ARTIST’S NOTES ON A THIRD OF THE NIGHT
January 21, 2021
- One dark night,
- Fired with love’s urgent longings
- — Ah, the sheer grace! —
- I went out unseen,
- My house being now all stilled.
Dark Night of the Soul by San Juan de la Cruz
There are twelve paintings and one sculpture in A Third of the Night, my upcoming installation at Baldwin Gallery. The project surges from questions about the immutability and remoteness of the world in the face of human problems, uncertainty, and losses. It is also influenced by reflections on the exilic imagination and its longing for home.
I avoid addressing images, themes, and narratives in the work, preferring instead to speak about the intellectual and emotional context in which it was made. For A Third of the Night, however, I would like to say a few things about what I see in the work, though, knowing how easy it is to limit the experience of the painting with words, I hope my writing will not be understood as definite interpretations or explanations of the work.
These paintings and sculptures seem to point to a charged moment when awareness recognizes that something is happening or about to happen. In a journey, this could be the moment of departure, arrival, or recognition that it is the end, as in the painting, The Night, where the figure glances at the horizon as the boat sinks. Is this a glance of recognition of the situation—the unfinished odyssey—or is it the last look at the world and our projections? Whichever the case—and there are many other possibilities—it is a moment of inflection that opens an insurmountable gap between the before and the after. Similar junctures occur in the still skater in The Jump or the confrontation with the self amid nature in The Mirror.
And who recognizes these inflection points as inflections when they are happening? This question has haunted my life and work for many years, and it and the observer it implies, reappear in A Third of Night as a mirror, moons, stars, and birds—all of them witness, all of them watching. Suggested by this awareness and the discontinuity between the before and the after is the question of innocence and the loss of identity in exchange for another. After the dividing moment, the past, the home, and who we were will be out of reach, even if the new has yet to become or materialize.
This trade is familiar to exiles, who exchange a known reality for a projection created by the imagination. The exilic dream promises that the future will be better than the past. Yet, as it often happens, the arrival at the great future, the utopian home, is continuously postponed. Far off course as exiles always are, we search the sea, look for rainbows at the shore, fear the seduction that will detour us, and place flowers at the tomb of who we were and in the altar of what we hoped to be.
The exhibition title, A Third of Night, comes from the Book of Revelation, 8:12: “The fourth angel sounded his trumpet, and a third of the sun was struck, a third of the moon, and a third of the stars, so that a third of them turned dark. A third of the day was without light, and also a third of the night.” At this point in the scripture, three angels have delivered calamities to the earth. Then it is the turn of the fourth angel to bring darkness—confusion, obscurity, shadowy understandings. Two-thirds of the stars still shine, and it is this visible sky I chose to reference in all the works, an intentional visual consistency that is unusual in my exhibitions. Unlike many painters, I rarely use a repeated motif or reference in my projects, preferring a conceptual, emotional, or philosophical throughline.
When I looked at the stars from the shore of my childhood beach town, questions came up about the world, our place in it, and the connection between all things. Back then, the dome of heaven and its relationship to us was a mystery out of the reach of reason—or, at least, not tamed by reason. Even after studying the universe’s extraordinary physics, that dome remained charged with mystery, as well as with metaphysics and ethics. In A Third of the Night, I try to acknowledge that mystery and the tension between the sublime sky’s epic scale and the smaller scale of our lives, problems, hopes, and feelings. More than a tension, I see the relationship between the two as friction that shapes our understanding of place, destiny, and identity.
But references like stars, sea, birds, or people should not be understood as separate from the materials and conceptual conditions of painting and sculpture. For instance, the crude representation of mirrors, diamonds, stars, transparency, and light in my paintings acknowledges from the onset the futility of “capturing” the world and suggests the aim of art has something to do with the acceptance of that deficit. The paintings are made with roughly applied thin layers of oil and wax that reveal their gesture and physicality even while pretending to render light or a leaf. In the way the work is approached, the etherealness of references is recognized to be in a battle with the earthliness of materials and action, and whatever truce is achieved in each painting or sculpture will be unstable.
Finally, I want to acknowledge my debt to poetry, which continues to inform the type of experience I want from my work. I read and write poetry not so much for content but to shape the emotional and intellectual ambition of what I am doing. While every poet and writer I have read is in some way relevant, in A Third of the Night, Boris Pasternak, Robert Frost, Czesław Miłosz, Harry Martinson, and Robert Lowell were most influential.
—Enrique Martínez Celaya