Art Activity and Embodied Consciousness from Enrique Martinez Celaya

“I eliminated from my painting anything that anybody has ever said that I was good at. So if I was good at drawing, I took it out. If I was told I had facility with color, I took it out. And then I said, “Well, if I give up all these things, what is painting, for me?”

That is exactly what I did back in 1990 during my first year in graduate school at MICA when a visiting artist came into my studio at Mt. Royal, looked around at my paintings, said, “Nice,” and then proceeded to engage me in conversation about Baltimore or something else without another word about “my art”. When I asked him why he didn’t want to talk about “my art”, he said he didn’t think it was necessary, because I was already, in his exact words, making “perfect paintings”- so he had nothing to say, I should just keep on doing what I was doing.

That “keep up the good work” was what prompted me to “eliminate what I was good at” to find out what was left. Paradoxically, the moment I decided to head off in an unknown direction was the moment that I knew I had a direction.

But what’s most interesting to me all these years later about the words above is that they are not my words: They belong to Enrique Martinez Celaya.

I had never heard of this “physicist, philosopher and painter” until a few days ago when a friend sent me a link to an interview he did with Krista Tippet for her radio program, “On Being”. Quite frankly, I was a bit wary when I saw the image that came with the link, but trusting in my friend’s judgement, I started listening to the interview. From the very beginning, I felt like I’d found a kindred spirit. The way he described working in his studio, how he thinks about art – I just kept thinking, “Yes!

Now, if you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time you may have noticed that I very rarely post work by other artists (and if you’ve only started reading recently, you’re probably wondering if I even write about art at all!). That’s “my bad”, and I will try to devote more time to this in the future. Sharing “some consciousness” from Enrique Martinez Celaya seems to me to be the perfect place to start.

So, below are some paintings along with some quotes from the “On Being” interview.  (To find out more about Martinez Celaya, here is a link to his his web site.)

“I think paintings are odd, in the sense that it seems to us that everything that is important is on the surface and visible. Unlike, say, science: we expect that we have to go in deep to understand what’s really at play in an equation or something. But that’s very deceiving. I think paintings have a complexity, a relationship to presence and reference in the work of art, the tension between what seems to be and what is… Rather than just be representatives or embodiments of a consciousness of the producer, they themselves having some consciousness: I guess animated, open engagement. There’s nothing intelligent I can say about it other than a feeling that I have that this is the case…

Enrique Martínez Celaya, The Fourth Angel, 2010, Oil and wax on canvas, 30 x 24 inches, Private Collection, Ocean Ridge, FL

One of the most obvious examples, I think — and it happens to me every time I encounter any work by Van Gogh, no matter where it is, and the moment I see it, something happens. There’s an intelligence at play in the work itself and a sense of something I can only describe as a consciousness in that work that engages me, forces me to be a witness, forces me to be a conversation partner, places me in a very unstable place. And there’s an instability in that exchange that is more, simply, than just looking at a bunch of marks and thinking of how Vincent might have made them or something like that. And this is a rare thing, I think. But I will suggest that somewhere around that, one could construct the definition of what art is, as opposed to an art activity. It’s when something has the capacity to embody consciousness in a way that it can be unfolded…

Enrique Martínez Celaya, The House (from the Sea), Oil and wax on canvas, 2015, 19 1/2 x 15 1/2 x 1 1/2 inches (framed), Collection of Lydia Cheney and Jim Sokol, Birmingham, AL

“When you go to a museum, and you look around, most works are forever trapped in their moment in a way that they are completely historical. But then the great works of art are always ahistorical. Regardless of the historical condition, they speak to you in the present…

Image result for enrique martinez celaya

“It seems that both in science and art and anything — in anything, the truth is not screaming that much. And I think that you have to be attentive, silent enough, be able to look and listen very, very carefully. And even then, you have to be very lucky to hear something…

“Even though sometimes people don’t realize it. I think that one of the most important ways in which (a background in science is) alive is the treatment I have towards my studio. I approach it not as a factory, which has become very much the way of artists looking at the studios in the last 40 or 50 years, but rather as a laboratory, as a cross between laboratories and a monastery, that kind of hybrid place…

“Many of my experiences with academic art and art theory has been the tendency to want to be scientific — or pseudoscientific. And when I came to art, I came to art without apologies. And that gave me a great deal of freedom…

“A lot of people talk about art as freedom when, in fact, it is the constraints that allow the possibility of art to happen. And color constrained under the pressures of these relatively small dimensions is beauty under compression, which is always an exuberant form of beauty…

Enrique Martinez Celaya, The Nebraska Suite, No. 17, watercolor on paper, 2010

(When asked about “what it means to be human, this is his response:)

I think the thing that is most pressing that comes up when you ask that question is compassion. I think — not because it comes naturally but because it doesn’t, to me. And I find that at this age, with four kids and with a world that everywhere one turns — and not just in the news, in just about every encounter with every — every person is carrying something. And I think what I’m reminded constantly is, to be human is to be aware of that, more than intelligence, more than anything else. And it’s increasingly urgent and increasingly hard to remember that.


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