Figure and Landscape in the Work of Enrique Martinez Celaya
“Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth....”
Then the Lord put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him.
—Genesis 4:14, 15
The human project, as it has been shaped by western literature, is a restless one, plagued with discontent and longing. It is also a lonely one. Despite our reliance on and need for others, the responsibility for the decisions and actions that constitute our human project is ours alone. Like Cain we are marked—as a curse and a blessing—to wander the landscape alone, which confronts us moment by moment as a challenge, as a choice. Our human project emerges, over time, in the accumulation of these choices and through these actions as we seek to understand ourselves and the world. Art participates in this restless human project.
Art and the Human Project
Enrique Martínez Celaya works in painting, sculpture, photography, poetry, and prose, as well as through teaching and lecturing, and enlists all of these diverse practices in his search to understand the world. The recent publication of his collected writings, which surveys the development of his thought over two decades, reveals an ambitious pursuit of understanding through art that defies categorization. Two closely related exhibitions, recently on view in New York, offer an opportunity to reflect on Martínez Celaya’s distinctive artistic vision. Organized by the Museum of Biblical Art, The Wanderer: Foreign Landscapes of Enrique Martínez Celaya consists of fifteen works drawn from public and private collections that explore the figure-and-landscape motif in the artist’s work from the perspective of biblical imagery, narratives, and themes—and the Bible’s influence on the writers who have influenced Martínez Celaya’s work. Another exhibition, The Crossing, includes an environment at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine which continues the pictorial structure of the figure and landscape but extends its implications into a different and challenging context. (I served as guest curator for both projects, and the following is based in part on my catalogue essay for the mobia exhibit.)
The figures and landscapes that emerge in Martínez Celaya’s work are the remnants of individual choices, decisions, and actions in his struggle to achieve, if only for a moment, a coherent relationship to the world. In a lecture entitled “On Painting,” he observes:
[D]rips and slashes of paint are not signifiers of the emotion of a particular time, as they are frequently described. Instead, they are material’s resistance to becoming aspects of images, thereby rubbing against, threatening, the meaning of those images or rotating that meaning to where images alone could not go.
The figures and landscapes—however unstable and tenuous—are what remain after this struggle. “Content,” Willem de Kooning once observed, “is a glimpse.” It is this glimpse that Martínez Celaya’s work tries to give by spanning two conflicting realms of experience that seem to pull us in opposite directions: our concrete presence in the world and our imagined relationship to the past and to the future. As restless creatures in perpetual movement toward our own ends, we find that the present moment, which is the most real and tangible evidence of our existence, often dissolves into the ephemera of memories and projections, moving us away from the present—the only place we can act.
Martínez Celaya’s work attempts to hold these realms together by resisting the narrative it also invites. In the same lecture, he suggests that the power of painting is found when “images fight back and their meanings play hide-and-go-seek with the materials as well as with the objecthood of the work of art.” His boys and girls, dogs and horses, boats and birds, rivers and paths, trees and plants do not form coherent or stable narratives that take us beyond the concrete reality of the work. Martínez Celaya does not place the figures comfortably and consistently in the landscape—they seem to be rendered on the landscape in a manner that resembles icon writing—which slows down the narrative impulse by flattening the space that the painting nevertheless creates. He also allows paint to drip on the surface and leaves the edges of the canvas unpainted, disintegrating or loosening the imagery and thus further impeding our attempts to make these works fit comfortably into our referential imagination. Rather, they confront us head-on as artifacts in the world, pulling our attention from the distracting fog of our thoughts back to the concrete experience of that work at that moment. When his work is seen in person, the images that emerge seem barely corporal, as they wriggle on the fine line of that moment. It is through the tension between the work’s presence as an artifact that confronts us as an irreducible Other and our desire to make it serve as a reference for our memories and aspirations that the “flicker” of meaning, as Martínez Celaya calls it, begins to emerge.
Although he works only from memory and imagination, Martínez Celaya is not offering his own self-expressive visions for the viewer to contemplate from a distance. To borrow from Martin Heidegger, the “world” revealed in these works is formed by the “earth,” by the material presence of the canvas, dirt, and pigments. By bringing this earth into her earth, they open up a world. Martínez Celaya observes, “Great paintings do not transmute colorful dirt into spirit but instead reveal the spirit in the dirt.... The viewer engaging this revelation would do well by not thinking of painting as either the spirit or the dirt, but as both at once; or as one.” This experience is made explicit in No Title (2006), in which the rendering of a lightening strike, painted with blood, charcoal, and varnish is placed beside a mirror that confronts the viewer with her own reflection, her own presence looking back at her through the work [see Plate 1].
