Contemporary Beat: Enrique Martinez Celaya

In 2012, I’m going to start interspersing shorter posts, about contemporary artists I like, with my longer historical pieces. I’ll call these snapshots, Contemporary Beat. For the inauguration of this new element on A Husk Of Meaning, I’m pleased to feature one of my favorite contemporary artists, Enrique Martinez Celaya.

Born in Cuba, in 1964, Celaya’s family moved to Spain when he was eight. His family then moved to Puerto Rico, and around the age of 12, Enrique apprenticed to a local painter. However, his principle formal education was in science, and in 1982 came to the U.S. as a physics student. He received  a B.S. from Cornell and was on the verge of completing his doctoral work in quantum electronics at U. C. Berkley, when he dropped out to pursue painting full time. He had already received academic acclaim for his graduate work on lasers and had been granted a number of technical patents as well. He then earned MFA at U.C. Santa Barbara in painting.

His work consists mainly of the human figure set in isolated landscapes in heavily symbolic compositions. To me, his figures always seem lost in a transient, magical world somewhere between dream time and real time, in search of  meaning, identity, and context. Even his pure landscapes have this quality.

Celaya is a wonderfully skilled technical painter, but he always keeps technique subservient to the idea he tries to manifest. He is influenced by many writers and philosophers, and writes regularly about his artisitic intentions and of trying to place his work in a wider framework of larger philosophical and intellectual concerns. Among his influences are Borges, Melville, Celan, Heidegger, Hegel, and Wittgenstein. Visually he takes, especially, from Velasquez and Caspar David Friedrich. I also find a deep strain of existentialism throughout his work. It feels to me like, although he fully  acknoweldges this universal state of separateness and isolation, he fights against it. I almost feel as if he has to restrain his hand from invisibly reaching into the paintings and helping to guide his wayward subjects. He paints them unvarnished, as he sees their condition, but I aways feel he’s rooting for them, and by extension, us.

His portraits and sculpture express the same haunted loneliness.

Being a lover of things nautical, I find myself hypnotised by his painting, ” Battleship.

Here, I see a beautiful ghost ship heading unknowingly, irrevocably, and hypnotically, toward the rocks. She could be as easily in the middle of the ocean as approaching a rocky shore. The time and place feels like everywhere and always. The ship seems caught in a repetitive loop that happens over and over. This haunting quality both inside and outside of time, along with a deep sympathy and pathos, is, I believe, the essential core of Celaya’s visually arresting, and ambitious artistic effort.



Enrique, seated left, in his studio, The Whale and Star, with a workshop group. Standing, third from left, is my wife, the painter Kathy Peck, who was chosen to spend  a week there.

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16 Comments on "Contemporary Beat: Enrique Martinez Celaya"

  1. Ulf Skei says:

    Definitely a good read on a very interesting artist. Being an existentialist myself I feel I can relate to much of the reasoning and imagery here. This is good and interesting!

  2. Helen says:

    Thank you for introducing me to this artist, My immediate reaction was “love it” and the more I looked, the more I love it. His palette, subject matter, style are all so appealing…dream-like yet real at the same time. It is a happy thing for the viewer that a quantum electronics scientist left the field to paint. One can really feel the time/space of these painting. I will be back here to see them again and again. They are strangely relaxing but provocative to me. When an artist touches this way, what a successful painter!

  3. David Leeds says:

    Glad you enjoyed it, Ulf. Viva 2012.

  4. Sue W. says:

    Thank you for taking time to introduce (at least to me!) this artist. I found I was very uncomfortable with the pieces he has done with the human figure looking outward, at the viewer. I was much more comfortable with the pieces where the view is of the back of the figure, or the landscapes…etc. Then I read this quote from him “I think some people see the path of abstraction as pure, uncompromised, but it could just be avoidance; artists who insist on removing their work from human struggles take a tidy path, which seems especially wasteful for those whose lives are in turmoil and confusion” – which is perhaps true of me – avoidance. Part of my comfort zone in art IS avoidance, escape, retreat from “human struggles”. I see that his art is more, is challenge…but even with the awareness of my “tidy path”, I still prefer art that soothes.
    But love to be challenged to challenge myself, so thank you.

    • David Leeds says:

      Sue, I really appreciate your close reading and observation of the material. I have to say, his work is very powerful and mysterious in person, and really lures you in while at the same time establishing strict boundaries.

