Looking for a Context for Martínez Celaya’s Work
by Mary Rakow, May 24, 2015
I see the head of St. Catherine of Alexandriaand think of that young woman in the 4th century, educated and wealthy, who was tied to a wheel, tortured and beheaded because she protested the persecution of Christians by Maxentius. I see The King’s Shelter. I look down on these works made by Enrique Martínez Celaya and think—whole body, whole person, historical and transhistorical. Here now: integrity, uprightness, valor.
I read what people say about Martínez Celaya’s work, about the arm, the heads, as dismemberment and I feel stupid and alone.
It is summer and I have flown to Philadelphia for the Cézanne retrospective. I don’t know exactly why I’ve come. I have never looked at art made after the Renaissance, never at modern art, never at contemporary art, but I am here just the same. In the long line of visitors I enter the gallery. I see the first painting hanging on the right. It is small, no larger than a sheet of notebook paper turned on its side. It is seven apples. That is all. I lose my breath. I am completely startled.
I stare at it for an hour, the crowd shuffling at my back. Anchored in sense, I look at it and look at it, each corner, each inch. I feel lifted out of myself, transported into a greater, into an other order. I feel something like joy.
I finally turn away and exit in haste. I realize how, in all parts of my life, my consciousness is opaque, tunneled. Outside it is dark. I sit on the museum steps. I begin to slip out of the experience. I am trying to understand it, searching for words. I realize this is what the mystics talk about. This is ecstasy.
By the time the cab comes, even though I avoid small talk, hoping to hold onto the feeling like a flame in a lantern, not wanting the cab driver to intrude, not wanting to see him, not everything, my ecstatic experience dwindles. I pledge to not keep wasting my life as if my fingertips were bandaged, my ears plugged, my eyes seeing things under a gray drape. I do not sleep. I return to the museum in the morning thinking, I will be alive. Because, after all, aren’t I alive in any case? Isn’t this constant opacity illusion?
This time I move through the galleries with the crowd. Entrance to the show is timed in fifteen-minute intervals. I turn my eyes away from the apples but I am thinking only of them. I pass the mountains in Provence, Mont Sainte Victoire, the blue vase, Madame Cézanne, but I am looking at my shoes. Then I turn a corner. On the walls of a new large room, on the pure white, hang the two Large Bathers canvases. I cannot believe my eyes. I know I can return to the apples but I don’t. I can return, perhaps, even to ecstasy. But here is something different, something just as compelling.
The Bathers stand above me, larger, higher, so that in comparison I shrink to the size of a child, my perspective that of a young and very alert child. The woman with long brown hair lunges in from the left, another reclines—I stand before one canvas then the second, back and forth and back and forth. The sun sets. Here nudity and proximity tremble at the edge of some possibility, at the edge, perhaps of comfort, again.
I make up excuses so I can exit the gallery and return. I tell the guards, “I’m a psychiatrist from Los Angeles. I have a patient in crisis. I must make a call. I’ll be back.” I leave and sit in the cafeteria. I tell myself; these canvases are about memory. No. Not just that. These canvases enact the process of remembering in me. I return to the Large Bathers. For three days I go in and out. I stay only with them.
I cannot not wonder the source. Perhaps Cézanne saw something as a child, adults in such a configuration, to have glimpsed this, say, on an outing with his nurse, or perhaps in a dream. A moment when all that one can feel oneself to be as a human is, in an instant, felt as ordered, at peace, so that the course of one’s life subsequent to that moment is experienced as loss, as a dividing of consciousness, a dividing of the self into intellect, feeling, bodily sense, the stubborn will. This is not ecstasy. This is attempted retrieval of a deep-seated thing obsessively pursued even to the last years of one’s life; the choice to throw oneself up against something larger than oneself, that image, that memory, against which one’s life can be measured in its entirety. The struggle to find it. Rules are broken. From the canvas left unpainted, a flagrant white.
The first time I see the work of Enrique Martínez Celaya it is the exhibit “Coming Home” that inaugurates the opening of Griffin Contemporary in Venice, California.