The Bible and the Western Literary Tradition
Literature drives Martínez Celaya’s artistic practice. A new volume from University of Nebraska Press, Enrique Martínez Celaya: Collected Writings and Interviews, 1990-2010, makes it clear that he not only paints within a literary worldview, he paints as a writer. Many writers have been an impetus for and subjects in his work, including poets Osip Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova, Joseph Brodsky, and Robert Frost; novelists Tolstoy and Melville; and philosophers Heidegger, Wittgenstein, and Nietzsche. He has painted portraits of Paul Celan, Henry Martinson, and Schopenhauer, and marked other paintings with names like Mandelstam, Pasternak, Lorca, and Kierkegaard. A deep kinship with reading and writing is evident in the very stuff of Martínez Celaya’s paintings, yet he does not read in order to harvest imagery, references, or allusions, as does the German artist Anselm Kiefer, who uses literature as a means of historical excavation. Although they share a keen interest in the poetry of Celan, Kiefer uses it to assemble a world built on opaque and esoteric forms of knowledge, such as Gnosticism, alchemy, and the Kabbalah, which seem to nibble at the edges of western literature. In contrast, Martínez Celaya reads as a writer formed by the living and dynamic heart of the western literary tradition, which he refuses to treat with irony, skepticism, or cynicism—including the biblical connotations and religious implications that infuse it. The structural framework that informs this tradition and has shaped Martínez Celaya’s project is based in the Bible, the DNA of western culture. The Bible is “a mythological universe,” critic Northrop Frye observed in his classic study on its literary nature and influence on western poetry, prose, and philosophical discourse. Critic George Steiner has written that, “All our books, however different in matter or method, relate, be it indirectly, to this book of books.” Bruce Holsinger has even demonstrated the Bible’s influence (by way of medieval theology and philology) on postmodern critical theory from Foucault to Derrida. Although a detailed study of Martínez Celaya’s literary influences remains to be written, biblical narratives offer a provocative interpretive means for exploring his work, shaping both its structure and emotional register.
Literary scholar Herbert N. Schneidau argued in Sacred Discontent: The Bible and Western Tradition (1976), that the Bible manifests a distinctive, “kerygmatic” voice. This prophetic tone undermines the “cybernetic” voice of myth, which works to immortalize a culture’s social conventions. The kerygmatic voice tears open a space for literature that critiques structures, demands change, and calls for conversion, all of which characterizes the trajectory of western literature. Schneidau’s concept of “sacred discontent,” holds the possibility that the written word can call the reader to change. In a recent public lecture, Martínez Celaya called for artists to take up this prophetic role. “Truth, for the prophets, is not merely a belief but a moral imperative that compels them to speak and act with little regard for convenience or gains.” For him, the prophet is not an exclusively religious role: “To be a prophet, an artist doesn’t need God but clarity of purpose, character, and attention.” For Martínez Celaya, this moral imperative and clarity of purpose are found more often in literature than in art, which has become too content with its role as entertainment, decoration, an indicator of cultural value and social status. It has become a parody of Charles Baudelaire’s radical search for the “painter of modern life” who would turn his back on the idealized and otherworldly nymphs and angels and would “seize the epic quality of contemporary life and make us see and understand, with brush or with pencil, how great and poetic we are in our cravats and patent-leather boots.” The contemporary art world has lost its desire to offer a prophetic critique, choosing rather to celebrate its cravats and patent-leather boots. As Roberta Smith wrote recently in the New York Times, “the public is learning that it can do without actual art objects as long as there is a payoff, preferably moving video images or live performers with a modicum of nudity.”
More is expected of literature, which is why the critic B.R. Myers could complain in the Atlantic that Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom was a “576-page monument to insignificance.” To write in the western tradition is to make oneself accountable to others and to oneself and to make a wager on the prophetic nature of language. It is thus to write with as well as against the Bible. Because Martínez Celaya paints as a writer within the prophetic tradition of western literature, he cannot help but paint, in some way, with as well as against the Bible, even if his work does not make explicit references to specific themes, narratives, or images.
“Man lives,” argues Frye, “not directly or nakedly in nature like animals, but within a mythological universe, a body of assumptions and beliefs developed from his existential concerns.” The works collected in The Wanderer suggest that Martínez Celaya’s figures and landscapes embody a “mythological universe” shaped by writers whose own imaginative universe has been formed, in turn, by the Bible.
