I worked with artist Enrique Martínez Celaya on two closely-related projects this fall in New York. I curated The Wanderer: Foreign Landscapes of Enrique Martínez Celaya, an intimate exhibition of fifteen works drawn from private and public collections on view at the Museum of Biblical Art from 30 September 2010-16 January 2011. The other project, The Crossing, is an environment of four monumental paintings at the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine from 1 October-27 November 2010. These projects mark an important transition in my on-going engagement with Martínez Celaya's work as well as evolving thought on art and religion, theology, and philosophy.
The Wanderer offered a biblical reading of the figure and landscape motif that has become the foundational structural framework in Martínez Celaya's work over the last ten years. Through this compositional and conceptual schema he marks the experience of loss and longing, hope and love, and death. I argue that his work could not only sustain but benefit positively from a biblical reading because I had discerned faint biblical resonances in his work over the last ten years. These biblical resonances, however, were not intentional because Martínez Celaya does not read the Bible.
But he reads. He reads Tolstoy, Mandelstam, Celan, Frost, Ahkmatova, Martinson, Dostoyevsky, Melville, Hesse, Nietzsche, and Heidegger. And it is through these writers whose work has been profoundly shaped and indelibly marked by the biblical narratives, themes, and imagery that Martínez Celaya has formed a biblical mindfulness.
The Wanderer makes two claims, one related to studio practice and the other concerning interpretation. First, it argues that the Bible's influence does not have to be embodied in a self-conscious way, as a form of meditation or reflection on particular biblical themes. If the Bible is the DNA of the western imagination, as such critics as George Steiner, Northrop Frye, and Andrew Delbanco suggest,then it should be present in some way in the work of an artist such Martínez Celaya, who is deeply formed by the western literary tradition, not only as a reader but as a writer of poetry and prose. And this is what cultural critic Alissa Wilkinson noticed in her review of the exhibition, entitled "Biblical Art that Isn't Biblical." (Read the review here.) Second, the exhibition argues that the Bible can function as a provocative and enriching critical tool, which can expand rather than limit the experience of art.
The Wanderer also reveals that Martínez Celaya's works within the same narrative structure as the Bible's, a narrative structure that many writers have assimilated. From Frost's traveler who happens upon two diverging paths in a yellow wood and Nietzsche's Zarathustra to Ahab's manaical pursuit of the mystical white whale and Hesse's Demian, the human person negotiates his life through the landscape, alone. Indeed, it is the figure and landscape motif that forms the dramatic structure of the Bible itself. It is Adam and Eve cast out of the Garden, Abraham being called from the land of Ur, Moses in the wilderness, Jesus fasting and being tempted in the desert and being hung on a cross outside the city, and St. Paul's journey from Jerusalem to Rome to speak truth to power and comfort the church in Rome. Martínez Celaya's paintings, sculptures, and photographs reveal the figure and the landscape as a distillation of this most powerful biblical theme in western literature.
The biblical metaphor for my approach to Martínez Celaya's work, which I explore in an the essay included in the exhibition catalogue, is the "mark of Cain," in which God both curses and blesses the first murderer, condemining him to wander the world homeless yet protected. (If you are interested in purchasing the exhibition catalogue, which also features an essay by Harvard curator and cultural historian Ivan Gaskell and beautiful reproductions of the work in the exhibition, order it here.)
The Bible is a rich resource for critical practice. But for use in this context, it needs to be liberated from the believers, who fear that its authority or infallability as God's word is undermined if it approached as literature. For them, art, literature, music, film, and theatre should function as Bible studies and devotional exercise in paint, sound, word, and image. Far from protecting it, this literalistic approach to "Biblical art" weakens its power, restricting its use to quoting chapter and verse in support of dogma and theology. This makes the Bible boring and obscures the fact that it is a dynamic and powerful cultural artifact, a library of powerful stories, within which we in the western tradition have lived and breathed and have had our being. And for centuries it has been the engine that drove art and literature.
Martínez Celaya's work reveals the Bible's abiding presence for those artists and writers who struggle to make sense of the world and who aspire to make work that might have a life beyond the moment it was made, beyond the life of the artist who made it. Perhaps this is what theologian R.R. Reno senses in his review of the exhibition, "The Body of Death, Pictured." (Read the review here.)
The Wanderer also mounts a critique of the secular establishment art world, which has forgotten the profound influence that the Bible has played in forming western culture, including western individuality. For most critics, the Bible is just a thing that Sarah Palin lugs around on Sunday mornings and quotes from to support her policies. But this biblical illiteracy and insensitivity impoverishes art and cultural criticism. Admittedly, to recognize and acknowledge such biblical resonances and influences for western culture risks opening up a pandora's box that secularists have long tried to keep shut: that modernity emerged from and has lived off the creative capital of the Judeo-Christian tradition, including its theology, as it was embodied in the Renaissance humanism and the Reformation. Recent books by scholars Michael Allen Gillespie (The Theological Origins of Modernity) and Bruce Hoslinger (The Premodern Condition) have revealed this more clearly. The paucity and shallowness of contemporary art criticism, which oscillates between journalism, marketing, and obscure pseudo-theory, might be ameliorated through a rediscovery of the literary treasures of the Bible, treasures that have seduced the greatest minds and artists throughout modernity (and postmodernity). In a recent Huffington Post essay, "Return of the Religious in Contemporary Art," in which The Wanderer figures prominently, art and cultural critic Mathew J. Milliner claims to discern evidence of such a rediscovery. (Read the article here.)
The Museum of Biblical Art was the ideal context for The Wanderer. It is a museum committed to revealing the vitality of the Bible in western culture through exhibitions of art from historical periods, such as the Renaissance and Byzantium, in which the Bible played a direct aesthetic role. The Wanderer argues that the Bible is one of the means by which to reveal the power of Martínez Celaya's work, a power that is unique in the contemporary art world. This project, however, has led me to pursue in much more depth the role that literature and writing in general have played in his work, work that is biblical because it is literary.
The Crossing, which will be the subject of my next post, tested the claims of The Wanderer.