Enrique Martinez Celaya is a most unusual artist. Unusual, not just in the sense of being of high quality, nor as one steeped also in literature and philosophy, but because he began his career as a scientist. And not just any old science but quantum physics to boot. His particular niche was laser technology in which he holds a PhD. It might seem a complete change of direction when switching to Fine Art but, as his first exhibition at Blain Southern illustrates, he is addressing complex questions relevant to both.
The 16 new oil paintings that comprise The Mariner’s Meadow focus on the sea and its relationship to the subconscious. Within the waves, sometimes placid, sometimes turbulent are reflections of and windows into the mind, exemplified perfectly in the painting above, The Generations’ Keeper. Its symbolism extends further. “I wanted the sea as a witness as well as a counter, the way the waves count, the insistence of the horizon and what that does, how it makes demands upon you as a place to come to or go to,” he told me. “And also the impassiveness of the sea that seems so constant in light of all the human turnings and variations which are so temporary and transient.”
Celaya’s fascination with the sea stems from his island upbringing. He calls it his “stowaway”. He was born in Cuba in 1964 though the family relocated to Spain, to Madrid where many exiled Cubans went, when he was eight. It was here that he first began drawing. Although the family moved to Puerto Rico three years later, Madrid left its mark since he would spend time in the Prado Museum, even as a young boy, studying the works of the Old Masters like Velazquez, Goya, Leonardo, Titian, Giorgione and so on.
In Puerto Rico he became an artist’s apprentice for many years though he chose to study science when moving to the United States. Yet he became versed in literature and philosophy, devouring the works of Kant, Fromm, Garcia Marquez and Hemingway. Texts from some of his thoughts are sometimes incorporated into the paintings. Unsurprisingly, one of his favourite books remains Herman Melville’s Moby Dick which uses the sea as a focus for the search for truth.
“I think about writers when I’m working,” he told a packed audience at the preview. “People who I’m pushed by and inspired by…paintings are to understand life better with their balance between destruction and creation.” He describes the island mentality as one of lonely isolation in which people distract themselves with myths and charm.
His paintings are timeless, elude narrative interpretation and the act of creating them often involves a lot of reworking. The young girl standing triumphantly on the shark was originally a young boy with his foot on a ray fish. The title The Prophet is enigmatic – you wonder what future is being foretold.
There’s no religious symbolism in Celaya’s works. Though he came from Catholic heritage, he walked out of his first communion. He found physics and philosophy provided more answers than religion to such questions as to what our place is in the universe and how it all works.
His work is held in more than 50 public collections internationally including the Metropolitan in New York, The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, The Whitney Museum of American Art and many museums in Europe. He has also written many books and has lectured for many years in art, literature and philosophy. As a young person in Puerto Rico, he benefitted from teachers he admired and sees it as a way of giving back.
The Third Sign is one of three works in the show in which the sea is a bright yellow. The edges of his works are normally incomplete to hint at a world beyond. The horizon is a fascination for many artists. It symbolises that point in which the known world or at least the knowable one intersects with another, more mysterious territory which is also the stuff of physics, philosophy and religion.
“Being and immensity make our finitude and insignificance painfully obvious,” he says. “What we do with this pain is our own problem, but the sea will be there to urge our hope and to be a handkerchief for our tears of sorrow”.
The Mariner’s Meadow is showing at Blain Southern, 4 Hanover Square, London W1S 1BP until 13 July.
All images are courtesy of the artist and gallery. Photos are by Peter Mallet