The Figure and the Landscape
According to the literary worldview of the Bible, from the moment God places Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the drama of the human project is narrated through the relationship of the figure to the landscape. As God banishes our ancient parents, this relationship is stamped with the impossible desire to return and weighted with the burden of toil and hardship. Jesus sums up the entire human project as revealed in the biblical narratives when he says, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Luke 9:58). Yet it is the enigmatic story of Cain and the mark he bears that frames The Wanderer: “You shall be a fugitive and wanderer on the earth.”
The biblical narratives are more than illustrations of themes like exile, exodus, atonement, salvation, sacrifice, redemption, and forgiveness. They are concrete and particular instances of the figure in the landscape, who must act in and through the world at one particular moment. Whether patriarch, prophet, king, disciple, leper, or beggar, whether obedient to God or defiant, each person must choose to act and do so alone. The stories create a tension between the concrete landscape that must be traveled and overcome, and the landscape of the imagination, whether it is the memory of Eden or the hope of the Promised Land.
Several of Martínez Celaya’s works exploit this tension between real and imagined landscapes. Log-Book (Figure and Waterfall) (2002) depicts the faint outline of a figure emerging gradually through a viscous layer of tar and feathers [see Plate 2]. On his shoulders, the figure carries a detailed and highly rendered waterfall. Boy in Vitrine (2004) offers a powerful and complex relationship: the figure’s nakedness and vulnerability are covered with dried flowers; he is protected from the dangers of the landscape by a glass case that ultimately imprisons him, calling to mind the mark of Cain—an image that also inspired a novel by Hesse and a play by Byron [see Plate 3].
The figures in these works are unfinished projects, vulnerable in their adolescence and nakedness, and, as R.R. Reno observed in a review in First Things, ultimately concerned with death. Interestingly, those figures with clothes seem especially vulnerable, like The Boy Raising His Arm in his handmade pajama pants, or the figure in The Ray of Light (2008) who wears an oversized coat and nothing else, bare feet muddy as if from a difficult journey [see Plate 5]. Neither seems especially prepared for the task at hand.
The figure remains a force even in those works that have no explicit human form. Even here, a tense presence seems to arise, either through an implied figure or through the artist’s perceptible effort to resist including one. The Orchard (2009) offers both [see front cover]. The burnt remnants of apple trees in a flooded field not only offer a distant echo of Eden, they imply human cultivation of the land, as well as the victory over human effort by the destructive (and potentially redemptive) forces of fire and water. As with several other works, Martínez Celaya marks this painting by writing on it; this gesture reasserts human will, adding another layer to the extraordinary struggle between figure and landscape after the biblical fall: “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life.”
Although he is not personally religious, Martínez Celaya has written in his sketchbook that “Art is either religion or it is nothing at all” and often quotes Wittgenstein’s observation that although he was not a religious man, he could not help but look at the world from a religious point of view. He takes the ethical dimension of artistic practice seriously. For Martínez Celaya to speak of art as religion is not an excuse for art to illustrate or promote religious faith or to indulge in self-referential talk of the spiritual, which, like Stepan Arkadyevitch’s newspaper and cigar in Anna Karenina, provides the pleasurable sensation of a slight fog in his brain. Rather, to push art toward religion is to move it away from the confines of white-walled galleries, their air thick with theory, where art is autonomous from the rest of life—and toward the bracing atmosphere and harsh light of the real world. It is the structural framework of religion, as a comprehensive worldview, that shapes Martínez Celaya’s understanding of artistic practice. Religion functions as a standard, a test. “I want painting to function in my life the way most people want religion to function in theirs,” he writes. When curator Klaus Ottmann placed The Boy Raising His Arm in Saint Mary’s Church in Limerick, Ireland, at the biennial A Sense of Place for OPEN ev+a 2007, Martínez Celaya regarded it as “a circumstance capable of generating new insights...[that] would recreate the work of art” [see Plate 4].
It is not uncommon for artists to make claims for art’s capacity to engage the world from the safe and aestheticized confines of the museum or gallery, where viewers come to be entertained, distracted, titillated, and even lectured, perhaps even on religious or spiritual themes. Such was the case with Kiefer’s 2010 installation at Gagosian Gallery in New York, Next Year in Jerusalem. It’s quite another thing to make those claims in a context where the audience has come for other, non-art purposes, seeking guidance, a sense of the sacred, the experience of transcendence, or merely a place to meditate on the challenges and burdens of life. How does Martínez Celaya’s work operate in such a context, in which his paintings are deprived of the veneer of significance and relevance bestowed by galleries and museums?
