The art collection at the Huntington is marvelous, both in its historical holdings and fresh commitment to involving contemporary voices in the discourse. The experience of the collection’s viewing is famously heightened by the lush natural environment of the gardens through which you approach its galleries and pavilions. Framed by mountain peaks and dotted with sculpture, teeming not only with beds of bespoke roses, native succulents, wise and verdant old trees and meandering pathways through the wilder patches, the gardens are also alive with scampering animal life and the sudden trilling of birdsong.
When it was time for Enrique Martinez Celaya to ideate his contribution to the Huntington’s new consideration of its American Art Gallery’s permanent collection, Borderlands, he wanted to tell the story in a way that honored and included the physical living landscape – and he found it in the birds.
Martínez Celaya’s There-Bound takes the idea of site-specificity to heart; with a mural painted on the massive glass façade of the building’s entrance, depicting migratory birds at monumental scale across the wide and tall front windows. Visible from afar like a chimeric mural, and lit up at night from within like a beacon; once you’re inside the colors transform the lobby into an ambient and evocative kaleidoscopic color environment that evokes stained glass cathedral windows and changes with the arc of natural light across the day. By its very architectural reality it keeps always in mind the timeless quality of the enduring landscape outside, a backdrop for the full collection’s narrative as well as the context of its presentation.
There-Bound’s instantly classic and already beloved mural (it’s only been open a few weeks and already there are calls to make it permanent) touches directly on the concept of the Borderlands project to highlight the great expanses of time against which our own lives sparkle for but a moment, and to specifically examine not only how malleable and fungible border regions globally and in this region in particular have historically and continually operated to shape national and individual identity, ideas about home and belonging, and humanity’s relationship and responsibility to the environment. And what more beautiful, spiritually archetypal, poetically evocative, threatened and ancient symbol of migration and pure unfettered, undefined energy than the bird taking flight.
Rendered in Martinez Celaya’s signature style of expressive brushwork, textured layers, elevated folkloric gesturalism, saturated palette, schematic botanical hints, and drips and marks which outline empty optical space (into which now freely rush the outside grounds), the very large figures include songbirds, predators, creatures of flocks and lone territorialists. Rich scarlet, bright goldenrod, orange, indigo, teal, emerald, black; wings, beaks, talons. Craggy, thick threads of red that could be lines on a map, borders, rivers, roads, or flight paths both connect and disrupt the fine feathered pageant and remind us of another premise of the project – to remember that most borders are arbitrary, political affairs, and that humanity, like birds, has the right to belong anywhere.
Martinez Celaya always favors the inclusion of text in his paintings – poetry, usually; his own but also cited classics. In this case, he found a kindred spirit in T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets (1940-42), snippets of which appear here and there among the birds, occasionally framed against the distant sky, or nestled low against the flowers and grasses outside. “Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind / Cannot bear very much reality. / Time past and time future / What might have been and what has been / Point to one end, which is always present. / Footfalls echo in the memory / Down the passage which we did not take / Towards the door we never opened / Into the rose-garden. My words echo / Thus, in your mind.” Eliot continues elsewhere in this text with “And the bird called, in response to / The unheard music hidden in the shrubbery / And the unseen eyebeam crossed, for the roses / Had the look of flowers that are looked at.”
Nearby the activated entrance, a monumental watercolor by artist Sandy Rodriguez – YOU ARE HERE / Tovaangar / El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles de Porciúncula / Los Angeles – presents a multilingual map of the greater Los Angeles area, “representing the topography, language, flora, fauna, and land stewardship in the region over time and illustrating the movement and histories of peoples who have called – and continue to call – the area home.” With this pair of important commissions, the Huntington sets the tone for the sweeping reexamination of its core collection that unfolds throughout the interior galleries. The map’s form and material aesthetic is both ancient and extremely personal; its documentary ambitions expressed in rich handmade texture speaks to the powerful energy of its maker and her ever-present cognizance of the ancestors’ presence in this place.
Borderlands is on view at The Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Garden in San Marino through November 28, 2022; huntington.org/borderlands.
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