September 10 – October 24, 2015
All images courtesy of Jack Shaiman Gallery and the artist
Speaking of 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.” 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, artist Enrique Martinez Celaya, uses many of the same images mentioned by Hemingway. Yet, I don’t think he 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, 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 also complex. All of Martinez Celaya’s works begin 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. He has degrees in applied physics and electrical engineering from Cornell University, and he was pursuing a Ph.D. in quantum physics when he switched to art, earning an MFA with honors. He has explored art in all its varying forms, including – 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 flowers. 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 them all the way down to their root – yet, at the end of their lifecycle, ironically we pluck them to make “wishes.” Other paintings in the exhibition – “The Castle “and “The Crown: in Empires: Land for example, are equally mesmerizing.
A few blocks away, at Jack Shainman’s second location, the “seas” depicted in Martinez Celaya’s paintings are dark and threatening, and with the light refracting off the waves from the night or stormy sky, they become even 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 nature and other living creatures.
Whether he acknowledges any autobiographical elements in his work or not, much has been said of the artist’s own migrancy. He was born in Cuba, an island seen by some until recently as the fiercely defiant and independent enemy of the U.S., and now, a neighboring country on the way to becoming a friend. He also lived in “Empires” such as the U.S., and in Spain, with its long colonial history, as well as the “independent commonwealth” of Puerto Rico. All these experiences makes him uniquely positioned to take on and portray the nuances of this global topic. At the same time, he is clear to say, that by Empire, of course he doesn’t mean “Empire” but instead, 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.
Which brings us back to the old man, in the Old Man and the Sea, about which, in the end, the author explains, “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.” Martinez Celaya’s “places”, both on land and sea are deeply compelling and dreamlike. “Empires: Sea” and “Empires: Land” is an intense experience, and even if the images and their meanings are not what they appear – they are stunning, and well worth the time you spend with them.
Writing by, Kristine Roome
Photo credit for all images by: ©Enrique Martínez Celaya. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.