Enrique Martínez Celaya - The Hollywood Report

Artist Enrique Martinez Celaya and Fiancee Erica Packer Host Opening of New L.A. Show

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Paintings and sculpture from the Cuban-born artist, whose collectors include Ridley Scott and Ellen DeGeneres, are on view at Hollywood's Kohn Gallery in his first L.A. showing in four years.


by Jordan Riefe

Internationally renowned artist Enrique Martínez Celaya is having his first show in L.A. in four years, opening "The Tears of Things," a collection of recent mostly large-scale canvases, with a VIP reception at Kohn Gallery in Hollywood on Friday. Counting filmmakers Ridley Scott and Martin Brest as well as stars Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi among his collectors, Martínez Celaya works in metaphor, making poetry a primary inspiration for his work, which might make his fiancee, Australian singer-songwriter Erica Packer, his muse.

"They're separate but there's a connection there in some aspect of her view of life," Martínez Celaya says as he completes the installation filling all three of Kohn's gallery spaces. "Just the very fact that someone else has an interest in trying to hold emotions or hold what they're going through in the world with songs, with words, and lyrics — that in itself is a point of connection." 

The new series of oil and encaustic are figurative images in a cool palette, underscored with haunting tension — moonbeam-soaked moths ascending from white roses toward their lunar lord in The Faithful, a desert landscape in sickly yellow with worn tracks disappearing in the desolate distance ambiguously titled,The Beginning of Everything. Packer's favorite is The Virtue, an image of a boy skating on a lake under gray skies.

"He’s cool, calm and collected," is how she describes her man during his months in the studio, pulling the show together. "He doesn't go crazy. It's a very personal thing for him. But I think he draws from real life."

When first seeing the new works, gallery owner Michael Kohn, who has known Martínez Celaya for nearly 20 years, was surprised to find a darker than usual tone to the artist's palette. "Sometimes that grayness lends a sense of distance, not nostalgia but an image that is conjured by reminiscence, which is odd if you look at it firsthand. It reminds me a little bit of [Anselm] Kiefer and some of his landscapes." 

The Tears of Things is a study in displacement and exile, individuals and landscapes recontextualized by anxiety. Even in the age of interconnectivity, Martínez Celaya finds that technology only exacerbates isolation and deepens disquiet. "This sense of being looked at by others, and the sense of separation between ourselves and others, seems more magnified than ever," he says, emphasizing a personal view of the crisis, then expanding his gaze to a macro-view. "It's also impossible at this moment not to understand the sense of striving and promise that appears in golden paths and golden trees and imagine the aspiration of all these migrants who come here and are confronted with alienation, displacement and otherness."

The title of the show references Virgil's Aeneid, a point when the titular Trojan War veteran on his way to founding Rome observes a painting of the battle of Troy. "There are tears of things, and mortal matters touch the mind," says that artist, transported back even as he sees the conflagration from a new perspective. 

A similar epiphany occurred to Martínez Celaya one day when he returned to his apartment to retrieve a forgotten item and passed through as oblivious to the room as it was to him. "I found it kind of dark, the lights were off and as I was walking through the house. I did so as a ghost. Five minutes before, I had walked through as if it were mine."

Formal training began for Martínez Celaya at age 12, when he worked as an artist's apprentice. At Cornell University, he majored in applied physics and minored in electrical engineering, then followed with a master's in quantum electronics from UC Berkeley, where he was Regents Fellow. He also happens to be patent holder on several laser devices. At UC Santa Barbara, he received his MFA and is a Junior Fellow at the Interdisciplinary Humanities Center. 

Originally from Cuba, he returned there earlier this year at the invitation of the Cuban government to create a public sculpture in Havana's historic Malecón esplanade as part of the 13th Havana Biennial. His piece El trineo (The sleigh) is a gold sleigh assembled from metal scraps of old toys and found objects. It references a toy the artist was given as a child. To him, it was a symbol of the North, where there was snow. Out of that experience came the short documentary Nieve en el portal: El niño que se fue regresa un artista (Snow on the Portal: The boy who left returns an artist).

"My grandfather's house by the ocean had been taken. It is now a wedding chapel and we can only go in there with permission of the government. So, the alienation and displacement became obvious. And at the same time, it had a familiarity that told me I will always be from there, even though I left it as a little kid. That coexistence in two different states is something I often find in modern life," he says with a shrug. "You are two things at once, the displaced and the one who belongs."

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