I go at the insistence of a friend. This is my first look at contemporary art. This is my first art opening. The place is thronged, limousines on the curb. I learn that it is impossible to look at art at an opening. I wedge myself between the crowds and the walls trying to see. A man compliments me on my shoes then drifts away. I am relieved because, between the bodies, I have glimpsed the boy and the elk. I go home moved and frustrated. I go back the next day. I go back the day after that and the day after that. I go to the gallery every day until the show closes. It is 4 o’clock on the last day. I am told that all of the work has been sold to a collector in Berlin. I will never see the boy and the elk again. I sit in my car and cry.
I think of Buber. The boy knows himself to be in the presence of something larger than himself, this animal that is not just larger in bulk, but larger in meaning, the boy standing with both feet squarely on the ground, his posture soft but attentive, listening. As if what the beast offers is a chance at transcendence and the boy realizes this to some extent and it stills him, and he does not turn away and run. He lowers his head, while all of his body inclines toward this intuited possibility.
I think of da Vinci’s Annunciation in Florence where Angel Gabriel brings, as if attached to the very feathers of his wings, an entirely new order. The boy knows this too. It is an elk and not an angel. And the good news is there, inchoate, in the mirror that is not only stuck between the elk’s antlers, but placed there, aimed at the boy, as if placed there not by the artist but by the beast himself. The boy, caught up in his own awareness of this possibility of self-reflection, of self-knowledge, might be saying, If I raise my head to you, I will see myself as I truly am. And I will have no end.
The boy stands softly and alert, exactly at that boundary between awareness and decision. He holds himself, or we could say he lets himself be held, exactly at that seam where what is known touches what is not-known, where what is seen touches what is not yet seen, that moment where, should he look up, time would fall away. And he knows this. He stands in an annunciatory moment. He stands knowing ecstasy is near.
I come to see the boy and the elk on rainy days, on sunny days. I read some photocopied articles on the counter in the gallery where, during the opening, wine was served. I read about Enrique Martínez Celaya being born in Cuba, raised in Spain. I read a lot about “exile” and “displacement” but I don’t feel any of these things. I decide I do not care what other people see in his work. I sit with the boy and the elk. I think the boy is saying, I am here, aware of my own breath, aware of the hunger of my own consciousness, of my restlessness. I am at this seam where transcendence becomes possible. I am not lost. I am not in exile. I am not alone. Here, now, in this awareness, I am home.
Today I am in Marfa, Texas. I feed the horse in the field across the street. I ride my bike along the farm road and some days see the gentle antelope, their tawny hides. I am here for a writing residency and my new novel is going horribly. I throw four years of work away. I read my way through Augustine’s City of God. I think about Enrique’s work. I try to find words for why I respond so deeply to it. I cannot do it. I am not an art person. I have nothing smart to say.
Discouraged, I walk to Maiya’s Restaurant. I eat the arugula and walnut salad. I scribble notes on the white paper tablecloth. This feels like a beginning. I put Enrique on a line that runs between Cézanne’s apples and his bathers:
In a notebook of Enrique Martínez Celaya’s, on a page listing two columns of opposites, what is given as the opposite of “Beauty”—ugliness? No, not ugliness, but “Terror.” To save oneself by making a painting, a clay pot, a photograph, a poem, a symphony. To make because one looks too often into the abyss, shuddering. Behind the resting object, what? If it is beautiful, what? Terror. One of course thinks also of Celan. What made speech almost impossible for him? Terror that results from the actual. Terror that is a response to human cruelty lived through. Human cruelty which arises in the same place where speech resides—between persons. Both in the same arena. This is the problem. What links Martínez Celaya to Celan, to Cézanne? We could say terror that lies behind the act of making.
Where does terror begin? Of course, I do not know. But certain of Martínez Celaya’s works present themselves as possible answers, particularly these three: The Garden of Forgetfulness, The Secrets, and A Boy In His Room.
Terrifying, also, the possibility that both speech and gesture will not work, as in: Pena (Sorrow), and The Empty Garden. Again, Celan:
To stand in the shadow
of a scar in the air.
