For painter, sculptor, and erstwhile physicist Enrique Martinez Celaya, there’s no place like home. Mostly because until his recent return to Los Angeles, he’s never fully felt he had one. At least not since leaving his native Cuba at age seven, followed by seven years in Spain and four in Puerto Rico, before decamping for college in New York and graduate studies in the Bay Area. This slow-motion wanderlust subsequently manifested not only in his frequent moves, but in his sense of self. Though apprenticed to a painter from age 12, it wasn’t until his late 20s that he committed to a career as an artist. While still in high school he published papers on superconductivity, and invented and patented laser devices, so science was the “obvious” career path. But in the middle of a graduate degree in Quantum Electronics at Berkeley, he realized he was ignoring his science fellowship to paint all the time. “It was a very confusing year. I felt like a loser when I dropped out of the science program. But it turned out I wasn’t confused, I was being guided toward something.” He later attended Skowhegan and earned his MFA from UC Santa Barbara. In the mid-’90s he moved to LA for the first time. He lived in Venice, taught at Pomona and Claremont, made an international name for himself-and left.
“Twenty years ago, I came to LA. After a decade I left again because I needed to answer certain questions about my work-on my own.” he moved to a barrier island and his studio was an old bakery. He enjoyed being a bit of a castaway: the rich isolation paradise offers a literary man. “But it’s a different time now; I want to be back in the world, part of the larger conversation. I missed California, the light, the air-it’s the closest thing I have to a home. LA is a shifting place, a little bit crazy, with a sense of being unfinished which is vital and exciting.” Based on the sheer ambition and scale of his new studio-with thousands of square feet of work, office, and exhibition space, it’s more of a compound, really, at the edge of an industrial park abutting bucolic cemetery grounds-he clearly plans on staying.
His first show since returning, this spring’s “Lone Star” at LA Louver, offered a powerful iteration of the awkward, romantic, atmospheric, haute-naive style of narrative symbolism he is known for. The paintings and sculptures harvested the artist’s favored ontological terrain of country roads, violent sunsets, songbirds, prismatic dawns, sentinel trees, and the adolescent boy whose storyline he has been tracing for years. In addition to appearing in several canvases, a bronze sculpture of the boy stood in a loch of shallow water-the accumulation of his tears. Seeds at the water’s edge sprouted green shoots before long. In an outdoor space, the boy shared a wire cage shared with five living birds. Back inside, a single bird occupied a cage lined with philosophical treatises. These birds were “stand-ins,” as Celaya saw them, “for some kind of spirit, an animated energy that is hard to measure.”
“Enrique keeps birds in all his studios,” notes LA Louver’s Peter Goulds. “I think he always has.” Celaya’s grandfather kept birds, as well, back in Cuba, so it’s a memory he associates both with early childhood and the dark time that came after. Adds Goulds, “Going back at least to his 2013 SITE Santa Fe show, Enrique has been increasingly interested in these kinds of immersive and holistic designed environments, involving the viewer, exploring themes of freedom, loss, loneliness, and flight. In light of all that, how could we do the show without the birds?”
Celaya is already preparing his next show, opening in September at New York’s Jack Shainman Gallery. Tentatively titled “EMPIRES,” the show is divided between two installations, Land and Sea. Celaya posits the sea as something to embark upon, like the unknown or the subconscious; while the land is where one define one’s territory, one’s Self. One of his favorite books is “The Great Secret” by Maurice Maeterlinck-a revered if haphazard history of the world’s occult religions, from 1922. In his introduction, Maeterlinck describes his writings as “the impressions of a candid traveler who has traversed [his subjects] as one seeking to observe rather than as a believer.” One imagines Celaya writing the same. And in fact, he is a prolific author and poet. His erudite web journal offers engaging exegeses of nearly all his projects. For instance, of “Lone Star” he writes, “On the evening of a turbulent day in my childhood I searched the night sky for something in myself that was adrift… Some mysteries, like the cosmos, are more apparent than others, but all things, as Maeterlinck wrote, are secret.” And of “EMPIRES”: “Not the type created by Cyrus or Alexander, though indirectly those too, but the other empires, the ones of everyday life. The ones built with the dust that settles on nightstands. Sometimes these stretch to the length of birds-in-hand and sometimes they reach to that elusive nursery of rainbows… Empires are always of tomorrow. Today, the wonders and frailties of the kingdom might be available for the wise to see, but the wise are busy with the next campaign.”
“Enrique Martinez Celaya: Lone Star” was on view at LA Louver Gallery, in Los Angeles, from April 9 – May 16, 2015. www.lalouver.com
Celaya’s new show, “EMPIRES,” opens September 10, 2015, at Jack Shainman Gallery, in New York. www.jackshainman.com