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From the provocative opening lines of his catalogue essay—which incorporate verses from Ecclesiastes that seem calculated to signal the extent of his commitment as much as to state his thesis—Daniel A. Siedell adopts what he clearly expects to be a besieged position on the subject of the spiritual in art. Carefully chosen, his words implicitly brace themselves for rebuttal. Describing the intent of the catalogue and the exhibition of Enrique Martínez Celaya’s rich and resonant black paintings that it documents, Siedell borrows the idea of a “wager” on meaning from the literary critic George Steiner and thus overtly acknowledges the risks involved in embracing the spiritual as an art professional today. In assessing the roots of what has been the art world’s general disinclination toward spirituality in recent decades, Siedell does not attribute any narrowly political character to this tendency. He is not a simple reactionary; rather, he perceives the renunciation of the spiritual as a consequence of a now inveterate routine within the art world, a paradigmatic practice that has raised cynicism to the level of method.
Propitiously named, Martínez Celaya’s The October Cycle is cast by Siedell as a response to what could be called the October syndrome: the pattern of symptoms (inaugurated in American art discourse in the journal October in the late 1970s) of a cultivated skepticism toward immanent meaning in art. From this fashionable perspective, Siedell argues, the spiritual has been characterized as mere construct: a superficial effect of a particular framework of representation rather than anything inherent in the material art object. Consequently, the spiritual in art has been largely relegated to the realm of historical curiosities, and in many circles faith (and not only spiritual faith) has become an obvious sign of naïveté. Siedell is in implicit agreement with Martínez Celaya’s assertion that today “to claim any significance or meaning, even if only to ourselves, is to flirt with ridicule” (13).
Proactive in his defense against this anticipated derision, Siedell challenges those approaches to art that give precedence to theory over immediate experience, describing their consequence as “a constant chatter that often drowns out the still, small voice of aesthetic presence” (13). The word presence is deliberately chosen, and Siedell clearly intends it to convey many of the implications that made it so objectionable to the exponents of poststructuralism and postmodernism in the late 1970s. To dispel any doubts on that score, he quotes Michael Fried in the epigraph: “Presentness is grace.” Siedell’s take on this phrase is evident in his characterization of Martínez Celaya’s paintings as “Eucharistic,” a reference not to the symbolic ritual of the Protestant churches but instead to the literalness of Catholic communion. For Martínez Celaya, Siedell argues, art is “the transubstantiation of matter … into a vessel for spiritual presence. These paintings don’t merely ‘represent’ or ‘memorialize’ spiritual presence, or ‘signify’ transcendence; they simply are presence and transcendence” (27).
This seems to be a fair characterization of Martínez Celaya’s position, but Siedell is emphatic in his assertion that it does not “explain” the artist’s work. An award-winning scientist who built his first laser as a teenager before studying physics at Cornell University and, later, quantum electronics at the University of California, Berkeley, Martínez Celaya might naturally be expected to endorse the credibility of the material. A Roman Catholic whose Cuban family dabbled in Santería, he might equally be projected as an exponent of mysticism. In the conflux of these influences, Martínez Celaya’s paintings may be conveniently situated as products of a particular intertextuality, an uneasy intermingling of a code based on the laws of physics with a less rational predilection for the incommensurable. In this manner, his paintings could be reduced to symptoms of a conflicted worldview, and the painter, as a consequence, to the mere site of this conflict. The meanings of Martínez Celaya’s paintings could then be transferred to a larger sociocultural text in which the collapse of faith in general has led to the curious association of rationality and spirituality as mutually beleaguered orientations toward meaning.
This is precisely the kind of interpretation that Siedell is at pains to dissuade, since it treats the immanence of meaning in Martínez Celaya’s work as an illusion rather than an objective characteristic. In passionate language, Siedell describes the materiality of the paintings: “the sticky and murky tactility of the tar and impasto oil paint on canvas or velvet” that draws attention to “the unique capacity of matter to evoke the immaterial” (22). Quoting the critic Donald Kuspit, Siedell attributes to the physical properties of Martínez Celaya’s paintings two essential attributes of an authentically spiritual art: silence and alchemy. In claiming the first, he suggests that Martínez Celaya succeeds, through material means, in maintaining a distinction between experiences enveloped by the noise of ordinary existence and those generated by his work. In arguing for the second, he emphasizes the degree to which Martínez Celaya approaches the act of painting as a transformation of the mundane into something of an implicitly higher value, a site of transcendence. Although Siedell occasionally employs words such as “symbol” and “signal,” he conceives of the silence enveloping the paintings and the alchemical traces punctuating their surfaces as more than rhetorical devices. At the same time, he seems to recognize that rhetoric is paradoxically the only means at his disposal for indicating the objective spiritual qualities of Martínez Celaya’s paintings—qualities that, if experienced, must be experienced in unmediated fashion in the presence of the objects themselves.
As Siedell is aware, unmediated experience is no longer a popular notion in art theory, since—like the phenomenological epoché—it suggests a state of absolute detachment from not only past experiences but also the systems of representation that are necessary for reflection upon the fact that one is actually having an experience in the first place. The possibility of unmediated experience is, however, vital to the spiritual if it is to be considered a real quality of the art object rather than a mere effect of reading it. For Siedell, Martínez Celaya’s October Cycle offers “an aesthetic experience that cannot be separated from the experience of transcendence” (28)—by which we can infer a transcendence of ordinary constraints on experience, above all those of representation. The difficulty, however, is that this kind of transcendence cannot be logically verified as ever having taken place. After all, if an experience can only be confirmed by representing it to oneself, how can one be sure that the experience actually precedes its representation and is not merely a consequence of it?
Ultimately, Siedell can prove neither the possibility of transcendence before Martínez Celaya’s paintings nor the immanence of the spiritual to them. He is, however, under no obligation to do so. The paradox of a belief outside of all logical frameworks for belief is, after all, a distinguishing characteristic of faith. This kind of belief arises only from the exercise of intuition and feeling, two orientations of consciousness for which postructuralist theories of representation reserve as little credence as for the spiritual itself. To deny these is inconsequential if they are indeed constructs, but Siedell and Martínez Celaya are among a growing number of intellectuals since the early 1990s who are clearly skeptical about the reduction of all human capacities to the conventions of language. Siedell tacitly urges the reader to experience Martínez Celaya’s paintings firsthand, to give their presence the benefit of the doubt, and to cultivate receptiveness to what they might impart as objects. It is surely a mark of how far our art-world cynicism toward the possibility of immanent meaning has progressed that an entreaty to look at paintings in person should seem so strange.
Glen R. Brown
Associate Professor, Department of Art, Kansas State University
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