A commandingly large, disarmingly enigmatic portrait of the singer Adele hangs inside Enrique Martínez Celaya’s studio in Culver City, California. The oil-and-wax painting looks across the space at an assembly of other personages, some recognizable (T. S. Eliot, Boris Pasternak, Ernest Hemingway, Freddie Mercury), some not (including two of the artist’s young children).
It’s the first time that Martínez Celaya—who’ll show selections of these works in three exhibitions this year—has dedicated an entire series to portraiture. His aim, though, isn’t to indelibly capture the subjects, who aren’t even named in the titles of the pieces. Regarding the Adele work—which is called The Sparrow and depicts her in a black floral dress—Martínez Celaya says, “I like her power and I am interested in the contrast between that power and the vulnerability of her face and body. But it isn’t Adele that ultimately concerns me. The painting is more an incursion into the dynamics of talent, power, fear and insecurity than a portrait. It is an exploration of an inner condition.” Throughout his career—celebrated this year with the new Radius Books monograph “Martínez Celaya: Work and Documents 1990-2015”—the Cuban-born artist has brought such humanistic approaches to all of his work, shunning, for the most part, both formalism and the cool detachment displayed by many artists.
Martínez Celaya’s studio is one of L.A.’s more enormous ones, filling a two-story building. Two rooms are devoted to active paintings and sculptures—the artist works on many pieces at once, moving from canvas to canvas, with colors and other elements sometimes “bouncing around” from piece to piece. Another room is where he engages with works on paper. And the cavernous entry contains past works of his own that currently inspire him, such as a broodingly dark portrait of the artist Leon Golub, a friend, with text above his head that reads, “Leon whom I miss so much.”
With his new pieces, Martínez Celaya, a former physicist who left academia to become an artist in the early ’90s, is taking a temporary break from the intense, elaborate installations that have garnered him major attention over the years, including Schneebett, a frozen two-room environment inspired by Beethoven’s death presented at the Berliner Philharmonie. His portraits—on exhibit this year at London’s Parafin (through July 9), Aspen’s Baldwin Gallery (through July 24) and Barcelona’s Joan Prats (in October)—by contrast, have the intimate feel of a conversation with an interesting band of spiritual confidantes whom Martínez Celaya characterizes as mostly outsiders. “They all made their life a bet, the bet that their work would be something.”