Contemplation and Communication in Contemporary Art: A Christian Embrace

By Scott Vayakone

When artists create their artwork, they embed a particular message within the art. Some may produce artwork to reflect the economic and cultural influence of a specific period in history, while others create art to question or ascertain a particular belief. Therefore, the size of an artwork influences its interpretation by the audience viewing it. For a viewer to understand the true meaning of an artwork, one must understand its creator’s background, religious beliefs, social status, and cultural influence. This paper will examine the distinction between contemplation and communication when analyzing the contemporary art piece Thing and Deception by Enrique Martinez Celaya. The artwork, Thing and Deception (1997) is shaped by Celaya’s academic and social backgrounds, religious beliefs, and cultural influence. Viewers infer the creator’s verbal communication converted into a visual form to be deciphered and interpreted linguistically (Siedell 15). For an audience to appreciate the true meaning of an artwork, they must consider all these elements.
Interpretations are often based on an audience’s feelings, art theory, size of the artwork, and worldview. Viewers tend to stand closer to a smaller art piece, whereas, with a large art piece, viewers tend to stand back and observe the art piece in its entirety, such is the case with Thing and Deception. The artwork, Thing and Deception (1997) is a large seventy-eight-inch tall by eighty-eight-inch broad canvas with five fragments of an enormous chocolate Easter bunny asymmetrically off-centered to the right. The chocolate Easter bunny is covered in a translucent red veil and hovers over a mucky and rugged white painted background. Thing and Deception possesses a chocolate bunny that dominantly fills up a third of the frame. The ears of the bunny are up, signifying it is alert, and draped from the bunny’s ear is a translucent red veil that falls to the bunny’s feet, covering the entire body, which creates the form of a pyramid shape. The red veiled chocolate Easter bunny is the point of emphasis and is the primary subject. The bunny consists of five fragments that have been broken up and pieced together. The fragments create diagonal implied lines from top to bottom. The bunny’s asymmetrical placement within the mucky and rugged white painted background aids in unifying the composition. The white painted background creates a void in the negative space where the bunny interacts with the flat surface with no implied depth. The gigantic easter bunny demonstrates Celaya’s technical skills. When forming and painting the chocolate, the process and technique are traditional. The painting is skillful, demonstrating details and shading forming the chocolate into an actual chocolate bunny. Upon viewing the colors, the chocolate bunny is brown covered in a translucent red veil over a mucky and rugged white painted background. Within the mucky and rugged white painted background are shades of light blue overpainted. The light shades of blue appear as lines from a dripped paintbrush when viewing the bottom of the bunny. As the viewer zooms in and draws closer to the bottom of the painting, a hand-written inscription “Needed Proof” is within the blue-lined dripped paint. On the back of the painting is a written piece of poetry by Charles Baudelaire.
Consequently, one can infer the abstracts and symbols embedded within this artwork are the components of Celaya’s lifelong experiences. His rich exposure to various environments has deepened the quality of his work while augmenting the metaphors within the painting. Enrique Martinez Celaya was born in Palos, Cuba in 1964. At the age of seven, his family relocated to Spain, and then Puerto Rico. Moving has deeply impacted his upbringing, influencing his paintings, sculptures, and writings. Celaya was exposed to Roman Catholicism but abandoned the faith when he moved to Puerto Rico as a boy. In Puerto Rico, he was shaped and influenced by the religious atmosphere of the eclectic Caribbean culture (Siedell 54). Enrique Martinez Celaya is a brilliant and philosophical individual trained as an experimental physicist in quantum electronics earning his undergraduate degree at Cornell University and then as a doctoral student at the University of California-Berkeley. The culmination of his social, academic, cultural, and religious experience has resulted in creating his masterpiece, Thing and Deception.
For viewers to grasp Celaya's artwork, they have to acknowledge the social, cultural, and academic backgrounds that shape his character. They also have to understand the intended meaning of his art. In deciphering the significance of the chocolate Easter bunny covered in a red veil and the inscription "Needed Proof," one will argue that viewers are often not receptive of the artist's message and interpret the art in various ways through contemplation of the artwork. Henceforth, the audience develops a relationship with the art where the artist's intended message is not received, but artwork is interpreted in various ways through contemplation.
When artists create visual works, they have a goal in mind. The artwork is imbued with its creator’s craftsmanship, brilliance, expression, and context. For example, some artists design intricately eloquent architecture, paintings, and jewelry to make the surroundings more beautiful and pleasurable. Other artists create to record specific times, places, people, or objects. In contrast, some artists produce visual forms to assert and convey ideas and beliefs. For example, thing and Deception is an art that embodies the religious beliefs of its creator. Artists often use artwork to criticize some aspects of society, educate people, or showcase their talents by letting the audience know that they can do something no one else has tried before (Juliao).
An artwork is an expressive, visual form, metaphorically and literally, ruminating with its originator’s embedded contexts. These contexts are the focal themes, which are engineered to deliver the creator’s intended message to the audience. The message, itself, can be the sum of the artists’ life experiences, doubts, or beliefs. For example, painting a gigantic chocolate Easter bunny to the degree of detail in Thing and Deception takes days to accomplish. If Celaya was willing to spend that much time painting a chocolate Easter bunny, one could conclude that the Easter bunny has significant meaning to Celaya. After all, our minds only expend energy on subjects and topics it deems essential. Regarding the Easter bunny, Celaya elaborates:

“I chose a seemingly banal image, a chocolate bunny rabbit with all its reference to childhood, treat and wish. It is magnified until it is larger than a human, and then it is broken with visible seams. The rabbit by itself is both sentimental and resistant to sentimentality (Siedell 57).”

Although artists expend so much time and effort on their artwork to communicate their intended messages to the average viewer, its meaning is often lost and overlooked by other drawings within the painting’s background. Point in case, the large, chocolate bunny in Thing and Deception, eclipses the main point of the artist’s message, allowing viewers to extract the meaning of the artwork based on their own relationship with Easter and its importance in their lives. Therefore, the painting loses its purpose, becoming a mere, exquisite painting for decoration and display. Subsequently, the artist is admired for creating tasteful and lovely artworks. For an average viewer to understand the meaning of an artwork, one has to conduct in-depth research about the artist’s background and life experiences. Unlike a curator or an art enthusiast, the average spectator does not have the time, the means, or the energy to conduct and to analyze an artist's social, cultural, religious, and academic factors. Secondly, every individual's experience in life is unique. Lastly, two people may have the same experience, but they would process and interpret it differently. Moreover, not everyone has the same art theory, contemplation, and exposure. For example, when a viewer looks at a bunny rabbit, one will not associate bunny rabbits with the secular symbol of Easter. Consequently, viewers will develop a relationship with the art where their focus and attention are the initial stimuli associated with the subject, subject matter, or banal material (Siedell 15).
For Celaya, his initial stimuli associated with a chocolate bunny rabbit came from a childhood memory from hunting Easter eggs when briefly exposed to Roman Catholicism as a boy (Siedell 54). Being exposed early as a boy is quintessential since a child’s frontal and prefrontal cortex is not fully matured until twelve. As Celaya’s brain was maturing in childhood, Celaya created memories and connections associated with those experiences. Hence, the reason why Celaya associates chocolate rabbits with the secular symbol of Easter and why he felt it was worth expending time and energy in painting a larger than human size chocolate Easter bunny. Celaya is diving into the deepest parts of his memory after switching from an experimental physicist in quantum electronics into the arts. As he explains, science could not answer the questions he believed he could answer in art (Siedell 53).
Despite Celaya’s association with chocolate rabbits to Easter, the childhood innocence of Easter egg hunting, and his deep search for meaning, the average viewer develops a relationship with the art, not realizing the artist is trying to send a message. To some viewers, the rabbit may symbolize the embodiment of generative powers as ancient India and Egypt associated with rabbits. In addition, in African folklore, the hare is linked with the story of creation, yet the Romans saw the rabbit as a symbol of fertility (Abraham 589). In the Mosaic Law, rabbits are in the “unclean” category in the book of Leviticus. Therefore, a Jewish person may interpret the painting as an animal not to be eaten. When God speaks, the experience is unique to an individual (Blackaby 90). Therefore, a rabbit could symbolize anything for a Christian who has a personal relationship with God. For instance, the rabbit could mean a quick change in circumstances. When viewers look at an artwork, a relationship will develop with the art, where interpretation will vary for an individual.
Draped from the top of the bunny down to the bottom is a translucent red veil, covering the bunny’s entire body. Martinez Celaya focuses on the painting as a “Metaphor for the real,” primarily the relationship of the bunny and the veil, which covers, conceals, shields, and preserves the bunny (Siedell 57). The “Metaphor of the real” refers to the “Symbolism of the Veil.” The “Symbolism of the Veil” has ancient roots that begin in ancient Greek philosophy, most notably with Plato, Heraclitus, or Aristotle, which the idea of the veil as a visual and epistemological metaphor influences Western culture’s history of thought (Knirsch). Regarding the translucent red veil covering the bunny, Celaya says,

“The red veil makes it both safe and threatening. The veil is delicate but suggestive – maybe blood. The veil reveals and hides and sets up a metaphor for the real. It is from there the title Thing and Deception comes from. The rabbit and the veil exist in the whiteness of the canvas (Siedell 57).”

