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Issue 195

What is Found, What is Made: Vija Celmins's Intimate Precision

At Matthew Marks Gallery, LA, recreations of natural topographies display a singular relationship to time and observation

BY Olivian Cha in Exhibition Reviews , US Reviews | 19 MAR 18

For almost half a century, Vija Celmins has painstakingly recreated the natural topography of desert floors, ocean waves and night skies with stunning precision. Reproduced from photographs, both found and taken, these transitory spaces manifest as enigmatic surfaces: allover fields of paint, graphite or ink that are at once darkly brooding and luminous. In a new body of works on view at Matthew Marks Gallery, Celmins’s first solo exhibition in Los Angeles in almost ten years, the inscrutable effects of her images remain a continued source of fascination. The city is a formative site for the artist. Oceans and deserts were subjects first inspired by the Southern California landscape while Celmins was an MFA student at UCLA in the early 1960s. The source for an ongoing series of untitled ocean drawings and paintings – three new works from which are on view here – is a single photograph taken from a Venice Beach pier over 50 years ago.

The most recent piece in the show, an untitled painting from 2017–18, further recalls this earlier moment in the artist’s career. Depicting the miniscule, epidermal cracks of an old leather book cover in her library, the painting’s tactile intimacy is redolent of Celmins’s work from the 1960s, when she focused not on nature but on the quotidian effects in her studio: a fan, a hot plate, a heater. In contrast to the sublime motifs found in most of her work, this extraordinary painting engages us on an almost forensic scale, redirecting us to spaces of interiority that point to the body, and which subsequently frame the more personal and palpable dimensions of the artist’s practice.  

Vija Celmins, Blackboard Tableau #9, 2007–15
Vija Celmins, Blackboard Tableau #9, 2007–15, one found object and one made object: wire, alkyd oil, and pastel on wood, each 38 x 26 x 1 cm. Courtesy: Matthew Marks Gallery, LA © the artist 

Whether they capture the undulating waves of an abysmal sea or the infinite distances of the Milky Way, Celmins’s works do not simply showcase the artist’s ability to replicate nature, but rather her meditations on the nature of aesthetic mediation. These delicate images perform a shrewd kind of formal seduction: behind them lies a singular, profound relationship to time and observation. In Night Sky #22 (2015–18), a quiet piece that took three years to complete, Celmins finds an apt metaphor for her protracted artistic process. The dark celestial scene reminds us that we observe the stars as latent events, visible to us only long after they have already transpired. 

Dense with visual details, the photographic realism of many of Celmins’s images belies their prolonged and arduous production. Other works, meanwhile, more pointedly frame the traces of her hand: the fine-lined crescent waves in an untitled drypoint print from 2016, for example, are formed by graphic engravings – a technique that cannot hide the mechanics of its medium. A 2014 charcoal drawing of the same subject also nods to a more modernist articulation of the picture plane: its image of ocean waves is entrapped in a grid of crosshatch marks that interrupts the water’s seamless depiction.

Vija Celmins, Reverse Night Sky #2, 2014
Vija Celmins, Reverse Night Sky #2, 2014, charcoal on acrylic ground on paper, 35 x 43 cm. Courtesy: Matthew Marks Gallery, LA © the artist

Celmins’s austere sculptures further probe questions of accuracy and reproduction. Described in the exhibition checklist as ‘One found object and one made object’, Two Stones (1977/2014–16) asks us to scrutinize the formal and philosophical distinctions between what is ‘found’ and what is ‘made’. Distinguishing the blurry borders of a brushstroke from the jagged flecks of rock is to test the work’s artistic verisimilitude. Discerning any ‘truth’ in all this is only possible through a patient process of looking.

In a dizzying media landscape where Russian trolls and bogus propaganda have left us in an irreparable state of political polarization, Celmins provides something of a compass for aesthetic judgement, a tool that undermines the certainty of appearances while foregrounding the intimate role of mediation. Her works continue to resonate because they suggest that the power of artistic representation hinges not on the possibility of absolute likeness, but on a slow and incremental understanding of difference.

Vija Celmins is on view at Matthew Marks Gallery, LA, until 31 March. 

Main image: Vija Celmins, Two Stones, 1977/2014-16, one found object and one made object: alkyd oil on bronze, 6 x 20 x 14 cm. Courtesy: Matthew Marks Gallery, LA, © the artist

Olivian Cha is a curator and critic based in Los Angeles.