  5. his work is so beautiful and yet the feeling of isolation is not a lonely one for me its a feeling when i can look at his work, i can dream and add my own thoughts and imagination to his work, it seems to stir my imagination, and inspire images thank you for posting this, and again it was so beautifully written.

  6. Kathy says:

    I am a huge admirer of his work, and of him. If I could own any painting by a living artist – it would be one of his. I never tire of looking at his work. As I did spend a week with him, and 11 over artists at his studio, I got a chance to know him. He is a totally brilliant man, endless energy, expansive mind, all of it. However, as the week was pretty much all about critiques, I will say he is a tough critic and doesn’t “couch” his words. He had most of us in tears, wondering why we had been chosen to participate. He is equally tough on himself, and depends nothing but the best from himself, and all around him. A truly remarkable man, and a brilliant painter. Thanks for this post!

    • David Leeds says:

      It was wonderful and inspiring to hear about your week with him. I learned a lot just from going over what happened with you. My appreciation for his work grows and grows. Thanks for all you’ve contributed to my knowledge about Enrique.

  7. Eliana says:

    I remember well how excited Kathy was to be picked to be in Celaya’s workshop and how intense of an experience it was. Thanks David for sharing his work here and you wonderful writing.

  8. Enrique Celaya is cool but, in my opinion, I would not feel threatened like other artists and painters do.
    Celaya’s style is too “explained” and too “obligued” to be in a certain way that it is not. Many artists and canvas painters give an explanation that might seem too obvious in terms of being accepted as a group of critics promoters.
    I would not give a critic of excellence to Celaya’s work, aunque no me parezca una cosa del otro mundo según lo poco que se ve de su trabajo aquí, because I would browse through many of his paintings just quickly if I was invited to one of his exhibitions and so, I would leave the premises in a pretty short time for it would not be necessary for me to keep on staring for longer than a quick peep.
    I would not consider myself too picky but rather conscious of the world of painting and, in this case, I consider that Celaya should become with something more challenging to the eye than to other specialists’ point of view.
    A painting should make you feel something and change your mood to “wow” while watching it but, in this very moment, I cannot say I would “copy-paste” any of his paintings for me to keep it.
    I would rather wait until he solidificates his real offer to the world.
    Celaya might be on the right path to becoming succulent to the media because he has been organizing shops and all…but…I would not say he has peaked, yet.
    I hope he finds himself and not actually focusing on our opinion of his work but comparing himself to his own past and embracing his purest future feelings on his news ways to his own redemption and self-acceptance, whenever this comes over.
    I do hope he is not completely satisfied with his achievements.
    This self-awareness is necessary for an artist to make…in terms of getting to a path of willingness to try harder and, just then, become an icon to the rest.
    He is already welcome to the group of intellectuals and critics as well as painters, so, he should take advantage of it and he should pursue to become greater. Not for us “art critics” but, relevantly enough…….para sí mismo, sin que nadie tenga que venir a decirle qué hacer en una página en donde muchos…muchos…somos invitados a dar nuestro punto de vista “.
    Way to go…so far……Enrique Celaya.
    Your pal in the distance,
    George Modilevsky.

  9. David Leeds says:

    George, I appreciate your close reading and looking, at this post. I think many of the points you raise are true for all artists. There is a pressure to keep repeating a a mid career style, especially when one is successful at it in terms of sales and critical praise. The best artists do push through this and use the fluency of their consolidation of style and approach to elevate themselves and their audiences to the highest levels. I do agree that either a loud, or quiet, wow, is what one should expect as a viewer. It’s also what one needs to continually expect of oneself. The best are always moving forward, pushing themselves and us.

  10. I love his work. The “Ghost Ship” is especially wonderful. What you wrote about his paintings expressing an existential angst is so intriguing. I agree with you in terms of the images you included. What a treat to learn about this artist and read your analysis of his work. I will now keep my eyes open for exhibitions of his painitngs at galleries in L.A.

    • David Leeds says:

      Sunday, The Ghost Ship is my favorite painting as well. Enrique is represented here by LA Louver, so that’s where is shows are. As another reader got me to think, I have come to believe also, that although he is very successful and famous, he really is in a position to springboard his art up a notch to the highest level. Hope we can watch it happen.

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Sculptor, painter, poet. Currently living in Los Angeles and Martha's Vineyard