at Jack Shainman Gallery, NYC
Reviewed by Robin Scher
“When we think we know art, what is it that we know?”
This is a question posed by the Cuban-born artist Enrique Martínez Celaya in his book, On Art and Mindfulness: Notes from the Anderson Ranch. It is just one of the many philosophical provocations Martínez Celaya delivered to his classes during summer workshops held at the Colorado-based art center over the past few years. Walking around Martínez Celaya’s solo exhibition of recent oil and wax paintings, currently on at New York’s Jack Shainman Gallery through April 22, it’s also a thought that rhetorically resonates through much of his work.
Take The Last Harvest (2017), which reveals a man holding aloft two cod-like fish. The painting takes pride of place, greeting viewers as they enter the gallery. Figuratively, the fish evoke a well-trodden proverb. But the man—Martínez Celaya?—seems to hold a somber expression, at odds with someone who knows how to fish. If anything, it appears like he has taken on quite a burden.
This reading might fit nicely were it not for the fact that Martínez Celaya has said himself that his paintings are “not windows to a world but all that there is.” Martínez Celaya emphasizes this by bringing attention to the materiality of his work, often leaving patches of canvas unpainted and in The Last Harvest, framing the edges in a sort of halo that distorts the image.
What we know then is that this is definitively a painting, and quite a beautiful one at that. As for the scene depicted, it feels at once both timeless and momentary; an immortalized snapshot of a familiar sort of crowning affair. The embodiment of nostalgia — could this be a function of our fisherman?
Once again, it is useful here to turn to Martínez Celaya’s own words. “The qualities that distinguish great art from the rest are, directly or indirectly, related to ethics,” Martínez Celaya tells his classes. At the heart of this maxim, Martínez Celaya continues, lies a foundation built on “love and compassion.”
This sentiment illuminates another familiar-feeling scene captured by Martínez Celaya. In the painting, snow gently falls on a young boy, hands in pockets, standing beside a smirking snowman. While Martínez Celaya has once again made an effort to bring attention to the painterliness of the work, it breathes with a sort of life, like seeing an old friend. Martínez Celaya has somewhat paradoxically titled this work The Unloved (2016).
Love and compassion certainly encompass this work, but do these qualities define it? In an interview with the critic Saul Ostrow, Martínez Celaya described our current epoch as a “cynical age, a time of hollowness often pretending it is otherwise.” He attributes this detachment to the various forms of media that have infiltrated our lives, leaving little space for authentic emotional connection through art. Taking this as a point of departure, Martínez Celaya describes his striking images as “crumbling signifiers of emotion” which he wields in an attempt to reawaken the senses that lie dormant when we view art.
A translucent house occupies the small clearing of a twilight forest in The Accountant (2016). Beside the house, a cryptic sentence in cursive font reads “the thing that counts.” Taken together, the house becomes an empty container ripe for association. Similarly, at the enigmatic core of all the paintings in this show lies a wealth of subjective meaning.
The Folktale (2017) is Martínez Celaya’s magnanimous testament to this spirit. Featuring another mysterious architectural form, The Folktale places a set of black marble stairs as its curious center. Two birds can also be seen flapping as they ascend the staircase towards a distant light shimmering on the horizon. It would seem plausible to suggest that reaching a suitably profound understanding of this image would be analogous to its content.
Another possible way to think of Martínez Celaya’s paintings is as a series of vague coordinates. Each painting holds a piece of a grand puzzle, which when combined with one’s unique lived experience, helps reveal some sort of ‘X’ on a map. The thing that counts.
Robin Scher is a New York-based, South African writer and a graduate of the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at NYU.