Enrique Martínez Celaya: ‘The sense of past as memory always has force’
The artist talks about his latest show, The Gypsy Camp, and his interest in nomadism and displacement, including his own experience of moving as a child from Cuba to Spain and then to the US, and explains his process of working with images from memory
by LILLY WEI
Los Angeles-based Enrique Martínez Celaya (b1964, Cuba) is a cross-disciplinary artist whose practice includes painting, sculpture and photography. He has also studied physics and is a writer. His work has been exhibited internationally and is included in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg and the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, among others. Honours include the National Artist Award from the Anderson Ranch Arts Center, the J Paul Getty Trust Fund for Visual Arts and a Knight Foundation Grant. Celaya is a Montgomery Fellow at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, and has taught at Pomona College and Claremont Graduate University, both in California, as well as at other universities. Ediciones Polígrafa (Spain) published Enrique Martínez Celaya: Working methods/Métodos de trabajo, a comprehensive study of Martínez Celaya’s work process, and Radius Books (Santa Fe) published Enrique Martínez Celaya: The Pearl, which documents his 2013 exhibition at SITE Santa Fe.
Martínez Celaya is also the author of Collected Writings and Interviews 1990-2010, published by the University of Nebraska Press. He has written essays on art, poetry and aesthetics and has lectured at international venues including the American Academy in Berlin, the Aspen Institute in Washington and the Art Institute of Chicago. He studied applied and engineering physics and quantum electronics, before doing a master’s in fine arts at the University of California, receiving the department’s highest distinction.
Recent exhibitions include Burning as It Were a Lamp at the Hood Art Museum, Dartmouth College in 2014, The Pearl at SITE Santa Fe in 2013, and The Tower of Snow at the State Museum, Saint Petersburg, in 2012. He had solo exhibitions last year at the Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts and the Centro Atlántico de Arte Moderno in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Spain. He currently has a solo exhibition, The Gypsy Camp, at the Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.
The following is an edited excerpt from a conversation between the artist and Lilly Wei at the gallery.
Lilly Wei: I am intrigued by the title of your show, The Gypsy Camp. Would you talk a little about that?
Enrique Martínez Celaya: I am interested in transitions, both temporal and spatial, and in movement and journeys. A gypsy camp is temporary, just for a short time. You know from the outset that it is temporary as opposed to a settlement that you hope will be there for a long time. In the past 10 years, and especially the past five, I’ve been thinking about nomadism and displacement: I’m interested in the idea of the temporary and all that it implies, including a promise and a fear that you will need to move on again.
LW: How is that visualised in your work? It seems to be a theme that is very relevant now, one that is both political and existential.
EMC: Exile is not an aspect of my biography that specifically concerns me. I think more about an existential condition of belonging. I did a show called Nomad in 2008 for the Miami Art Museum (now the Pérez Art Museum Miami) that looked at wanderers who could not find a place to rest and had to keep moving on.
LW: You don’t think your work is autobiographical?
EMC: Well, I left Cuba when I was seven, moved to Spain, then left for the United States for college and graduate school. But the problem with exile as a dominating force is that it assumes that personal conditions are similar. In my family, there were tremendous emotional forces at play that wouldn’t have made any difference whether I had stayed in Cuba or left. Those were the forces that dominated my childhood experiences, overriding nomadism. It included my own feelings of introspection and alienation and trying to find a place that was hospitable to whom I was. Eventually, I found that in books.
LW: But the removal from Cuba must have been disruptive, and then moving again, and then again?
EMC: Yes, and this is not to say that to find yourself in a different country with a different language isn’t challenging. It also means that you can never go back to your childhood, to your grandparents’ house, the places where you grew up; it is all memory. The sense of past as memory always has force, and, as Julia Kristeva wrote, being a foreigner means you are always a stranger. It is a sense of strangeness that is part of the human condition.
LW: But isn’t every artist a stranger, an outsider, in a way?
EMC: Yes, absolutely. The reason I started to work as an apprentice for a painter at the age of 12 was to make sense of the world around me. And it is still the reason that I make art. It is an inquiry, an attempt to understand the world better. That’s why I’m interested in philosophy and poetry and why I studied physics.
LW: How is your study of physics evident in your work?
EMC: The desire to create work as an inquiry is really connected to my interest in science. I do research to learn, to understand what I don’t know, to advance my own awareness, not to give lessons. The most important aspect of my interest in philosophy and literature, often underestimated, is the pressure that I feel from the philosophers and writers I admire to make me adhere to the standards of their work and their authenticity of exploration. I’m not interested in irony or satire.
LW: And whom do you admire?
EMC: Conceptually, I’ve been more influenced by poets and philosophers than by visual artists. I’m doing, or have done, projects about Robinson Jeffers, Boris Pasternak and Marina Tsvetaeva, Robert Frost and the underlying currents in his work, César Vallejo and others. My lectures are about philosophy and poetry. I’m interested in knowledge and intelligence; they should bring you deeper into places, but should then move out of the way. When they’re in the foreground, it’s not so interesting. Einstein’s idea that if someone understands something very well, they can explain it simply is right. Jargon is only a prop, and it intimidates the audience. Real knowledge is never an appearance of something.
LW: What are the themes of this new body of work, in addition to transiency, nomads and gypsies?
EMC: The main preoccupation is painting itself, as a way to create a reference and a presence for consciousness. How do you go about that? How do you create a conviction of an image and undermine it enough so that is convincing as a painting? For instance, The Little Paradise (2016) took me two and a half years to make. The central figures, the woman and carousel, didn’t change, but to create the perspective, the equilibrium for them, I worked for two and a half years.