Let us imagine Cézanne, come back to life. The Large Bathers are resident in the world in their permanent state of incompleteness, of un-resolve, embodying both the movement of memory and the grating on the skin. We imagine Cézanne looking at all of Martínez Celaya’s work. Wouldn’t he stop in front of Acceptance of Longing? So fleshy, the surrendered animal, so scored and tense the pedestal on which he lies. This tension, this grid. Wouldn’t Cézanne say, “Yes, Enrique, it is precisely this.”
Celan’s most important verb, it seems to me, is “stehen,” to stand. To stand upright against what had happened and continued to happen, the European disaster that took both of his parents. On Martínez Celaya’s canvas, Sebastían, the young son’s name is written slowly, carefully, on top of what? On top of trees that stand against the black ground. Is this terror? That what is carried inside might hurt the child I have just made? This vortex? In the three Large Bathers what is delineated? The vision of a choice—as if Cézanne were saying, If this tentative harmony was once possible between adults I glimpsed at the river’s edge, why isn’t it possible for me? Why is touch difficult? Why do I scream at my wife if she accidentally brushes my sleeve? The opposite of beauty is not, for Martínez Celaya, for Celan, for Cézanne, ugliness, but terror, to stand against which, one makes. One makes some thing of beauty. One makes what is truthful.
How do I touch this child and not wound him? not wound her? How do we touch at all? Cézanne’s question. We bleed into each other and across. Our wounds. Our histories. Mark (two figures). And, in spite of this, can’t we say that love is possible?
Who is the boy who stands before the elk? My boy (self).
Martínez Celaya’s work asks the question, again, again, again, Who am I? How did I get here, here? I am on this line between terror and ecstasy. How do I stand (stehen, Celan)? And what is the field in which I find myself now, newly, again? This field that, now, is with others? Where is the answer? River (Todo el campo es nuestro). How do I find it? Fir (the path). Who will take me there? The Shepherd. And why does he have no wings?
Who will come to solve this mystery of relatedness, of being with my daughter? my son? And where will I find this one? Is he draped above, in the branches of the tree? El que Llega (the one who arrives)?
I leave Maiya’s Restaurant carrying the white paper tablecloth covered with words.
At home I watch two things simultaneously on t.v.: a Lannan Foundation videotape of Jorie Graham reading her poems followed by her conversation with Michael Silverblatt recorded in Santa Fe in 1999, and a night-long homage to Elvis in the movies. I flip back and forth between Graham and “Jailhouse Rock.”
Graham speaks of the border between the audible and the inaudible, the visible and invisible, a topic which interests her keenly. She believes there are certain kinds of “entry points” into the invisible which are found on the “threshold of sense” where the material world is diminished. Her poem “Phase After History” which she has just read, begins with two birds caught in a house, their wing sounds barely audible.
“Things that are on the threshold of sense give you an entry point into the invisible, the inaudible...” she tells Michael Silverblatt. “They are always like angelic presentations. They tell you by their annunciatory quality and by their diminishment of the material world... that there might be another world beyond. They tell you there is another world behind it.”
I stop flipping to Elvis.
“You have to rehearse your instrument of description on the visible world,” she says, “the manifest, on the flesh via sense, to train your instrument on this in order to approach the act of description, which is possible, of two orders of the invisible—the invisible orders that are external to us (spiritual) and the invisible order that is internal to us (psychological).”
Graham cites Gerard Manley Hopkins as her guide in saying that she feels these dimensions are all of one piece, one fabric: the carnate, the manifest, the spiritual, the psychological. I am thinking of the boy standing before the elk, the visible world in which both invisible orders are approached, spiritual and psychological. This entry-point reached via sense, paint, tar, feathers, glass.
