Enrique Martínez Celaya's project at the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine is a test. In The Wanderer I argue that a biblical reading of Martínez Celaya's work is justified because his worldview has been shaped by writers for whom the Bible has figured prominently. This biblical reading is not an end but a means to demonstrate the seriousness of Martínez Celaya's project, a seriousness that is derived from the prophetic and ethical concerns of the western literary tradition that the Bible has inspired and provoked.
The Crossing consists of four monumental paintings, each 15' x 11,' made especially for and in response to the nave of the Cathedral. Placed in bays, two by two on either side of the nave, the paintings participated in the rich liturgical and sacramental life of one of the world's largest cathedrals. The four paintings continue Martínez Celaya's use of the compositional framework of the figure and landscape explored in The Wanderer. They include a boy embracing a horse in an open muddy field just after a rain; a dark green and blue painting of an abandoned boat at what seems to be dusk; a very large muddy, snow-covered path; and a young boy on crutches, with jewels on his body, in a lush but foreboding landscape bearing an object the shape of a house on his neck. This simple yet evocative imagery underscores the necessity and responsibility to act meaningfully and ethically in a resistant and ominous landscape. These paintings affirm the role of the Cathedral not only as a place to encounter transcendence or touch the divine, but to be encouraged to act meaningfully in and for the world.
Martínez Celaya's work forces art to bear a heavy metaphysical burden. Although he is not religious, Martínez Celaya's work can be considered religious in this way: it is intended to make him a better person and enhance the ethical sensitivity of those who engage and contemplate it. His work embodies Wittgenstein's claim that although he was not a religious man he could not help view everything from a religious perspective. The Crossing is Martínez Celaya's attempt to test the ethical claims he makes for his work by placing it in a context that exists for and in service to the Other.
It is one thing to make such claims in an art museum or gallery, in which viewers come primarily for an aesthetic experience that, since Kant, has been cut off from the ethical, religious, and spiritual--an experience that is now predominantly decorative and oriented toward entertainment. In this context, such non-aesthetic claims, like ethics or philosophy, are usually regarded as part of the decorative flair.
It is quite another to make such claims for art when it is presented in a context in which the ethical, religious, and spiritual is primary, in which the aesthetic serves the experience of the Other. Most visitors come to the Cathedral not for the aesthetic but the ethical, they seek guidance and sustenance, not entertainment. Moreover, they bring all their concerns in life into the church. Unlike the art museum or gallery, which intends for its viewers to step outside of the difficulties of life into an experience that is marked off as "art," the church encourages visitors (they are more than "viewers") to bring all of these concerns and problems of life with them. And so within this context the aesthetic thus presumes a deep and abiding connection to the ethical, the religious, the spiritual.
Trained in experimental physics at Cornell and Berkeley, Martínez Celaya often treats his work as an apparatus to mark and measure an experience, to test his theories against the results. The Crossing is such an apparatus. It evaluates the capacity of his work stand up to the weight of the ethical, religious, and spiritual in a context that is primarily ethical. Martínez Celaya shares his own thoughts here.
Martínez Celaya's paintings are thus not intended to overcome, undermine, critique, or otherwise compete with the context of the Cathedral. His work doesn't judge the context; the context judges the paintings. Instead of standing out, calling attention to themselves as "art," these paintings blend into the comprehensive aesthetic experience of the Cathedral, which participates with its other aesthetic components to touch the Other. "In Ambiguity at the American Acropolis," art historian and cultural critic Matthew J. Milliner explores how these paintings interact powerfully with the architectural design of Ralph Adams Cram. (Read it here.) These paintings subsequently become part of the church's sacramental and liturgical life rather than ignore or overturn it. For example, a funeral service took place during Vespers on the day that The Crossing opened to the public and so collectors, critics, and curators from around the world viewed these works with the sounds of a funeral mass on the organ and the smell of incense. And a few days later they witnessed the Cathedral's popular St. Francis Day festivities when animals are brought to the church to be blessed. The painting that features a figure embracing a horse thus absorbs the meaning and significance of St. Francis.
The Crossing does not suggest that art competes with religion, that the locus of the Spirit has left religion and now rests on art, or that art should be religious. It does, however, suggest that there might be a role for art in religious contexts, even decidedly non-religious art. But to do so the artist must become an ascetic. He must deny his urges to indulge in the self-expressive, creative, and decorative cant and behavior that drives the contemporary art world. Rather, the artist must cultivate the inherent relationship of art and ethics that has often been dormant throughout modernity. In Art, Origins, and Otherness, philosopher William Desmond suggests that we now expect too little of art because we have for the last two hundred years, asked way too much of it. The Crossing puts art back into perspective, restoring its dignity as a cultural practice that can touch our deepest needs without the idolatry of modernity.