Enrique Martínez Celaya: In the Forest of Symbols
When the fashioning of images was detached from collective ritual, when, in other words, art left the house of magic and religion where it had been born and nurtured, it gained the exhilarating freedom we so prize in the modern artist. But along with this freedom came the struggle to discover new functions, new criteria of value, new zones of action to replace the old lost unities that art (under whatever guise) enjoyed in the hands of shamans, priests, kings and farmers. Like every other contemporary artist, Enrique Martínez Celaya must grapple with this radical liberty, which he does so with great élan. Just look, for instance, at the great range of materials and mediums he employs. Alongside his large-scale oil-and-wax paintings, he models sculptures from traditional fine-art materials such as wood, marble and bronze as well as elemental stuff like tar, straw, feathers and sand. He has also constructed installations with found objects (mirrors, old chairs and suitcases), exhibited photographs and, often, drawn on the domain of poetry for phrases he handwrites onto his paintings and, sometimes, for the iconography of the paintings themselves. (Martínez Celaya’s deep engagement with poetry—which ranges from portraits of poets like T.S. Eliot to quotations from Robert Frost, Paul Celan and Miguel Hernández—is among his work’s most distinctive features.)
And yet, for all this bold pursuit of artistic diversity and experiment, all his emphatic contemporaneity, there is an aspect of Martínez Celaya’s work that feels very distant from our culture of skepticism and disenchantment. Most of his paintings, in fact, seem to posit a universe governed by tutelary spirits and superstitions, a realm where the natural world is full of signs and symbols, where offerings must be made to appease the gods, where auguries and omens appear at our feet or blazing in the skies. These images he shows us again and again, these visions of the ocean in all its states, of frail-looking solitary youths, of trees in winter, of depopulated landscapes, of seabirds and songbirds, of animals on the run or caught by human cunning, of houses and castles that seem to have been extracted from fairy tales—each of them is so suffused with symbolic meaning that it’s nearly impossible to approach them as disinterested viewers.
But what, exactly, is this meaning? What is the work about? In his 2017 text “Interview with Myself,” the artist warns:
I don’t think of my work as being about something but as being something, and this is an important distinction. Art offers a confrontation that in the best case brings forth revelations. These revelations are not riddles or stories to be figured out. They are transformations not unlike religious experiences. No one asks what a religious experience is about.
Among the many strains of art history that Martínez Celaya weaves together, Northern Romanticism is among the most prominent: his beautifully mournful landscapes and forlorn figures strongly recall the visionary paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, as well as later exemplars of brooding northernness such as Edvard Munch, while his sculptures and installations reconnect with a later exponent of German Romanticism, Joseph Beuys. Of course, the idea of nature as a forest of symbols (to borrow Baudelaire’s famous phrase) is hardly the exclusive property of Northern European artists; one could argue that Martínez Celaya has been equally affected by early memories of his youth in Cuba, Puerto Rico and Spain, and there’s a votive quality to his work that connects it to Mexican ex-voto paintings, especially when he inscribes lines of poetry over his images.
In his long elegiac poem “Bread and Wine” (1801), Friedrich Hölderlin, the great poet of German Romanticism, laments the withdrawal of the gods from our world. “Surely, friend, we have come too late,” he exclaims as he ponders the fate of poets “in desolate times.” Certainly, Martínez Celaya’s paintings speak of loss and absence, but they hold out a degree of hope, however small, that we have not come too late, that the gods have not entirely departed, that revelation is still waiting for us, in some sacred wood, on some not-so-faraway coast.
Raphael Rubinstein, 2019