“If we rehearse our own capacity for transcription of the visible,” she says, “we can arrive at places that open to the spiritual realm.” I think she is right. On a new blank sheet I draw a triangle:
But not all artists are like Martínez Celaya, not all poets like Graham. This is what concerns me as I go to bed. What is the worst version of that other level of experience, that awful level that does not satisfy? It goes something like this: I prepare to go to an opening. I have gone to many of them since that first one at Griffin Contemporary. I dress in black, I wear great heels. But most important to my preparation, I change my thinking. I bring my intellect, my restlessness to consider and to feel the whole of things, to a quiet place. I do not want to suffer disappointment so I adopt a complacency. I pretend I am not profoundly yearning. I remind myself I must not say, I hunger to see God. I remind myself not to think of ecstasy.
I enter the gallery. I have narrowed down all of my other concerns: my aging body, my husband, my daughter and two sons, the inevitability of my death. I have left these things outside the gallery in an effort to be moved. I am as aware of this act of tossing out, this reduction, as I am of the art in front of me. I will end in some hour of some day. My hour of death will be shared by every other existing thing (microbe, satellite, leaf, newspaper, parliament, fountain pen, glacier, rat). It will be an hour in the history of each of these things but, for me, it will be the hour of my coming to an end. I look at what hangs on the wall. How have I lived? Will anything follow?
I stand longer before it. I am trying to be satisfied. Again, I funnel my consciousness down from its natural restlessness to an even narrower tip. I aim this at the work, inches from it, so that it is the tip of a knife entering a wound. I say to myself or to my companions, “This is very thought provoking. I realize only now that I haven’t really seen this thing before. Or the energy that occurs here.” I leave the gallery holding onto a little lesson in the act of seeing. By the time I am in my car the work has already become something very small, something didactic, and, (dare I say this?) little more. It is something I can put in the pocket of my coat. It is something I will forget about after three days.
What has not occurred in me with such work? What has not been set in motion?
The problem, in this degraded experience, isn’t the absence of religious subject matter to which I was for so long accustomed. Nor is it the absence of figure. Nor is it abstraction or leanness or unfamiliarity. In fact the problem is not with the subject matter at all. It is with the thinking and feeling that lie behind what I see. I don’t feel the art is driven by big enough questions. I don’t feel it is driven by deep feeling. The problem is that behind the work I don’t feel the artist and I suffer the same things.
Even if the artist and I do suffer similarly, desire similarly, wonder similarly, the problem is that I will never know this because the art that I am looking at doesn’t involve these things. It is as if the artist has agreed to what seems to be a commonplace now, that art cannot and should not address itself to what will remain, always, unsolvable. That art shouldn’t lean itself into this. As a consequence, art, in this degraded experience, bears the unfortunate distinction of being able to fulfill its ambition because that ambition is kept so small. This is the opposite of Cézanne in the Large Bathers. This is the opposite of modesty, the opposite of valor, the opposite of a willingness to fail.
I consider Jorie Graham’s comment that a good poem presents me with the opportunity to have complex, simultaneous, and even
contradictory feelings and thoughts. This is one of the things that makes poetry intensely pleasurable, that it matches the complexity of my own interior. It is even more pleasurable when it exceeds that complexity.
A good poem is also hospitable to paradox. From a noble family a young woman of exceptional learning takes a public moral position for which she is tortured on a spiked wheel and put to death. She is canonized. She is made the patron saint of young women, scholars, attorneys and wheelwrights.
I come out of the gallery into traffic, a phone call from my daughter, a woman on the sidewalk rearranging flattened boxes on her shopping cart. She grips the cardboard tower with her white gloved hand. What is her history? What is her name?
On my night table is Augustine’s The City of God. I don’t know exactly why I brought it to Marfa but I find myself agreeing with those who say Augustine is the greatest intellect in the Western tradition, the greatest thinker.
Three years after Rome collapsed, after Alaric and the Goths sacked the city in A.D. 410, this Bishop of Hippo began his great work as a defense against the charge that Christians were responsible for the fall of Rome. From this apologetic opening he spreads his immense net.
