sure – but “Empires: Sea” and “Empires: Land” is an intense experience, and even if the images and their meanings are not what they appear – They are great, spend time with them.
ENRIQUE MARTÍNEZ CELAYA – Empires: Land & Empires: Sea
Jack Shainman Gallery (September 10 – October 24, 2015)
Writing by, Kristine Roome
Photo credit for all images is: ©Enrique Martínez Celaya. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.