In 2012, I spent a week at the Anderson Ranch in Colorado, in an intensive workshop, which consisted of a week-long dialogue and critique with Enrique Martinez Celaya. This September, when I spent a month renting a studio space in Bushwick, I took great pleasure in being able to catch events and openings on a whim. I was surprised to discover that while I was there, Enrique would be having his first exhibition at the Jack Shainman Gallery in Chelsea. During the Colorado workshop, Celaya had shared that he was contemplating shifting his gallery representation in New York, and Empires: Sea and Land, a body of work spanning painting, drawing, sculpture, installation, and writing, was clearly the result of this move. The work in Empires was a thematic continuation of Celaya’s earlier work–each piece representing a location in a world that Celaya had been mapping for 10 years. On a busy September night in Chelsea, I had the pleasure of exploring that world with my son, Link, and his friend Sigve.
The opening of the show included an interview with Robin Cembalest, and as I sat listening, I was struck again by Enrique’s intentionality and presence. At one point in the interview, Enrique shared his goal of being a perpetual beginner and his related aversion to expertism. Staying open and hungry to learn is something I’ve thought about a lot, and have aspired to myself. Enrique made the point that one’s tendency when building a career is to be repetitious, covering holes with sand in order to appear more expert. His advice was to focus on the holes rather than covering them up. In the midst of my current nomadic season, where everything in my life seems in flux, I feel the value, challenge, and richness of this acutely. The conversation about expertism led to questions about the artist’s relationship to critical theory (questions about this have been abundant in recent social media feeds). As I see it, theory and theoretical discourse are just one way for an artist to become immersed in the conceptual worlds relevant to his or her artistic content. That’s it; there’s no one canon or lens that every artist needs to pack into his or her toolkit. And I agree that there are too many artists and artist-professors who use theory and jargon as a crutch—not as a way to zero in on the “holes” but as a way to cover them in sand.
Enrique is in a unique position. His well-publicized scientific background (BS in Applied & Engineering Physics at Cornell University; MS in Quantum Electronics at the University of California, Berkeley; MFA in Painting at University of California, Santa Barbara) gives him a rare kind of bedrock. During their dialogue, Robin Cembalest asked Celaya what that background has contributed to his life as an artist. He responded that it gives him a unique kind of freedom – he can take risks because he’s not worried about looking stupid. He added that, from his engagement with physics and math, he also knows that “If you understand something, you can say it simply.” I agree, with the one footnote. Historically, there are valid formal and conceptual reasons for dense, experimental writing. For example, Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva used such methods in order to disrupt patriarchal language, to invent a feminine ecriture through which they could claim female subjecthood outside the patriarchal order. That work doesn’t undercut the underlying point, that language shouldn’t be used as a place to hide.
A related piece of the interview was a discussion of the important role of enigma in Enrique’s artwork. He related the presence of artworks to that of people, describing how some individuals draw immediate attention but are revealed quickly, while others roll out with complexity and depth over time. In Celaya’s framework, art is a movement from familiarity to the unfamiliar; not art is the opposite–it is limited to the shock of the unfamiliar, which quickly becomes completely knowable. Linking formal strategies to the conceptual enigma in his work, Enrique noted how tension comes from the fact that the works barely hold together formally—they balance in a tricky state of becoming.
Enrique’s work dives fully into the dangerous territory of sentiment, risking thin interpretation. But with time spent in front of it, the work pays off with formal and conceptual discoveries, and it’s exciting to discover those moments when the paintings do threaten to disassemble. There are beautiful passages that speak a truth of representation without falling into deadening allegiance to representational accuracy. Enrique’s work seems to maintain a state of motion. In assessing the difficulties of making something that works, Celaya mentioned the problem of “too beautiful”–calling it an issue in every direction one might choose, from minimalism to the fetishistic. He stated that one must give up unity for some portion of truth. Much has been said about the “wink” in contemporary art, and it would be a mistake to read that into this work. I was interested to hear Enrique state emphatically that, “Great art never winks.”
Enrique’s personal narrative comes up frequently in press about him–his birth in Cuba and subsequent exile to Spain in 1972, and place and belonging are persistent themes in his work. Though his personal narrative is clearly a part of his public image, in the interview he discussed his desire to distance the work from immediate associations with his own exile; rather, his intention is to address, in his work and writing, the commonality of exile. He intends his work to be about more universal losses and exiles. Relatedly, he sees the work not as narrative but as functioning like a series of poems.
There was a Q-n-A after the interview, which had some funny moments–for example, the straight-out-of-central-casting New York psychologist who offered Enrique some alternative language for thinking about exile. I had a question as well, which had seemed a communicable nugget, but as the question tumbled out of my mouth, it became increasingly complex. Enrique has a well-developed brand as an artist, and for some well known artists, this leads to disengagement and distancing-–this is not the case with Enrique, who seems to listen with his full being. He focuses in, and you can see him gathering your words and sorting them as you speak. Since many of the questions and themes in Enrique’s work and writing echo my own (the animal other, place and placelessness, narrative and the enigmatic, language and identity, etc.), I have found him to be an important mentor. As he listened to my question, a flood related material came to mind.
During my stay in New York, I met many assistants to famous artists, many of whom had fascinating tales to tell about the methods of production they were involved with. In one case, the well-known artist had become a choreographer of others’ marks, moving through the studio conducting a team of assistants busy drawing according to his direction. As a side note, this is not the case with Enrique. My understanding is that he uses assistants to support the logistical aspects of his work, which are significant at his level of production. Seeing Enrique’s work and thinking about the stories I’d been hearing from big city artist assistants, I wanted to ask Enrique about the meaning of the authentic original mark in the contemporary art world: how had that meaning changed (since the Abstract Expressionist period, for example) and how did that affect his conception of his own process and work. I was unable to get the question across clearly, but in retrospect, the process of stumbling through my thoughts and experiencing a brain flood of related questions, was a great reminder of the importance of mentors in one’s life and work, and how they continue to work on us internally for years after the face-to-face discourse.