He can paint a picture with words and write poetry with a paintbrush

Artist in his studio
Artist Enrique Martinez Celaya in his Culver City Studio/Photo courtesy Enrique Martinez Celaya Studio

BY Chandrea Miller

If you ask contemporary Cuban-born artist, author, former scientist and USC Provost Professor, Enrique Martinez Celaya, to describe his artwork, he will respond with the question: “How interested are you?”

The answer is very interested, according to art enthusiasts and supporters all over the world. In fact, the interest is so strong that his artwork cannot be contained solely to museums and galleries.

Martinez Celaya has held exhibitions, projects, interventions, and social and intellectual interactions at the Berliner Philharmonie, Berlin, Germany; the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, New York; and the Strandverket Konsthall, Marstrand, Sweden, among many others. In addition, his work is held in over fifty public collections internationally, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Museum der bildenden Künste Leipzig, and the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford.

Artist in his studio
Artist Enrique Martinez Celaya, Photo courtesy Studio Enrique Martinez Celaya

Martinez Celaya says he is grateful for his artistic success, but it is quick to point out that it is not what motivates him.

“This is my life, I’m not doing it to be civilized,” Martinez Celaya said. “It’s a matter of life or death for me.”

The intensity and urgency of the artist’s emotion is palpable inside the USC Fisher Museum for his latest exhibition SEA SKY LAND: towards a map of everything. USC Provost Charles Zukoski attended an early viewing of the exhibit and said he was drawn to one particular painting.

Painting of boy with flames
The Redeemer, 2022
Oil and was on canvas
22 2/5 × 20 1/10 in
57 × 51 cm

“It appeared to be a young man on fire emotionally,” Zukoski said. “An image of internal self, which I took to be Enrique.”

The artist, who left his native Cuba as a seven-year-old child and lived in Spain and Puerto Rico before settling in Los Angeles, says his paintings are forces at work from memories that are reflections but not recreations.

“The work creates something new that I’ve never been before and somehow reveals the nature of truth,” Martinez Celaya said. “I’ve always had a tremendous hunger and desperation for truth.”

Martinez Celaya’s latest exhibition at the USC Fisher Museum of Art brings together approximately 30 large-format paintings and sculptures created by the artist between 2005 and 2020. While Martínez Celaya has had numerous museum and gallery exhibitions worldwide over the last two decades, this is the first time the arc of his practice will be revealed in a Southern California museum since 2001.

The artist discussing his work at the museum
Executive Director Emerita of USC Museums Selma Holo; USC Provost Professor and artist Enrique Martínez Celaya; and author and scholar Alexander Nemerov joined in conversation at the USC Fisher Museum/Photo courtesy Chandrea Miller

With each written word and painted brush stroke, Enrique Martínez Celaya connects art to literature, philosophy and science. In fact, he begins to create with notes instead of sketches; philosophical and poetic writings that heavily influence his artistic practice.

“Enrique Martinez Celaya is a polymath and a Renaissance man. However, he is an artist above all and his art is informed by his constant companions: the great writers, poets and philosophers. His background as a scientist is another aspect of that is an intricate intellectual layering of his art: Martinez Celaya admits that he is searching for a kind of truth or clarity and actively employs these many lenses through which he conducts his search,” said Executive Director Emerita of USC Museums Selma Holo. “Although he never claims to have found that truth or that clarity– he is too humble for that — he does feels as if comes a bit closer as a result of his multi-faceted investigations. The resulting paintings and sculptures reward slow and patient looking and definitely make one’s own life the richer for taking the time to do that.”

Martínez Celaya’s practice also suggests that art is not only a cultural pursuit but an ethical effort that strives to better understand the world and ourselves through raw and risk-taking engagement.

USC Provost Charles Zukoski said Martinez Celaya’s artwork was intensely thought-provoking.

“He’s a unique thinker and exceptional intellect,” Provost Zukoski said. “He’s a very skilled artist philosopher who teaches courses here at USC and has exhibits going on simultaneously here and around the world. We are really grateful to have him teaching our students and being part of our community.”

However, while Martinez Celaya is many things, one thing is certain: he is one of the most important artists of our generation because of his unique approach to art.

“The technique is always there, but how your creative forces get inside of that is the difficult task,” Martinez Celaya said. “That’s what the work of the painter is versus me telling you the story.”

To honor this unique and multi-layered artwork, each of the three galleries at the Fisher Museum will present the artist’s writings alongside his paintings and sculptures. The exhibition Enrique Martínez Celaya SEA SKY LAND: towards a map of everything runs through April 9, 2022. For free ticket reservations link here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/martinez-celaya-sea-sky-land-towards-a-map-of-everything-tickets-244223457937