Tar, Baby

The happy fatalism of Enrique Martinez Celaya

Enrique Martinez Celaya can fill a room. He can fill three rooms, in fact—three really big rooms. He can fill those rooms like he's a Club Rubber promoter, but instead of filling the rooms with bronzed skanks and Irvine frat boys, he fills them with artwork. Of course, it helps that seemingly everything that ever came off his sketchpad has been matted, framed and hung on the walls, but, hey, you do what you gotta do.

Celaya's first solo museum show—organized by the Contemporary Museum, Hawaii, and now at the Orange County Museum of Art—is bustling and wonderful. Celaya is a physicist by training, but it's the spirit that matters to him more, and there's a mystery to his best works on par with Gabriel García Márquez or Catherine of Siena.

Leading in to the large main galleries, you're greeted by Pena (Sorrow). A huge canvas, it depicts a hand dripping oil and tar. A ruff at the wrist is formed from crusted baby shoes and tattered hibiscus that look like dead birds caught in the slick from the Exxon Valdez. It's the tar that gets me—that oozing, lethal muck that's filling the tender crevices of my lungs, that sucked in and preserved the dinosaurs at La Brea. It's so black and unforgiving, and once you're trapped, you're trapped.

Celaya seems to have a fatalistic view of it, too: it's all the joys of life that are crystallized in just one piece—flowers, birds, baby shoes—and they're smeared and strangled under that suffocating gel.

But Celaya's sorrow doesn't seem to last. He's got an obsession with—of all things—delicate little hummingbirds. They're there when things are at their bleakest, when Celaya's figures are all shadow with no face. And they usually hover at throat level. A Catholic can't help but see them as the Word, the Holy Spirit—or a suitably New Age, non-organized-religion stand-in for them. (It's so easy to assume any artist with a Latin surname is Catholic or grew up that way; let me state that I'm reading his paintings from my Catholic background, not assuming anything about his.)

The varied media display an inventive universality: Celaya is skilled in sculpture, painting and installation. The River is a lumpy plaster sculpture of a woman's body, mounted high on the gallery wall; her legs are painted green, and her torso is covered with clouds. She is dead, drowned maybe, but a part of the cosmos as she could never have been alive. Bed (The Creek) is an installation of a pretty bed, made up in the middle of the room. A creek flows down the middle from the headboard to the foot, gurgling into a pile of crockery at its base. Throughout the rooms, large disembodied heads litter the floor like stone temple guards decapitated by conquering armies. They have names like The Most Fragile.

There are drawings, too, but they're not very good. He gets art-student lazy at times, including pieces like A Boy in His Room—a white, head-shaped mass on brown paper that isn't even colored in solidly, begging the question, "What made him decide it was time to frame that?" I know: y'all think Giacometti was a genius. But I find his drawings insufferable, and Boy has the same quality. One painting over, The Secrets at least has outlines of features like eyebrows and lips—and the contrast of blotches of drippy red on the otherwise unmarred white face. Blood often pours from Celaya's noses and mouths, as though someone had been beaten by a lover for refusing to shut up or had snorted some coke cut with gasoline. But considering the hummingbirds that usually accompany them like the dove guided Noah, I'm guessing Celaya's intention was far less prosaic; I'd say the blood loss was almost stigmatic in nature. Of course, I'm usually wrong.

The last room of the exhibit is a mix of bizarre, huge photos of naked people, so skinny, in forests, clay circles painted around their eyes, and night scenes on black velvet. They're lovely: October 2000 is a forest at night. The Blink is a tropical triptych with inkwash irises rising above an elk. The Opening is a forest in copper. And they've been done on a more epic scale by Peter Alexander, who showed his in the very same room a year or two ago. But Alexander doesn't own black velvet any more than Liz Smith owns the word "canoodle." So when Celaya paints Redemption as a conch on velvet, it's purely his—and it's purely my right to see that conch as an obvious stand-in for a womb, maybe even the womb the fruit of which was Our Lord Jesus. In fact, I own that interpretation.

But just when we've left Redemption, Celaya brings in more tar. In the middle of the gallery, a giant elk towers over a slight figure standing before it—man or woman or child is impossible to determine. Both are covered in tar and feathers, giving them a fluffy but deadly texture one wants to skim with one's hands. There's danger in Celaya, in his suffocating tar and his bleeding noses. But there's redemption, too—and hummingbirds.

Enrique Martinez Celaya at Orange County Museum of Art, 850 San Clemente Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 759-1122; www.ocma.net. Through Feb. 3, 2002. Open Tues.-Sun., 11 a.m.-5 p.m. $4-$5; kids under 16, free; free on Tues.
 
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