BY Joe Scanlan in Reviews | 06 SEP 96
Featured in
Issue 29

Vija Celmins

BY Joe Scanlan in Reviews | 06 SEP 96

A few months back, an amateur astronomer named Yuji Hyakutake spotted an uncharted brightness low in the eastern sky. Intrigued, professional astronomers soon determined that what Mr Hyakutake saw was an unknown comet, one that had probably not passed within the earth's view in 10,000 years. Although Mesolithic people in the middle and far east did not become skilled in astronomy for another 2000 years, it's possible that they noticed the comet ­ perhaps even 'enjoyed' it after a hard day of food-gathering and domesticating the dog. However, unlike the orbits of the sun, moon and five planets that eventually symbolised the Mesopotamian week, the comet's disappearance probably thwarted any names or rituals that might have been attributed to it. So, for now at least, it is known as the comet Hyakutake.

A lot has happened since then, not the least of which is the development of the desire to drop what we're doing for a few hours in order to travel to darker, more remote regions to catch a glimpse of a fleeting asteroid. We seek out such phenomena because our daily lives do not often provide us with such vast beauty and coincidence, such sublime contentment and annihilation. Standing before a rare comet or the Grand Canyon, the mortal question 'Why am I here?' gets massaged into a more beatific 'What difference does it make?' ­ when the answer to the question is 'none', or even 'a little', what does it hurt to go on?

The work of Vija Celmins proposes that it is precisely the flawed, small-scale human redundancy of 'art' that allows us to wrap our arms around the imponderable and commemorate the mundane. By depicting a desk lamp or a bowl of matzo ball soup in aggrandising terms (i.e. oil painting) or rendering the minutiae of a desert floor in pencil, Celmins puts all human endeavour in its place, including her own. And yet, her fine draughtsmanship also tends to elevate humanity a little, emphasising the appropriateness of making things to the best of one's abilities because one needs to; not as a way of 'mastering' something, but as a way to coexist. These are pictures made for reasons beyond the express purpose of being looked at.

Celmins' most recent show was comprised entirely of paintings and drawings of night skies. Most of them have comets streaking across their view and all of them are invented. She begins by making a blank charcoal ground and then erases the stars out of it, one by one. Some get worked into crisp points, others remain nebulous; some seem faint, far away or dying while others seem larger, closer, brighter. Unlike the scientific beauty of Renaissance drawings, in which the depiction of light falling on the surface of an object gives it not only form but priority in the natural order of things, Celmin's drawings depict nothing but pure, emitted light. This is the captivation of starlight: it's strong enough to reach our retinas but too weak to illuminate anything else. Consequently it activates our brains without giving us anything to contemplate, save for our own stimulated circuitry and its pinpoint impetus, light years away. However recognisable these depictions are as images, it is their effect rather than their subject matter that compels us into them, collapsing time and space into the flatness of paper and the thickness of our heads. And in the space between our face and that surface: an abyss that seems too familiar to be innate.

Celmins pulls us away from this vortex. However, at the edges of her drawings, each image dissolves into the same sort of smudgy ephemera that collects on the bottom of your shoes. The closer you look at these works the more likely they will push your attention back out into the room, remind you of the hand that made the image and of your body standing in space, looking at it. A fugue-like harmony is struck between pleasure and accuracy, between the effect of the image and the material that makes it up, between small wonder and smaller fact.