“It’s not a key,” Enrique Martínez Celaya warns of the text Empires: The Writing, which accompanies his first solo exhibition at Jack Shainman, now on view at the gallery’s two venues in Chelsea under the titles Empires: Land and Empires: Sea. I meet Celaya in early September, when we walk through the shows on the eve of the artist’s departure for his home in Los Angeles.
Empires primarily includes paintings, many monumental in scale, along with a handful of sculptures and works on paper. Some paintings tenderly build shifting surfaces, and others only thinly delineate tentative forms and spaces. A persistent horizon line runs through nearly every image. Celaya’s slim companion volume spans the three months preceding his show; the text originally appeared in the “Journal” section of his website. Though not a key, the text may be a hinge, opening a door toward a mode of reading time through Celaya’s recent body of work. Fittingly, the best of these works leave the door ajar.
“What it seems to be undermines itself,” Celaya begins as we circle the gallery. He is quick to redirect readings of his work that rely on metaphor and allegory. It’s perhaps no surprise; the abundance of boats, sand castles, children, and the occasional unicorn put a simplistic reading within arm’s reach. Familiar with rigid interpretations of these images, Celaya is thoughtful about the conversation he crafts around his work. He places skepticism of the image at the heart of his practice, pointing to the drips and scratches that mar the canvas’s surface as evidence of this acute awareness. “I would never describe my work as figurative work,” he says. It might be more accurate to say that Celaya’s interest in rendering the figure points to the act of rendering, an operation we perform daily as we assemble chaotic experiences into history, memory, and identity. “The images are a point of entry,” he says, “which I hope then disappear.”