Celaya may or may not have known that the veil as a “metaphor for the real” was already a preexisting concept written by Plato in his book Plato’s republic. The secular idea of the veil as a visual and epistemological metaphor was written in ancient Greece around 375 B.C. However, the secular veil that Plato wrote about was borrowed when tracing its origin. The first written epistemological metaphor of the veil dates back to the book of Exodus, written between 1440 and 1400 B.C (Radmacher, Allen and House 92). When a Christian viewer begins to interpret Thing and Deception and begins to interpret in various ways, the Christian viewer knows that the veil concept has significant biblical symbolism outside of the artists’ context.
In the book of Exodus, Moses wore a veil that masked a glow on his face. A supernatural glow was amplified on each subsequent encounter with God or Yahweh. Moses wore the veil among the Israelites and would take off the veil in the presence of Yahweh.
Outside of the veil that Moses wore, Yahweh escalated the meaning and symbolism of the veil between 1446 B.C. – 1406 B.C. Yahweh had commanded Moses to select skillful men who would erect a sanctuary that He may dwell among the Israelites. This sanctuary was called The Tabernacle.
The blueprint of the tabernacle had three rooms, the Holy of Holies, the Holy Place, and the Outer Courtyard. At the threshold of each room was a strategically placed beautiful fine-twined linen twisted threads of purple, blue, and scarlet curtains (Gurtner 41). These three curtains serve as the “Veil of Separation.” In Hebrew, “veil” means “to separate,” which was the functionality of the three veils in the tabernacle. The veils acted as a barrier between God or Yahweh and man.
Perhaps, this is where we can turn back to Thing and Deception. The translucent red veil covering the Easter bunny from top to bottom focuses on the “metaphor for the real” that covers, obscures, and protects (Siedell 57). When interpreting Celaya’s life experiences that provoked him to paint a giant chocolate Easter bunny draped in a translucent red veil from the top to the bottom of the bunny, although the veil for Celaya protects, conceals, and shields, he is still in his deep search for meaning. The truth is, we all wear a veil, an epistemological metaphorical veil. This veil that we all wear does what it is supposed to do. It separates.
However, Christ disrupted this paradigm of separation. Christ left his heavenly throne and took on the form of a human whose mission was to be the ultimate sacrifice that atoned for the world's sins. When Christ was crucified, from top to bottom, the "Veil of Separation" between the Holy of Holies and the Holy Place or "the inner veil of the tabernacle" was ripped entirely. The veil's ripping symbolized that it was the lifting of the veil and into God's presence. Although the veil that covers the chocolate Easter bunny represents protection and a safe place for Celaya's childhood innocence, sentimentality, and memory, perhaps the lifting of Celaya's red veil will truly set him free.
The concept of the veil did not cease at Christ's crucifixion. The Apostle Paul continued to expound regarding the veil in the New Testament, specifically when writing to the Corinthian church in 56 A.D (Radmacher, Allen and House 1858). Paul's veil was not the literal purple veil in the tabernacle but the duality of the epistemological metaphorical "Veil of Separation" between the secular matrix and the Christian world. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4:3-4,

“But even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, whose minds the god of this age has blinded, who do not believe, lest the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine on them.”