I try to imagine standing, as Augustine did, in the ashes of Rome and still to be able to see so far in all directions. His treatise extends from the beginning of the world (which he calculated to have occurred less than 3,000 years prior) to its prophetic end. He reviews philosophical opinions regarding the Supreme Good, discusses the philosopher Varro’s delineation of 288 different sects of philosophy, argues against the Stoics, the Cynics, the Old Academy, the New Academy. His love of Plato and Virgil is undisguised and everywhere evident. His knowledge of Scripture is inexhaustible. He is encyclopedic.
The question is: Why can I go from The City of God to Martínez Celaya’s work and not feel a jarring? His work isn’t, to my sense of it, explicitly religious, August-inian, Christian, Platonic or Catholic. But if I free the word soul from its religious and ecclesial connotations, if soul can mean that force that wrestles most profoundly and desiringly for meaning, that resists reduction of the self, then I can say in Martínez Celaya’s work the soul becomes more than a rumored thing.
Augustine’s journey to his final conversion to Christianity as an adult is well documented in his more famous work The Confessions. As in The City of God, we see here a person who demands of himself and of his world that all of his appetites be considered, accounted for, satisfied, honored, in the search for meaning—including his concupiscence. To aim at nothing less. I consider, then, Landscape (Breadth).
Augustine’s knowledge is encyclopedic but he is not writing an encyclopedia. He is giving the widest and most complex view he can of the world itself, of what it means to be here, to be alive and questioning and curious and demanding. People who write about Martínez Celaya often mention, admiringly, that his output includes poetry, photography, painting, invention. But, so what? These could be the footprints of a dilettante. But they aren’t. The issue is the level of the questions that reside behind the work, the level of inquiry one can feel here. The choice is an Augustinian choice, a Cézanne choice, a Graham choice, a Celan choice. To place oneself over against the largest questions and therefore inevitably fail. Light and Figure (almonds). Again, Celan:
In the almond—what dwells in the almond?
What is the line between Martínez Celaya and Augustine? What besides a voraciousness of appetite and the refusal to reduce human experience? What else?
I think of Thing and Deception. The huge rabbit is not childish. It is serious. Veiled but seen through the red it is not a metaphor for death (crucifixion) and resurrection (Easter bunny) because it is not a metaphor at all. It works like a good poem. And what opens up? Not just an idea (death/resurrection). Not just a thing seen with the eyes and then transferred to an already existing idea. What shocks is the figure itself. This is unquestioned, making impossible all lesser meanings, all metaphoric loops. The paradox which gives that pleasure Graham describes is that Being itself is the subject and this high-mindedness would seem to contradict the ordinariness of the object but it doesn’t. We hold both at the same time. We see and think and feel both at the same time. That is the pleasure. And, then, too, what lies under the white?
Augustine asks whether or not the bodies of the damned will be consumed by the eternal fire in which they will suffer. This is how his mind works: in the same breath he considers the arguments of the Platonists and he considers the salamander, which was then thought to, amazingly, live in fire without being consumed. He feels both are necessary to get at the question. It becomes a question of the body. The salamander is material, corporeal, visceral and his argument moves, as Graham describes a good poem, from the material to an entry point into the non-material (the psychological, the spiritual). The salamander is like the rabbit in Thing and Deception. The rabbit is not presented because it is cute. It is not presented because it is sentimental. And, most important I think, it is not presented ironically. We can draw a line between Martínez Celaya and Augustine because the ironic posture, so easy, so acceptable, is refused. Irony masks sorrow. Irony marks the giving up of a dream of a unified field of meaning. It masks despair. What connects Martínez Celaya and Augustine is irony’s opposite. Hope. What kind of thinking? Couldn’t these words of Augustine’s also be Enrique’s: “That nature has some cause, science some method, life some end and aim” (Book XI, 25)? What is it that the human person looks out on? What is visceral and intelligible and has no end? Man and Sky.
But this is also the problem. Knowing all for which one hungers, voracious, unending, partial, temporarily stayed—to then produce another like oneself, another human being, this sets in motion the precise intersection of all that one fears with all that one hopes to be true. The Future. To bring into the vast unsettledness of oneself, The Transpierced (Morning), to stand here, in the world where meaning is believed possible, to bring into this tangible, visceral seam of knowing and not-knowing, a person of one’s own making, a child, this surely is a radical step, Gabriela (First).
