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.”

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