This question drives The Crossing, an environment of four monumental paintings (15 by 11 feet each) made especially for and in response to the nave of the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City, where they were on view in October and November of 2010. These paintings extend and deepen the concerns of Nomad, an environment of five large paintings presented at the Miami Art Museum in 2007 that evokes the passage of time [see Plate 6]. Intended to participate in the rich and diverse liturgical and sacramental life of the church, these new works continue the motif of figure and landscape: a young boy on crutches; a muddy, snow-covered road; a figure embracing a horse; and an empty boat [see Plates 7 and 8]. The ruddy colors and loose painting style destabilize the imagery, allowing it to flicker in the candlelight and the natural light that comes through the stained glass windows. The cathedral frames the paintings in a context that cannot be exclusively aesthetic. “In the church,” he observes in an interview, “you have to address that people are coming there with real concerns in life.... These paintings will have to stand against that.”
But they stand in a particular way. Although the paintings are large—and making them posed considerable physical and conceptual challenges—they do not and indeed cannot stand out in the nave of one of the world’s largest cathedrals. These works do not declare themselves as art—as means of self-expression or institutional critique; they blend into the nave, supplementing and even participating in the religious and sacred experience of the space. They stand in strong distinction to Kiefer’s Gagosian installation, which Roberta Smith characterized as theatrical and entertaining, making use of “big, accessible themes” that approximated a Broadway musical.
In his review of The Crossing, art historian Matthew J. Milliner discerned a distinctive medieval, premodern approach to art that participated with the goals of its sacred environment, which coincides with Martínez Celaya’s own interest in the relationship between art and ethics and with the close partnership of art, religion, science, and philosophy before the Enlightenment. Installed two-by-two on the north and south sides of the nave, the paintings can be encountered either at a distance, while one walks the nave toward the altar, or more intimately, as one traverses the side aisles. The muddy path and empty boat mark the journey of life. The two other paintings, which include the human figure, evoke healing and the search for reconciliation. The body of the boy on crutches is adorned with jewels, a childlike gesture that marks him as sacred. Around his neck he carries a house, bearing a burden, perhaps memories, responsibilities, aspirations. The figure embracing the horse gains resonance and power in light of the cathedral’s popular Saint Francis Day service, in which animals are blessed.
The preview opening for The Crossing took place during a memorial service, and collectors and patrons from around the world first viewed the work with the smell of incense and the somber sound of a requiem mass on the organ, a reminder of the ultimate questions to which art must be accountable. The paintings took their place within the liturgical life of the church.
Far from a gesture of promethean independence and artistic hubris, The Crossing is an exercise in humility, which affirms Martínez Celaya’s belief that art can at times be a “whisper of the order of things.” He writes:
This whisper of the order of things is not meaning, but it offers a point of reference from which the measurement of meaning makes sense; meaning that has answers to questions of my place in the world, of the choices I make, and of my relationship to others. The whisper is faint but the best art helps us hear it. It has nothing to do with the realm of perceptions. Rather, the invocation of a great order in the face of nothingness is fundamentally an ethical experience.
The Crossing tests the claims of The Wanderer in a context that affirms the deep relationship between aesthetics and ethics, where the goals of artistic practice are not entertainment and power, but faith, hope, and love.
The Crossing and The Wanderer disclose a world that is stripped to its barest essentials, isolating a space in which we must act, must take a position in relation to the work and in so doing acknowledge our identity as wanderers ever on the move, never comfortably home, simultaneously cursed and blessed, longing for something more, somewhere else in the midst of landscapes that are ultimately foreign. Martínez Celaya refuses to make art that lets us be comfortable with the beliefs, habits, or fashions—our cravats and patent leather shoes—that insulate us from life’s ultimate questions. He has observed: “What we need in art is ambition of spirit, quality, and authenticity, not because those imperatives are abundant in our lives but precisely because they are not.” Like those writers so profoundly influenced by biblical narratives, Martínez Celaya drives a stake into the ground that tethers the concerns or regrets that distract us from the concrete reality of the present moment. His work reveals what the writers he most admired found in the biblical narratives, from Abraham’s leap of faith in Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling to Zarathustra’s eternal return in Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. It is summed up by Hermann Hesse in his prologue to Demian, his novel based on the life of Cain: “Each man’s life represents a road toward himself....” The western literary tradition and Martínez Celaya’s work reveal that the project of our lives must be accomplished alone, one decision at a time.
For Alexei Lossky, patron and friend