New York

Enrique Martínez Celaya – Empires: Land and Sea at Jack Shainman Gallery

“It’s not a key,” Enrique Martínez Celaya warns of the text Empires: The Writing, which accompanies his first solo exhibition at Jack Shainman, now on view at the gallery’s two venues in Chelsea under the titles Empires: Land and Empires: Sea.[1] I meet Celaya in early September, when we walk through the shows on the eve of the artist’s departure for his home in Los Angeles.

3.Enrique Martinez Celaya. Empires: Land, 2015; installation view, Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. Courtesy of the Artist and Jack Shainman Gallery.

Enrique Martínez Celaya. Empires: Land, 2015; installation view, Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. Courtesy of the Artist and Jack Shainman Gallery.

Empires primarily includes paintings, many monumental in scale, along with a handful of sculptures and works on paper. Some paintings tenderly build shifting surfaces, and others only thinly delineate tentative forms and spaces. A persistent horizon line runs through nearly every image. Celaya’s slim companion volume spans the three months preceding his show; the text originally appeared in the “Journal” section of his website. Though not a key, the text may be a hinge, opening a door toward a mode of reading time through Celaya’s recent body of work. Fittingly, the best of these works leave the door ajar.

“What it seems to be undermines itself,” Celaya begins as we circle the gallery. He is quick to redirect readings of his work that rely on metaphor and allegory. It’s perhaps no surprise; the abundance of boats, sand castles, children, and the occasional unicorn put a simplistic reading within arm’s reach. Familiar with rigid interpretations of these images, Celaya is thoughtful about the conversation he crafts around his work. He places skepticism of the image at the heart of his practice, pointing to the drips and scratches that mar the canvas’s surface as evidence of this acute awareness. “I would never describe my work as figurative work,” he says. It might be more accurate to say that Celaya’s interest in rendering the figure points to the act of rendering, an operation we perform daily as we assemble chaotic experiences into history, memory, and identity. “The images are a point of entry,” he says, “which I hope then disappear.”

1.Enrique Martinez Celaya. The Bloom, for the Wilderness, 2015; oil and wax on canvas; 74-3/4 x 101-3/4 x 2-1/2 in (framed). Courtesy of the Artist and Jack Shainman Gallery.

Enrique Martínez Celaya. The Bloom, for the Wilderness, 2015; oil and wax on canvas; 74-3/4 x 101-3/4 x 2-1/2 in. (framed). Courtesy of the Artist and Jack Shainman Gallery.

Indeed, my initial impression of Empires is as a series of false entries. Composed centrally, the images offer breaking cloud covers and exposed shorelines. But what appears to invite just as quickly turns strange. In the case of The Bloom, for the Wilderness, the image of a crashing wave recalls the experience of being temporarily blinded after walking from darkness into a brightly lit room. In this sense, figuration highlights a disjuncture. Celaya’s work seems at times so near that it evades recognition.

It’s in Celaya’s non-key that I find this notion most compelling. The text is divided into twelve entries, each dated. It moves between his direct address of the show (“Seeing the paintings and sculptures and models as small images makes me think about remnants”) to fragments of narrative, personal observation, dreams, and excerpts from poetry and song lyrics.[2] Stories, when they appear, are thin, not in that they are poorly made but because their facture is visible. They are among the types of stories that assemble the trajectory of human life: ambition, failure, aspiration, regret. They are told. They are those stories that conspire to form Celaya’s notion of empire, a “sense of self projected into the future.”[3]

2.Enrique Martinez Celaya. The Measure, 2015;
oil and wax on canvas;
78 x 60 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Jack Shainman Gallery.

Enrique Martínez Celaya. The Measure, 2015;
 oil and wax on canvas;
 78 x 60 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Jack Shainman Gallery.

Like his text, Celaya’s most effective paintings point to the friction involved in the making of personal meaning. In The Measure, Celaya conjures a young boy in a boat without sail, tumbled on a dark sea. Like many of Celaya’s works, this one hints at multiple horizons, balanced precariously above eye level. Boat and boy are rendered in the same deep stuff; they are pressed together like slatted wood. And like its subject, the painting appears to be in motion. Celaya’s works halt just before the canvas’s edge, as if inviting us to peel back the image, like a page. It might be an epic, if it wasn’t so funny; that is, these works are self-aware without being ironic. They acknowledge that the act of creating images, like any form of making meaning, is both absurd and absolutely necessary.

4.Enrique Martinez Celaya. The Deeper Life, 2015;
bronze; 4 x 26 x 46 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Jack Shainman Gallery.

Enrique Martínez Celaya. The Deeper Life, 2015;
 bronze; 4 x 26 x 46 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Jack Shainman Gallery.

The strangeness of Celaya’s paintings is brought to light by his treatment of the text, one that unravels narrative even as it is pieced together. But ultimately, Celaya’s objects—most cast in bronze or assembled from found objects—appear to me too resolved to capture this same tip-of-the-tongue quality. Mounted on a mirrored pedestal, The Deeper Life is a bronze cast of an oversized skate, which is tenderly painted with stars to resemble a night sky. As a beautifully crafted object, this works lays confident claim to space. Whereas the paintings offer points of entry, Celaya’s objects are closed circuits.

Empires: Land and Empires: Sea are on view at Jack Shainman Gallery through October 24, 2015.

 

[1] Unless otherwise noted, all quotes from the artist are from an interview at Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, September 12, 2015.

[2] Enrique Martínez Celaya, Empires: The Writing (New York: Jack Shainman Gallery, 2015).

[3] Enrique Martínez Celaya, in conversation with Robin Cembalest, September 10, 2015, Jack Shainman Gallery, http://www.jackshainman.com/artists/martinez-celaya/#video.

 

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