By Brett SOKOL | August 1, 2010 | Lifestyle
ABOVE: Enrique Martínez Celaya with an unfinished painting, one of four comprising his installation at New York’s Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine later this month. BELOW: Martínez Celaya with his 2001 sculpture Constellation
Let’s dispel the rumors. If you’ve spotted any of the similarly clad studio assistants inside artist Enrique Martínez Celaya’s new 18,000-square-foot Whale & Star compound in Wynwood, you may have been stopped short by the crest on their dark T-shirts. No, that emblem of a large white whale leaping up out of the waves and towards a beckoning star isn’t announcing the Miami arrival of the Church of Scientology. But the evocation of Herman Melville’s transcendental whale is absolutely intended to be ecclesiastical in tone. And Martínez Celaya is determined to spread the gospel—at least as he sees it—via an ongoing series of Whale & Star-hosted workshops, guest speakers, residencies for visiting artists, a publishing house and, not least, his own striking artwork.
“I want painting to function in my life the way most people want religion to function in theirs,” Martínez Celaya says, sitting inside one of Whale & Star’s rawly cavernous studios. “I was born Catholic, but my relationship with the Catholic Church has always been complex.” He declines to elaborate on any formal break, but admits, “Leaving the church created a vacuum inside me. My interest in philosophy, in art, is to fill that void.”
It’s a process that has come full circle as part of a commission for New York City’s Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine—one of the largest cathedrals in the world and hallowed ground among many of that city’s parishioners and artists alike. Martínez Celaya joins a select pantheon, from the jazz pianist Duke Ellington to sculptor Kiki Smith, who have been invited by the church’s directors to create a site-specific work. His own contribution, set to be installed inside the cathedral later this month, includes four massive paintings—each stretching 15 feet high and 11 wide. However, it’s not simply this enormous scale that has challenged Martínez Celaya—his solo installations have already filled sprawling spaces from the Miami Art Museum to the Museum der Bildenden Künste in Leipzig, Germany. (Another overview of his work is set to open at Manhattan’s Museum of Biblical Art concurrent with the cathedral pieces.)
“In the church, you have to address that people are coming there with real concerns in life: They lost their kid in Afghanistan, or they’re praying about something else very serious. These paintings will have to stand against that.”
Though only partly finished when we spoke, the four cathedral-bound canvases already carried an arresting power, both in their thick, viscerally beguiling brushstrokes and in their visual associations. In one, a young boy (whose facial structure and closely cropped hair eerily resemble those of Martínez Celaya) balances on crutches while doggedly moving through a blooming field. The outline of a house tied to the boy’s back has been erased, though the rope itself remains—part of Martínez Celaya’s daily tweaking: “Now it looks like he’s pulling the landscape, which seems like an interesting idea. And perhaps truer to what my feelings are.”
In one of the other paintings, a man stands embracing a horse, a nod to the biography of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who in 1889 came upon a horse being whipped in a town square. As legend has it, Nietzsche threw himself upon the horse’s body, desperate to stop the beating. Amid the subsequent commotion he collapsed. When he finally awoke, it was in an unhinged mental state that persisted until his death in 1900.
FROM LEFT: A 2007 installation in St. Mary’s Cathedral in Limerick, Ireland, included the artist’s The Boy Raising His Arm; Martínez Celaya’s oil-on-canvas piece The Garden (Pasternak), 2009–2010
“There’s nothing in any of Nietzsche’s writings that indicated he was an animal lover,” Martínez Celaya offers. Indeed, Nietzsche, who notoriously glorified the Übermensch, had little compassion for the struggles of the common man, let alone his beasts of burden. “I found it to be a moving gesture, yet also a strange one. It didn’t fit. It was an apologetic gesture of a life that could’ve been lived differently. I like what that says not just about Nietzsche, but also about all of us. I think of all the times I wished I myself had stopped to hug that metaphoric horse.”
A dramatic path to redemption? Sure. But Martínez Celaya’s life is full of sharp turns. Born in Cuba in 1964, he and his family left for Spain, and later Puerto Rico, when he was a child. At 17 he moved to the United States to study physics at Cornell University, a track that immersed him in the world of superconductors and cuttingedge technology. On the verge of completing his PhD in quantum mechanics at the University of California, Berkeley, he abruptly changed course, trading in his array of lasers for an easel and a can of paint. Leaving behind his nonplussed colleagues at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, he eventually became a successful figure in the Los Angeles art firmament.
Yet LA also seems to have left him wanting more. So here he is in South Florida, having moved across the country with his wife and three young children (and a fourth due just in time for December’s Art Basel fair). Eight months into this relocation he remains ambivalent—as a Cuban exile who says he has never felt a connection with “celebrating the Calle Ocho aspects” of el exilio, as a Latino artist with little affinity for the locally dominant currents of Latin-American art, and as an art instructor suspicious of the Miami art world’s key boosters.
Still, while he continues to eschew the poetry of José Martí for that of the Romanian-Jewish exile Paul Celan, “It’s important that people in positions of power here are Latino. I want my children to grow up seeing that. In Los Angeles everything in Spanish was, ‘Don’t Step on the Grass!’ or, ‘There’s a Camera Watching You!’”
As for Miami’s status as a burgeoning art metropolis, “There are a lot of people with a lot of financial interest behind the idea of a ‘Miami School’ of art. The fact that a unique school of art will spontaneously develop because a city is close to the water, or has a particular nightlife, seems very unlikely. But these people are vested in trying to sell this idea to their constituencies. There’s always a price for that: Either it quickly cooks artists who need more time to develop, or it makes deserving artists invisible when they don’t fit within the ‘school.’”
So why stay? Moreover, why focus Whale & Star’s outreach programs on a milieu he clearly finds not only lacking in academic rigor, but also desperately seeking approval in all the wrong places?
“I love Miami’s sense of insecurity!” Martínez Celaya responds with a laugh. “A city with insecurity has potential. The reason San Francisco hasn’t produced anything culturally interesting for a long time is because it’s too selfsatisfied. The same is true of Boston. It’s very difficult to be an artist in an environment where people just want to get together and celebrate how great they are.” He pauses, now seemingly speaking as much about himself as any nascent art burg: “A city needs to be striving to become better than it is. Out of that friction something good gets produced.”
Photographs by greg minasian (martínez celaya), sculpture courtesy of la louver gallery, los angeles; courtesy of whale & star (painting, installation); painting courtesy of simon lee gallery, london