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He recalls an episode that could serve as a little parable for the way he works. A collector returned a piece that was damaged in transit to the painter for repair. But Martínez Celaya found himself so drawn into the process of "correction" that he kept going, and in the end, the original image was lost, buried beneath the changes that accrued on its surface. The collector was not happy. Martínez Celaya was. "To give up something you treasure is such a difficult thing," he explains. "But your next gesture -- it doesn't matter how simple it is -- is informed and loaded with what you lost."
A tangible sense of loss is present in one of Martínez Celaya's more recent works, Portrait of Leon Golub, a painting of the Chicago-born artist known for politically charged work. Martínez Celaya used a reproduction of this image of his mentor, who died last year, on the invitation to his studio opening. But I was prepared neither for the monumental scale of the piece, which is perhaps 12 feet by 15 feet, nor for its emotional impact. The somber, ghostly face of Golub seems to float on the big black surface, fixing the viewer with a direct gaze that's difficult to avoid.
The painting is an enormously commanding, museum-quality piece. And so it comes as a relief to learn that Martínez Celaya, having dealt with collectors who buy his work and then decline to loan it out for exhibitions, plans to keep it until it's bought for display by an institution. Such attention to business details probably contributes to the artist's reputation as a perfectionist, but I get the distinct, refreshing impression that it's not so much a matter of being temperamental as one of concern for his work being seen.
It all goes back to that interplay of opposites that seems to so captivate Martínez Celaya -- the tension between hanging on and letting go. Such dualities -- strength and fragility, past and present -- crop up again and again in conversations with the artist. "I think in the making of art, you always have this fight between these two points," he says. "The real trouble of being an artist is not the starving but the questioning of yourself." For the sake of his art, I hope Martínez Celaya never gives up the fight, never abandons the questioning. Contemporary art would be greatly impoverished if he did.