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AN EVER WIDER WORLD / Enrique Martinez Celaya

Christian Williams watches with fascination and sadness as the life of his son-in-law gets too big for California

June 11, 2006|Christian Williams | Christian Williams is a screenwriter, contributing writer for West and former arts editor at the Washington Post.

Enrique Martinez Celaya was born in Palos, Cuba, on June 9, 1964. For most of us, however, the real biography of an artist begins at the time and place of our first encounter. For me it was seven years ago in Los Angeles, when he appeared in my doorway on Thanksgiving Day on the arm of my daughter Alex. We are free to wonder at such intersections in our lives, how they come to happen, and why.

He was at first glance a robust young man in paint-spattered shoes who knew a lot about laser physics and volleyball, and who, after a period of familiarity sufficient to display a courtly regard for the necessity of light conversation, quoted Wittgenstein in the kitchen.

His work had shed color years before, and was now advancing in textures of tar and feathers and reinterpreted human body parts. Some of the parts I would later recognize as my daughter's, but at this early stage a potential father-in-law is capable of dark projections without cause. Having met Enrique once, however, I needed another meeting right away just to finish the conversation. Alex, too. They were married within a year.

Others have noticed this phenomenon, and commented on it: The universe around Enrique seems to be constantly expanding. Drawn into it, you feel larger. Alex took it literally, expanding in the next five years to produce Gabriela, Sebastian and Adrian Marcos, who in turn did the same to the world of their father.

But at the time Enrique's biography began for me, he was living in his studio on Abbot Kinney in Venice. This structure was itself expanding, throwing walls outward and up, lintels rising to admit the transportation of larger and larger canvases, skylights opening. You went in the door, reached for something familiar and discovered it was 30 feet farther away than before. It was the big bang of a new universe with a soundtrack of contractors hammering.

Bill Griffin's Contemporary gallery was then an intimate space near the beach, where the opening of Enrique's show "Coming Home," with its boy and elk gazing at one another across the room, was such a success that I couldn't see both boy and elk at once, the space between them being filled with patrons. So the Griffin Contemporary also expanded, transforming into an elegant, airier structure in Santa Monica.

During this period Enrique's work was being collected by the museums of great cities and bought by collectors who came from afar, sometimes with interpreters. I could feel the momentum of his career. Even so, his work didn't seem made to hang over a sofa, and I wondered how many sofas required a 100-foot-long mural composed of ashes and the artist's own blood.

It is not something you mention to a son-in-law, but I had grown up in a house where the post office was revered as a job impervious to recession, and I'd had moments in my own career as a journalist and screenwriter when I wished I worked there. So it was a private solace that Enrique was all this time a tenured professor of art at Pomona College. They can't fire you from that, as Grandma used to say.

When teaching cut into his time to paint, he quit.

At about this time Enrique and Alex moved to Hancock Park, that old enclave of stately homes. The new house virtually flew apart, growing new rooms on the second floor for Gabriela. When she was 18 months old, Sebastian was born, and Enrique, invigorated, decided to restore to glory a 6,000-square-foot 1914 neoclassic mansion a mile away. This would be in his spare time, of course, while not traveling to install a show or working day and night on the next one.

It is an axiom of the artist that he should be able to bicycle to work from his home. This required that an 8,000-square-foot commercial building on La Brea be transformed from drab anonymity into his new studio, where the "Schneebett" ("Bed of Snow") was conceived. Inspired by a poem of Paul Celan and surrounded by glossy catalogs of industrial compressors, he constructed the deathbed of Ludwig van Beethoven, a literally frozen yet vaporous object to be installed at the Berlin Philharmonic for the contemplation of German concertgoers.

The ground floor of the building came equipped with tenants, a photo-finishing shop on one side and a venerable kosher pizzeria on the other. Visiting there, where Gabriela at 2 had her own set of watercolors and sometimes worked at her father's side, it was hard not to think of the intersection of Enrique's world with that of the pizzeria patrons below. Did they ever look up at the sound of the triumphant Ninth Symphony, which the artist played loud while refrigerating the memory of its composer, and wonder where it was coming from, or why?

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