DENVER — It’s hard to pin down what is happening in the frame of Enrique Martínez Celaya’s paintings. In The Boy: Witness and Marker, 2003–2018 at Robischon Gallery, Martínez Celaya distills how the concept of “the boy” changes with judgement and time, just as painting itself is linked to materials and history. In his exhibition essay, Martínez Celaya shares that when the boy leaves his artworks for a time, the land or sea takes his place, a detail which encouraged me to consider what is at stake in the artist’s images.
Martínez Celaya’s paintings are like wordless poems, inverting and twisting meaning in profound and playful ways. In our conversation, he identified a long list of poets he reads, among them Robert Frost. Frost’s first commercially published book of poems was titled A Boy’s Will and, in 1942, he published a collection titled A Witness Tree. Generally, the poems within A Boy’s Will explore a person’s movement through an external world — how the landscape feels, smells, and sounds — while A Witness Tree engages complex internal human dramas.
Frost described the wings of a butterfly (“The Tuft of Flowers”), the pages in an open book (“A Cloud Shadow”), and the surface of water in the wind (“A Line-Storm Song”) all as a “flutter.” Rather than argue Frost is in need of a thesaurus, I would suggest it is the movement that evokes an image in the mind, rather than the actual thing moving. Extending the possibilities of a sensation is also what interests Martínez Celaya, such as when he presents one more creature that flutters in “The Relic and the Pure” (2013–2015), where a boy rests on the belly of a ray rather than a raptor. A hint or a gesture can shift everything within Martínez Celaya’s frame. A young boy stretching from a branch possesses an impossibly long torso in “The Prince” (2015). His rubbery adolescent body, with one protruding shoulder blade that bends the sky, conveys an anxiety that extends beyond what is literally depicted.
In Frost’s A Witness Tree the wood does not bend; it marks and supports its space firmly like “an iron spine,” despite the passage of time or maybe as a product of it. The permanence of the tree as witness in Martínez Celaya’s paintings is countered by the ever-changing boy — both primary signifiers in his work. Capturing the vicissitudes of time is one of the ways in which Martínez Celaya creates uncertainty. In “The Holy” (2009) and “The Sword” (2012) bright colors whisper from the edge of the canvas, buried under darker pigments, like a memory. The flowering field persists in the fray of “The Sword,” beckoning the viewer to imagine its life before it was cut down and burned black. When Frost describes the land in “The Quest of the Purple-Fringed,” he notes “the chill of the meadow underfoot” despite the sun overhead. The reader can recall how it feels when soil covets the cool night air well into daytime. Martínez Celaya’s scorched land prickles while slumbering, teasing us with the image of how the green plants’ limber stems previously swayed.
Martínez Celaya’s nervous layers of paint mimic the slippage of time as the boy pulls way from childhood in increments too minor to see until the transition is complete. In “The Wager” (2018) Martínez Celaya confessed painting the torso of the boy several dozen times, seeking the form that it “should be,” not one that mimics a young boy in a photo, but a body at an age both eager and fearful.
The meanings of Martínez Celaya’s images are not fixed or immediately clear. In this way, he says, “paintings manifest the doubts of the viewer as much as the artist.” It is imperative, he argues, to press on those anxieties to engage people in art.
Enrique Martínez Celaya’s The Boy: Witness and Marker, 2003-2018 continues at Robischon Gallery, (1740 Wazee Street, Denver) through March 9.