But the child takes nine months to appear. Who is The Visitor? As Mary might drop her prayerbook to the floor at the sight of the Angel Gabriel come through the walls to her room, unexpected, troubling, what does this visitor bring? News of a new order, of a new way to be one’s self.
How does one build a structure to house the possibility of such good news? Seated Figure. Who arrives, in the dripping boat, to aid? The Helper (Abruptness). What voice is it that comes to me, The Wanderer? What voice comes through my walls? Gabriela’s Laughter.
I step out of bed into the Marfa night. It is the season for meteor showers. The sky is covered with stars in a manner impossible for me to detect in Los Angeles. I wish they were pinholes in a velvet vault, but they are not. They are real. The landscape here, in daylight and in night, makes it obvious that I am living in something larger than myself. And it is overpowering. I come back inside.
What can stand up to this complexity? The boy with his lowered head, his stillness before the elk, before the mirror the elk holds. St. Catherine with her wheel. To be alive requires these. Humility. Modesty. Attentiveness. Valor.
In another Lannan interview conducted by Helen Vendler, the Nobel prizewinning poet Csezlaw Milosz says, “Of course,” because he is thinking of what his poems are not, “Of course,” his thick black brows lifting, “Of course I would like all of my poems to be about ecstasy.”
Black tar, feather, plaster, glass, rabbit, veil, darkened arm. Where does it say these cannot be entry points? Where does it say a painting can’t be about something? Where does it say I must not hunger? Where does it say ecstasy is no longer allowed?
In the kitchen I find blank paper and a pen. I draw another figure:
Near the close of his conversation with Jorie Graham, Michael Silverblatt mentions that literary critics often say “of course Jorie Graham knows that in this secular age the belief in God is only “notional,” after which they proceed to speak of her poems as if they are “hypothetical enactments of a not-held belief.” Graham responds by saying that she has never been able to understand, though she can admire, people who are absolutely certain of a secular rendering of reality. “We don’t know enough to know,” she says, smiling. Pointing to the books of her poetry that lie on the table between them she confesses that she writes poems in order to constantly inquire into the nature of reality, that if she had answered, the poems would not be necessary.
The second time I see Martínez Celaya’s work I have driven south on the 405 freeway for about an hour to see the retrospective that originated at The Contemporary Museum, Hawaii, and is now at the Orange County Museum of Art.
It is evening. The rooms are filled with people. A video is playing which I think is of Enrique talking about his work, his process of making art, but I do not slow down for it because on a far wall I see what I will come to know as Unbroken Poetry (Herman Melville). I walk toward it as quickly as I can without drawing attention to myself. The hummingbird holds his place on the wall above me, larger than life, larger than me. I feel a terrible shock, a startling recognition. But of what? Recognition of what? The hummingbird hovers on pink that is almost gaudy. I wipe my eyes on my sweater sleeve. I remind myself: I am a grouchy unbeliever. I do not go to church. I don’t read the Bible anymore. I don’t believe in religion. I don’t remember Melville. So why am I shaking?
I heard him,
he was washing the world,
I leave the painting and come back. Leave and come back. What am I seeing here? Tar. Elk. Feather. Arm. Child. Rabbit. Snow. Pines. Bird. Lace. Wing. Had speech been possible to me then I would have said, There are entry points. I am in one now. ∆
1. Paul Celan, Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan, translated by John Felstiner (New York: W. W. Norton, 2001) “Stehen, im Schatten,” p.237.
2. Paul Celan, Poems of Paul Celan, translated by Michael Hamburger (New York: Persea Books, 1995) “Mandorla,” p.193.
3. Ibid., “Einmal,” p.279.
Mary Rakow is the author of The Memory Room (Counterpoint Press, 2002), named one of the 10 Best Books in the West, Los Angeles Times, and finalist in Fiction by PEN/West. She lives in the Bay Area.