LW: Would you talk a little about your process?
EMC: I paint in oil and wax, adding layers, scraping it off, trial and error, an investigation. Hopefully, if the works succeeds, none of that effort is apparent. In The Angel of Frost (2017), the house behind the apple trees, the frost, the writings, the patches in the foreground, I have to make sure that the image remains true to its condition as a painting. The first impression as a story is only a fragment. Most of what is being articulated is about the way it exists as a painting. I’m interested in the reconciliation of this story, with the painting as a presence before the viewer.
LW: If the paint shapes the story, does the image change greatly depending on what you think the painting itself requires?
EMC: Yes. The Lantern (2017) began with the figure looking out to sea, but it is a year and half later and all that has disappeared. Now there is a figure in a garden. I don’t use sources, just images from memory, from what I have in my head. The discovery of what is true in the painting emerges in the process of painting. I paint loosely, with liquid layers of paint, and engage constantly with the process, so no assistance, it’s all about discovery. And I can’t make another one like it; each is its own instance.
LW: Can you leave a painting and come back to it, since your process is so deliberate?
EMC: Yes, I have a big studio and I move around from painting to painting. I work on several at a time. My studio is in Culver City and I also have one at Dartmouth. I need things to dry, and I do writing as they do, moving back and forth. Everything comes together over time. Allen Ginsberg, whom I was with at Skowhegan many years ago, said his first idea was good, the second not as good. Unlike him, it’s rare that my first idea for a painting is good: maybe my 20th is.
LW: You don’t plan your composition, you said. Is it like John Cage’s notion of chance?
EMC: Cage is a good example. In some ways, the writings are only to understand where I am standing. After that, the actual paintings reveal themselves, one painting shining a light on another. I don’t feel obligated to connect them. They all belong to a specific period of preoccupation and will naturally be connected somehow.
LW: But do these paintings have a stylistic and thematic similarity?
EMC: I think so, but I don’t need to try to do that. Certain ways of handling, construction and emotional underlayers are there that are different from five years ago. I rely on that. And I do projects that are quite different from one another. I like to be a moving target to myself.
LW: This seems to be a particularly tight exhibition and consists entirely of paintings.
EMC: Yes, I worked on this for a year and a half. Just before it, I did a series of portraits for a show in London. This is the first body of work after some other major projects and I wanted them to be all paintings. It’s in paintings that most of my ideas about art get worked out even if I do sculpture.
LW: You say that your images come from memory. Would you tell me more about that?
EMC: It’s not so much about my own memory; it’s more abstract. It’s about how we remember things, what we regret and why, and what did that point to? My own specific memories are only important if they seem difficult to understand, so I focus on that. But when I start a painting and want to use apple trees or sea grapes or this boy, I like to see what I remember, I like to make it up. Occasionally, I might confirm the image but usually it exists in my head. Between what I remember and the painting, there is a correction process that I’m interested in, and when my memory runs out of information, then that determines the end of that rendering. The whole notion of a photograph or a rendering is arbitrary. But with memory, I stop when there is nothing left in my head about it.
LW: Have you been back to Cuba, especially now since it is the most accessible it has been in more than half a century?
EMC: I have been invited, and it would be interesting to go back on an art project. I was born in 1964 and that Cuba is gone, as is the little beach town where I was born and raised. There are images in my head of so many fishing villages that I loved, all destroyed. If I returned, there would only be ruins. I couldn’t verify what I remembered. My grandfather’s house, for instance, was destroyed by a hurricane. My past is a combination of stories adults talked about over the years, a portion of it invented, and my recollections. There is certain quality about your childhood home, a very particular memory.
LW: Would you talk about one specific painting, perhaps The Other Shore (2017)?
EMC: In this painting, there are stairs going down to the sea, to the other shore. It has been an image that has always been haunting to me, steps disappearing into a dark sea. It invokes mortality and disappearance. The rocks form a barrier and there is a light from above. You don’t know the source of the light or the stairs. There is a sense of mystery, which is intentional, and it is also important that the little bright spaces seems to belong to something different, outside the landscape, just as the text in the painting does.
LW: What does the text at the top say?
EMC: “Out by the hand, to freedom, two anchors and a buttercup, I looked for them once.”
The writings in the paintings are always my own.
LW: And the writing in the cartouche?
EMC: It says: “I believed my hair was brown again, no grey in it.” So, obviously, there are references to movement, the promise to go someplace and the sense of aging. These four bright stars are crudely painted, and the text is another order imposed over the imagery, a meta-order. A painting like this is resonant, clear, and then it becomes more complicated. The passage of time surpasses the present, projecting towards the future and the fragility and mortality of things. The sea has always been an important image to me. There isn’t a figure here and that absence is something to be remarked on. The rest do have figures in them. So the figure, the future are hovering around this painting by implication
LW: What are the implications?
EMC: I’m interested in the images as a location for consciousness when they appear. They can make the work theatrical, but those are the risks. I place the figures in such awkward compositions that it’s as if they exist outside the landscape; it’s hard to imagine them within it. But there is always a way to look at the consciousness in the work and imagine some fragment of a story occurring there. Ultimately, why I use images even though I’m interested in the abstract is the idea that the world needs to participate. It may sound theoretical, but the reason there are figures is to bring in the world.
• Enrique Martínez Celaya: The Gypsy Camp is at Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, until 22 April 2017.