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Away from the Buzz

When Enrique Martínez Celaya talks about relocating last year from Los Angeles to Delray Beach, the phrase "the buzz" crops up again and again, as in "We wanted someplace away from the buzz." He makes L.A. sound not so much like a beehive, busy with productive activity, as a nest of hornets humming with tense, edgy energy.

It's not that California wasn't good to the artist. He studied quantum electronics and got his master's in physics at the University of California Berkeley, completed his M.F.A. at the university's Santa Barbara campus, and taught art at Pomona College and Claremont Graduate University.

Martínez Celaya still maintains a base in L.A., but Delray Beach feels more family-friendly to him, especially now that he and wife Alexandra are expecting their third child in October. (Daughter Gabriela was born in 2001, son Sebastían in 2003.) A smile creeps over his face as he recalls, "When I moved to this little town from Los Angeles, people thought my career would be destroyed." He even confounded expectations by settling well removed from Miami, which he says is deliberate. Although he was born in Cuba and lived in Spain and Puerto Rico, he chafes at being labeled a Hispanic artist, and he feels no affinity for the "magical realism" that is perhaps Latin American art's best-known style. His interest, he says, is in the human condition rather than the Cuban condition.

Becoming bicoastal has been far from disastrous for Martínez Celaya. In late February, he unveiled a spectacular new studio a few blocks north of downtown Delray's Atlantic Avenue neighborhood. It's a huge, light-drenched space, once home to a bakery, now outfitted with an office, a library, and several areas that can comfortably accommodate the large-scale works for which the artist is known. And as he happily points out, many of the exhibitions that crowd his calendar have come about since he became Florida-based.

It's a schedule to inspire envy in other artists. A show of his recent paintings just opened at the prestigious John Berggruen Gallery in San Francisco, and he has two more coming up at Griffin Contemporary in Santa Monica and the Akira Ikeda Gallery in Berlin. In October, there will be a retrospective of his photography at the Brauer Museum of Art at Indiana's Valparaiso University, and in November, the Oakland Museum of Art will host the first show devoted to his works on paper. Somewhere along the way, he'll find time to go to the Museum der Bildenden Künste in Leipzig, Germany, to install his ambitious, Beethoven-inspired mixed-media work Schneebett (Snowbed), which last year became the first art environment at the Berliner Philharmonie.

Clearly, Martínez Celaya doesn't need the buzz of L.A. -- he generates his own buzz quite nicely. At a relatively young age (he'll turn 41 in June), he has found his work snapped up for the permanent collections of such top institutions as New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art, L.A.'s County Museum of Art and Museum of Contemporary Art, and Houston's Museum of Fine Arts. He has no problem attracting serious collectors, and I can't think of a major American art magazine that hasn't covered his work at least once since he had his first show a decade ago.

Is Martínez Celaya worth the buzz he seems to generate so effortlessly? Absolutely. I remember vividly my first encounter, just over a year ago, with the large paintings in "The October Cycle 2000-2002." It was a watershed show for Martínez Celaya that included nearly two dozen works, most featuring minimal imagery on vast expanses of canvas or board black with tar. As I wrote at the time, "I don't think I've ever seen an artist get this much mileage out of black."

Tar is one of the quirkier media used by Martínez Celaya, who has also incorporated soot from burnt birch trees, dirt, and even his own blood into his work. Since "The October Cycle," he has explored a palette that is lighter and more colorful. Indeed, some of the recent works on paper go to the opposite extreme, with thin washes of white on what appear to be big pieces of butcher paper.

Still, the artist's comments about tar are illuminating. He says he first turned to the black goo, which he sometimes combines with feathers, about the time people were proclaiming the death of painting. "I was trying to empty things out of painting," he says, and goes on to describe the mundane substance as "an antiheroic medium."

There's a bracing paradox at work in those extraordinary black paintings, a dynamic tension generated by the use of such a base substance as a backdrop for imagery that is often ethereal and airy. Some of the most powerful pieces in "The October Cycle" are flooded with an otherworldly light that wouldn't have the same impact without the tar, which has been worked over and over again to achieve depth and texture.

Martínez Celaya doesn't take these aesthetic choices lightly. He chooses words carefully, using "precious" and "fetishistic," for instance, when he talks about the trap of creating images that are too easy, too pretty, too seductive. (Not surprisingly, he's also a poet and an avid reader.) The use of a medium as humble and ordinary as tar, it seems, creates distance and detachment between artist and art.

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.

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Michael Mills

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