"I don't think of myself as a painter," Enrique Martínez Celaya said during a recent lecture appearance at the Boca Raton Museum of Art. This was no doubt news to the dozens of people crowded into the museum's little auditorium. They had come not only to see the artist's work — on view in "An Unfinished Conversation: Collecting Enrique Martínez Celaya" — but to hear him talk about it, and on that count, they were likely surprised as well. "I talk around the work, not about the work," he admitted.
Words matter to Enrique Martínez Celaya. (Consider the exhibition's title.) This is not necessarily true of many artists, who all too eagerly prattle on in the interest of making their work more accessible, often trivializing it instead. Martínez Celaya, in contrast, chooses his sentences carefully. It's worth noting that he sandwiched his remarks between slide presentations set to songs by Leonard Cohen, another man who knows a thing or two about words.
Here are a few of Martínez Celaya's statements from his talk, admittedly wrenched from context: "I always wish art to be more." "I work to discover my consciousness and whatever may be beyond it." "All artists should aspire to be prophets." He said that the main motivation for art is longing. He characterized the word painting as a noun, not a verb, and paintings themselves as "states of being."
You see, Martínez Celaya is as much poet as he is painter, as much philosopher as sculptor, as much book publisher as photographer. (He releases books on art, poetry and critical theory through a small imprint that is an extension of his studio, Whale & Star.) Did I mention that he also has a background in physics? Yes, he holds a bachelor's degree in applied physics and a master's in quantum electronics; just before receiving his doctorate, he quit his science track to pursue art full-time.
As for the show at the Boca Museum, it features only 19 works, although many are on the monumental scale, which seems to suit Martínez Celaya. Thirteen paintings combine oil with wax and/or tar, three are watercolors, two are hand-colored lithographs, and one is a bronze sculpture. All were created between 2001 and 2007 and are drawn from the collection of filmmaker Martin Brest, best-known for Beverly Hills Cop and Scent of a Woman (I remember him fondly for his debut, Going in Style). Another sculpture, unrelated to this body of work, has been loaned in connection with the exhibition and can be found in the sculpture garden.
The ostensible subjects of the images are readily identified: a darkened house silhouetted against a sunset (or is it a sunrise?) with two small trees outlined against the house, a solitary fir tree in a snowy landscape, a ghostly boat seemingly suspended in surrounding blackness, and various incarnations of a solemn-faced boy much like the boys found in other Martínez Celaya paintings — staring into a tank of tropical fish, holding a sea creature, hovering over a fallen tree.
Perhaps ironically, in the presence of the paintings, I often find myself at a loss for words. Martínez Celaya would probably be pleased to know his austere, wondrous images sent me to the poetry shelf, where I found these words by Theodore Roethke apropos: "I long for the imperishable quiet at the heart of form." The line might serve as a statement of aesthetics for Martínez Celaya, whose works invariably have an ethereal stillness about them. Get close to that stillness and you will have entered the artist's realm.
The experience of exile is also central for Martínez Celaya, who was born in Cuba in 1964 but spent time in Puerto Rico and Spain before making the United States his home. His formal studies have taken him from Maine to California, and he switched his base of operations a couple of times in the past decade before ending up back in Delray Beach, where he first had a home and studio in 2004. (A studio complex in Miami's Wynwood arts district is in the works; he teaches in Colorado and Nebraska; and he exhibits worldwide.) His exile is not that of the political refugee who dreams of restoring Cuba to its former glory but that of a spiritual wanderer who longs to find his place in the world.
It is useless to talk about Martínez Celaya and technique — or is it? After several visits to his studio over the past several years, I have always come away with the impression that he considers technical facility a distraction. At the Boca Museum lecture, he talked about abandoning a technique or a medium once he has become too proficient at it. And yet it is impossible to look at the artist's work and not be impressed by his virtuosity. It is almost as if he has become exceptionally good in spite of himself.
And so we are left with Martínez Celaya as something of an enigma, a contemporary but old-fashioned artist resolutely ill at ease in a postmodern world in which, paradoxically, he finds himself in the spotlight. He makes art because he feels compelled to do so.
A word about the installation of "An Unfinished Conversation," which takes up almost the entire first floor of the Boca Museum: stunning. The works have been given ample room to breathe — enough space for us to experience each piece both in its splendid isolation and as part of a larger body of work. It's one of the best exhibitions this year.