There are only about two dozen pieces in this one-man show, but they're monumental, both in scale and in impact. The smallest piece is roughly four feet square, the largest nearly six feet by ten feet; most are about six feet by eight feet or vice versa (the artist works in both horizontals and verticals).
The size of these pieces, usually painted in oil on canvas but occasionally on board or velvet, is worth noting. For this series, the Cuban-born Martínez Celaya leaves large expanses covered with jet-black tar, with only minimal imagery applied. The subject matter, whether a tree or the outline of a human figure, seems to float on a sea of utter blackness.
Martínez Celaya did a series called "Black Paintings" in the early 1990s, then returned to the format for "The October Cycle," which is inspired by one of his own poems. Curator Daniel A. Siedell, who first assembled this show for the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, speculates on the blackness in the exhibition's starkly beautiful catalog: "The blackness in the October Cycle recalls the backdrops of Goya's tragic Black Paintings and perhaps even Ad Reinhardt's use of black as an absolute negation of all that gets in the way of the aesthetic. The black in Martínez Celaya's paintings does indeed signal that something of terrible importance is manifest."
Siedell's catalog essay goes on (and on and on) to discuss the spiritual elements of Martínez Celaya's paintings. But his musings don't convey much of the paintings' visceral impact beyond the observation that they have a cumulative impact when seen together. The MoA show, which takes up all of the museum's main second-floor gallery, is an emphatic confirmation of that idea.
The exhibition certainly has a visceral start: At the top of MoA's grand staircase, we're confronted with a life-size, blackened bronze sculpture of a female nude. There's no getting into the show without acknowledging this simple but powerful piece.
On the big curving wall, just beyond the sculpture and to the right, is a huge, site-specific piece by Martínez Celaya that is visceral to the extreme: It consists of an outlined image of a man, with words (in Spanish) painted onto the wall on both sides. The medium? The artist's own blood, mixed with the soot from burnt birch trees, which appear as subject matter in some of the show's pieces.
Trees, in fact, are the basis of some of Martínez Celaya's most extraordinary paintings. Their ghostly traces fill October, in which densely clustered birch trunks are so faintly painted on black velvet that you must get right up next to the piece to discern them. Tree in the Snow wonderfully captures the play of light on the branches of a bare tree. And the huge Birch (Wood-Milk) features an expanse of blackness with a single shining birch, splendid in its solitude, in the center.
As best I can tell, Martínez Celaya doesn't just slap a coat of tar onto a canvas before focusing on a tree or a human form. The tar appears to have been worked over again and again, so that each piece has its own distinctive texture. If you really want to appreciate a Martínez Celaya work, you need to get close to its surface and move around a bit, so that the shifting light brings out the details of his brushwork. There's not a black in the artist's work but rather a range of blacknesses. I don't think I've ever seen an artist get this much mileage out of black.
When he inserts people into the blackness, Martínez Celaya usually relegates them to thin white outlines. Gabriela (First) shows a hint of a man (presumably the artist) tossing an infant child in the air. In The Future, a slightly more fleshed-out man cradles the child in his arms.
Then there are those startling works in which Martínez Celaya floods his fields of black with light. In Light, for instance, a small patch of light seems to be insinuating itself into the top center portion of the otherwise dark image. Man and Sky features a pale outline of the upper part of the man to the left, facing a pale horizon to the right; it's impossible to tell if it's sunrise or sunset.
The drama increases with Light and Figure (Almonds), in which a sketchily outlined reclining human form is bathed in warm light from above. And the artist's use of illumination reaches a near-delirious high with Gabriela's Laughter, in which the faintest trace of a human figure is drenched in a light from above that's so intense, it seems almost liquid. Snowfall comes across less as its stated subject and more as a take on the sky on a clear night.
Martínez Celaya currently lives and works in Los Angeles, and most of the work in this show is on loan from West Coast museums and private collections. Born in 1964, he lived in Spain from 1972 to 1975, then studied in Puerto Rico from 1975 to 1982, when he went to Cornell University to study physics. Postgraduate work in quantum electronics followed at the University of California-Berkeley.
That's not exactly the expected career path for a painter, although Martínez Celaya had displayed an interest in, and a talent for, art since his years in Spain. His rootless childhood and adolescence also seemed to instill in him a sense that he would always be, in one way or another, an exile. "I think I leaped from a cliff when we left Cuba," he is quoted in the catalog, "and the fall, which took twenty years, shrunk my capacity to focus on the present."
Maybe an interest in quantum physics isn't such a stretch for an artist like Martínez Celaya after all. For years, it has increasingly seemed that the more rarefied reaches of physics intersect with the realm of philosophy and religion. In which case, Martínez Celaya's work is right on the cutting edge. Either way, it's work of a very high order and a welcome addition to MoA's continuing support for Latin American art.