Both believers and unbelievers wear a veil. However, believers can metaphorically unveil their faces before Yahweh and see reality for what it is. On the other hand, Unbelievers wear the “Veil of Separation,” and they have an obstacle to overcome. The god of the contemporary age has blinded their minds. Because of sin’s power, this whole world is Satan’s dominion. When an unbeliever, who is in the dark, cannot unveil their veil, it is because they are under Satan’s deception. In the dark, it is harder to come to the knowledge of the truth. The art of deception is one of many tactics within Satan’s arsenal to keep a person’s mind blinded and veiled.
For Martinez Celaya, Thing and Deception continues to gather and lengthen its reference, intensifying the depth of its meaning. Thing and Deception becomes an object of contemplation again and again as Celaya considers his past through the objective means of his art (Siedell 57). As Martinez Celaya observes, “As I have thought more about this painting, I have come to see it as a work about mortality. I originally thought it was more related to sentimentality and memory, but now I see it as a work of passage. A work of premonition and of finality.”
As the veiled bunny sits in the whiteness of the canvas when a viewer zooms into the background, there are cracks of white paint to show its use, its fragility, and aging as a representation of morality, and within the mucky and rugged white painted background are shades of light blue overpainted. When the viewer begins to search the bottom of the bunny, there are light shades of blue that appear as lines from a dripped paintbrush, and as the viewer zooms in and draws even closer to the bottom of the painting, a hand-written inscription “Needed Proof” is within the blue-lined dripped paint. If the viewer were to examine the back of the painting, there is a written piece of poetry by Charles Baudelaire.
As a former scientist with a doctorate, it would not be extraordinary to find that Martinez Celaya likes writing and literature. Moreover, writing is vital for Celaya's aesthetic work (Siedell 59). Between 2000 and 2002, Celaya painted twenty-three paintings from a poem he wrote titled "October." As these paintings were on exhibition throughout the contemporary Museum in Honolulu, Hawaii, another piece of writing titled Guide by Celaya was published. Guide is a fictional account of Celaya's dialog with an old friend named Thomas. Thomas is Celaya's opposite, which forces Celaya to confront problems he has seamlessly swept under the carpet and supports him in uncovering the carpet and reflecting on deeper inferences of those problems. In addition, Thomas seeks to infuse doubt and uncertainty in Celaya's assumed beliefs.
Celaya’s interest in writing and publishing extends beyond his literary works and other writers that he finds attractive. One such writer is Charles Baudelaire. On the back of Thing and Deception is a poem in French, “Danse macabre,” that has been painted over by Celaya. “Danse macabre” is about flesh, flowers, heat, and light as metaphors to explain unchildlike pleasures and sorrows of passion (Siedell 60). Celaya painted the back of Thing and Deception in three phases. The first phase began with a dark tulip. As Celaya explains, “in my mind, tulips are connected/related to human excess and death. This phase is where Baudelaire’s “Danse macabre” was painted over.” The second phase was silk rose layered with paint. Celaya attempted to portray the work as a burial, or a tomb layered with white dust. The last phase is Thing and Deception. Therefore, the painting has three different artworks that contributed to the previous phase.
Upon examining the three phases a little bit closer, in the second phase, the painting with a silk rose is connected with a painting in 1995. Celaya is photographed with a painting of a tulip on top of a hand with a silk rose on a canvas. There is a contrast with the back of Thing and Deception concerning his fixation with Baudelaire's poems and his handwritten inscription: "Needed Proof." Perhaps the written inscription serves as an aide-memoire that Celaya needs "proof."
Martinez Celaya usually inscribes handwriting directly onto his paintings to either expand or complicate the artwork's meaning (Siedell 61). Moreover, it is also an attempt for artists to steer the direction of the audience's thoughts to decipher and interpret linguistic visual communication. For example, "Needed Proof" tries to connect the complex and complicated image of the Easter bunny with some meaning. Celaya does this because he knows that deciphering art is hard without some direction and that viewers are often not receptive to the artist's message, and through contemplation, the artwork will be interpreted in various ways.
When examining Celaya’s background, religious beliefs, cultural influences, written works, and artworks, there is a deep, religious, and spiritual connection. In Celaya’s written work Guide with his fictional friend named Thomas. Thomas infuses doubt and encourages Celaya to confront problems Celaya has swept under the carpet. Subconsciously, Celaya may be incognito to the biblical parallels to one of Christ’s twelve disciples, Didymus or Thomas the Apostle. Thomas was a skeptic of Christ who refused to believe in the resurrection without direct personal experience. In a sense, Thomas the apostle, one of Christ’s twelve disciples, “Needed Proof.” Thomas refused to believe that life after death could occur, and it just did not make any natural sense. When the other disciples had announced that they had seen the Lord, Thomas said, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” Eight days after the resurrection, all of the disciples were with Christ. Then Christ said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” Thomas then answered to Christ, “My Lord and my God!” Christ then said to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
Practicing art in introspection is a profoundly spiritual practice, and though Martinez Celaya is not religious, everything Celaya does seems to be religious (Siedell 54). Thing and Deception's abstracts and symbols embedded within this artwork are the components of Celaya's lifelong experiences that shape his character. For a man who is not religious, the ethos, or the natural disposition or moral character in his studio space has a hand-written creed on his wall, "Keep Your Actions Faithful." His studio is a space where his beliefs are worked out, where banal materials and actions achieve significant meaning and gestures toward an ethical worldview (Siedell 63). For Celaya, this gives his art an intense spiritual and religious significance. Thing and Deception has a particular message embedded in the art. For Celaya, who was working in introspection, the chocolate Easter bunny references his childhood memory from hunting Easter eggs when briefly exposed to Roman Catholicism as a boy and represents sentimentality. The translucent red veil covering the bunny from top to bottom is a "metaphor for the real" that protects, conceals, and shields the bunny. The hand-written inscription at the bottom of the painting "Needed Proof" correlates to the back of the painting with two overpainted images of Charles Baudelaire's poem "Danse macabre," representative of the three phases of succession that contributed to the previous phase. For an audience to appreciate the true meaning of an artwork, they must consider all the elements of the creator's academic and social backgrounds, religious beliefs, and cultural influence. Henceforth, the audience develops a relationship with the art where the artist's intended message is not received, but through contemplation, the artwork is interpreted in various ways.







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