Saturday, March 9, 2019

Lita Barrie | Interview with Enrique Martinez Celaya

Enrique Martínez Celaya at his Culver City studio.
Behind him, the in-process sculpture for the Havana Biennial, The Well, 2014, Bronze, 152 x 65 x 59 in.

I sat with Enrique Martinez Celaya in his studio and discussed the way his background as a physicist and interest in philosophy and poetry inform his art practice.

Enrique Martinez Celaya currently has work on view at Huntington Library, Art Collections. He was recently awarded a two-year fellowship to create two interventions with the museum’s collections. In addition to an extensive body of work in painting, sculpture and photography, Celaya also writes and has a publishing house. He is currently hosting a series of public lectures at his studio in association with the University of Southern California, which reflects his commitment to furthering intellectual inquiry about philosophical issues in art.

Lita Barrie: I’ve always believed that serious painters have similarities with philosophers, physicists, and poets. I’m interested in how your work and your background combine these disciplines.

Enrique Martinez Celaya: Yes, like you, I’ve been interested in those three things for a long time. They try to understand the way things are, to make sense of what is in front of you -- the reality as you experience it. They tend to locate discontinuities in thought, or a certain twist that requires deeper incursion. Other disciplines tend to be satisfied with a more all-around sense of things. So every time there is a small little detail that doesn’t quite fit, that becomes exactly the point of interest, as opposed to thinking, “Well, everything else fits, so let’s just forget about this.” The thinking of these disciplines is, “Well, why doesn’t this fit?” Or, “Why is this slightly twisted or slightly rotated?”

L.B.: It is interesting that innovative thinkers are never self-satisfied either.

E.M.C.: I think that the more you know the less impressed you have to be with yourself. So self-satisfaction means you must not know very much. I’m satisfied only with being in the search that merits the effort but never with anything I accomplish. I always see how short I fall from the things I respect. And that keeps me going. That quest for something that is authentic and not the first thing that comes to mind.

L.B.: Is that why you paint over your paintings so many times? Is that to go deeper and deeper?

E.M.C.: Exactly, the first thing that I start with usually comes out like a first approximation to an idea and quickly reveals itself not to be deep enough, or true enough. Then I paint it over and have no allegiance really to what I have done because I’m not satisfied.

The Landmark, 2016, Bronze, 75 x 100 x 94 in.
Collection of Bianca and Stuart Roden, London. Photo courtesy of the artist.

L.B.: You studied physics at Cornell and Berkeley and also have patented inventions. What drew you to physics?

E.M.C.: I was interested in what was around me, the order of things and how things are organized. I was also interested in literature and art but thought they were things I could do as hobbies. Originally I wanted to be a theoretical physicist but over time I got more interested in lasers and light. I loved the elegance of physics and the beautiful clarity of mathematics.

L.B.: I’ve always thought Einstein wrote beautifully like a poet. And he was a very spiritual man.

E.M.C.: He was also someone who was never satisfied with his own work, and he kept going a little further. He said, “I have no patience for scientists who drill where drilling is easy.” It is very easy to find places in any field where you can drill where drilling is easy, but you get few results that might be impressive to other people. They’re too easy.

L.B.: You also did an apprenticeship as a painter when you were a child in Spain and a teenager in Puerto Rico.

E.M.C.: I draw on my early history quite a bit. Even though I went to graduate art school, those initial interactions with the artist I apprenticed with continued to inform my practice.

L.B.: Do you consider yourself a Latin artist, or are you uninterested in identity politics?

E.M.C.: I’m not really interested in that kind of identity because I draw my influences from all over the world. Obviously some part of who I am -- which is manifested in my work or the way I look at the world -- comes from my background: my history, my family’s history. Not just the fact of being Cuban, but being very active in exile, moving around Spain and Puerto Rico. Interestingly, a lot of people I related to in Puerto Rico were Marxists and very focused on German philosophers like Hegel and Kant. So all the Germanic interest in my work comes from the Caribbean. People in this country tend to think of Latin culture as separate from European connections.

The Gambler, 2010, Bronze, 69 x 30 x 38.5 in.
Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. Photo: Deb Miller.

L.B.: How did you transition from being a physicist to a painter influenced by a love of philosophy and poetry?

E.M.C.: When I was doing my doctorate in physics, I was painting all the time and reading philosophy and poetry as a private thing. Then I felt it was time I paid attention to the fact that I had a desire to do something else, so I did an MFA and a doctorate together for a while. Then I left everything and became a scientist for a bit. Then I went back to finish my MFA. In summary, it was a difficult transition, partly because I was so invested in physics at that time. To leave it behind and do something else as unpredictable as art seemed a huge risk. Not just a financial risk but also an intellectual risk. By the time I had patents and published papers, I had a certain confidence in my capacity as a physicist. In art, you can never be certain that you are not just a mediocre hack. Just because you can paint or draw does not mean that you have anything substantial to offer.

L.B.: Who were the artists you admired then and now?

E.M.C.: I thought a lot about Manet and Velázquez at that time. Through my twenties, Picasso was important to me, then Joseph Beuys, then I became interested in Hilma af Klint and German painting from the early seventies.

L.B.: What is it about Moby Dick that led to your recent paintings referencing Melville’s classic?

E.M.C.: The book is very ambitious emotionally and intellectually. I like the whale as a metaphor and the sweeping view. It is such a grand epic effort to hold all of the forces of the universe, while at the same time being so attentive to individual notations of human experience and small observations of character.

L.B.: There is an epic quality to your paintings because you use enormous scale. Why do you love working on such large-scale paintings?

E.M.C.: The balance between the presence of the work and the referential qualities of the work merge best when painting is large. Early on, I tried to make small paintings, just to see if I could harness those things, but it is much easier in a bigger painting.

L.B.: The experience of viewing a large painting and feeling your own body in relation to the work is very different from viewing small paintings. It makes us more aware that we don’t see from a fixed perspective.

E.M.C.: I agree. A small painting becomes too much of a window, and the engagement becomes very mental and intellectual. There is an intimacy to large-scale work because you are involved by it.

L.B.: You also make serial paintings in large scale. Is that to accentuate the epic quality of the experience?

E.M.C.: Yes. And I also construct a model for my exhibitions because it helps me think about what I’m after. I try to create a total experience as opposed to just discrete works -- even though the exhibition model consists of discrete paintings and sculptures. The idea is that when you go into the gallery, you feel the relationship between all the pieces. It becomes more than just a picture show because it is actually an experience.

L.B.: You are exhibiting at Huntington Library to coincide with Frieze Los Angeles, and you have a unique opportunity to work with the library’s collection. What does that involve?

E.M.C.: I get to move among a vast collection of very different works, and that movement really helps me. Even my own paintings all look quite different. I am not interested in producing paintings that look alike. Every painting is a new discovery and has no allegiances except to itself.

L.B.: You also have a unique position as a provost professor at USC, teaching in different departments.

E.M.C.: Yes, I teach in the Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences, and at the Roski School of Art and Design. I am interested in the idea of being able to interact with the university as a whole, and in being able to teach different courses

L.B.: So your teaching is like your artwork: you like to work in different disciplines. They must feed each other like cross-pollination, which is why you are such a Renaissance person.

E.M.C.: I find that rather than being distracting, it is enriching, because it takes me out of a linear way of thinking about things. It kind of derails you and knocks you off your regular patterns of behavior or thinking. You find yourself with an insight you never would have had if you had gone on a straight path. So I have come to depend on the accidental discovery. I need to put myself in positions where these accidental things come about.