The Sacred Artist Stands Alone

By Louis A. Ruprecht Jr. 

There is a museum on the second floor of the home of the American Bible Society; that is in itself noteworthy. What that museum is doing is more noteworthy still.

The American Bible Society was established in New York City in 1816, the real heyday of public museum construction in Europe (though these newly unleashed energies of museum-construction took time to crystallize on this side of the Atlantic).  The Society was incorporated in 1846 and is housed today in a lovely, modern facility within eyesight of the revitalized area surrounding Columbus Circle.

The Museum of Biblical Art, or MOBIA, was founded just five years ago, emerging slowly as a thriving independent organization out of what had originally been a Gallery sponsored by the Society.  The creative conception that led to the creation of MOBIA is two-fold, and of singular interest to me, and I hope, to readers of “Religion Nerd.”

What happens when we bring art and biblical literature into closer conversation?

On the one hand, MOBIA is founded on the principle that the Bible is a “foundational book for our civilization,” and that the Bible is a “cultural and artistic touchstone.”  The Museum eloquently defends its view of the importance of biblical literacy if the academic life of the Humanities and the cultural life of a pluralistic democracy are to thrive.

But there is more to MOBIA than this.  For the converse is also true: artistic literacy is actually essential to biblically inspired “religions of the Book.”  Art historians and art lovers need the Bible.  But so, too, the Bible needs the visual arts.

MOBIA’s founding director, Dr. Ena Heller,  is the recipient of the American Academy of Religion’s 2010 award for creative achievement in Religion and the Arts. During a two hour tour of MOBIA and our very wide-ranging discussion, the wisdom and appropriateness of that award was made very clear.

MOBIA’s current guest exhibition is entitled “The Wanderer: Foreign Landscapes of Enrique Martínez Celaya,”  and was curated by Daniel Siedell in collaboration with the artist.  Celaya’s somewhat muted role in his own representation is a trope to which I will return shortly.

Enrique Celaya  was born in Havana, Cuba in 1964, though his family left the tumult of cultural revolution and emigrated to Spain in 1972; two years later, they re-settled in Puerto Rico.  Celaya remained there until he was eighteen, then went to the mainland to study Applied Physics at Cornell University.  He went on to pursue doctoral work in Quantum Electronics at Berkeley.

That all changed in 1991, when this aspiring twenty-seven-year-old Physicist decided to pursue a career in the visual arts instead.

He received his MFA from UC-Santa Barbara in 1994, then entered the uniquely creative aesthetic-spiritual environment in Claremont, California: at Ponoma College and the Claremont Graduate University, where he served as a tenured professor until 2003.

Celaya’s success came quickly, and he is well represented today at many of the most important museums with an interest in the same nexus of ideas explored so magnificently in his work: the Whitney and Metropolitan in New York; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; and the Museum of Fine Art in Houston.

Wearing his successes very lightly, Celaya left the west coast and returned to Miami, where he founded “Whale & Star,”  a studio whose name consciously echoes Melville, and whose physical structure makes it seem one part scientific laboratory and one part monastic retreat.

That deep connection–between religion of a sort, and science of a sort–is an essential part of the vision behind this work.  And more noteworthy still, the MOBIA show was conceived alongside of a second New York exhibition by this same artist: four large pieces that are currently on display at the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine in Riverside. 

As Ena Heller makes clear in the catalogue for this show, the biblical connections to the work on display are not immediately evident; you have to work to make them appear. But this creative collaboration between the art-work and the viewer is central to Celaya’s craft.  Note the way that I said that: “the artwork and the viewer.”  I have not introduced the artist himself directly into the frame.  Similarly, Celaya’s work is intentionally constructed to force the close observer of the material world to think about his or her interaction with that world, while bracketing the question of Who has made it. 

God is not dead, so much as God is absent, silent, hidden.  Nietzsche knew this well.  But so did Isaiah.

That is one important reason why Enrique Celaya rejects simplistic labels.  He is adamant in his refusal to be described as a Cuban artist, or an expatriate one. He is just as adamant in his refusal of the term ‘atheist’, despite the fact that his views are non-theistic, and heterodox at best.  The reason, it seems, is that the scientists who are most aggressively “atheist” are also utterly materialist, as this artist, deeply moved by human imagination and creative immersion, is not.

Celaya’s fascination with the new vistas opened up to us by the quantum perspective reminds him that creative intuition and an explicit linkage of the material and the immaterial have become central “scientific” (not only artistic, or religious) perspectives.

They are equally at home in the pre-scientific monastic setting.

In short, Enrique Celaya is deeply interested in the realm of the sacred.  Hence his creation of “Whale & Star” as a place where scientific enquiry and contemplative community mutually inform and inspire.

An essential part of Celaya’s studio is a library-and-lounge where he conducts most of his interviews.  He reads widely in Continental philosophy and literature.  Nietzsche and Heidegger, Thoreau and Melville, William Blake and Anton Chekhov, are all central interlocutors and inspirations for the work.

And always, always, there are echoes of central biblical paradigms, never quite raised to the level of explicit reference: innocence and exile; nostalgic longing for a homecoming; wandering and (in the words of Ivan Gaskell’s superb essay in the MOBIA catalogue) “the mark of Cain.”  The aim of this work is, not to put too fine a theological point on it, reconciliation to the real, a kind of at-one-ment that is forgiving of all that makes materiality traumatic as well as incarnational or divine.

“Forgiveness sits in the sacrifice.”  That is how Enrique Celaya put it in an interview conducted for this exhibition.  Forgiveness sits in sacrifice.

This is a powerful intuition that is altogether compatible with orthodox Christian faith, though it does not belong there exclusively.  It reminds us of a marvelous comment Hegel made in a letter to a friend: “Salvation is through suffering, not from it.”

Too often, salvation is imagined as some sort of vaguely economic transaction between two agents in an unequal and unstable power relation.  God and the would-be believer, with God paying the blood-price that he or she lacks the resources to pay.  A very different picture emerges when we think of forgiveness, as Hegel clearly did, as an event that emerges out of the creative interaction between two individuals, neither of whom is in control of the situation. Forgiveness is an event, a ritual and a marvel, not an act or a decision of one person vis á vis another.  “Forgiveness sits in sacrifice.”

An exciting new movement may well be in the offing here.

It is, in part, an attempt to get out of the impasse created by an exclusive focus on the divine-human relation as one imagined as a sort of transaction between two individuals, one of Whom is invisible.  When Christian theology is sounded in an exclusively Protestant key, then the entire focus often rests on God and the individual.

What drops out of view with such a narrow focus is the world. A great deal of current theological speculation is aimed at precisely that point, to re-introduce this forgotten third element into our theological reflection: there is God, yes, and humankind, but there is also the world.

Focus too exclusively on the divine-human encounter, and two acute dangers tend to emerge.  On the one hand, the excessive focus on the individual can become narcissistic–unless we are very careful.  On the other, the excessive focus on the divine can become anti-humanist and inquisitional–again, unless we are very careful.

Hence this profound artistic return to the world.  The human-world encounter is in fact an encounter about which contemplative artists, among others, have had much to teach us.

Enrique Celaya meditates upon it brilliantly, and the twinned shows at the Museum of Biblical Art and Saint John the Divine in New York are, just perhaps, the ideal settings for such a meditation.

Filed Under: Culture & ArtFeaturedLouis A. Ruprecht

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