Vija Celmins: To Fix the Im­age in Mem­ory

The Week (US) - - Arts -

San Fran­cisco Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art, through March 31

Vija Celmins isn’t a house­hold name, but she has pro­duced “some of the most sub­stan­tial, re­ward­ing, and emo­tion­ally fraught art of the last half-cen­tury,” said Philip Ken­ni­cott in The Wash­ing­ton

Post. Twenty-five years af­ter her last mu­seum ret­ro­spec­tive, this “most hero­ically hum­ble of artists” has fi­nally been awarded a show wor­thy of her oeu­vre, which is still grow­ing as she enters her 80s. Born in Latvia and raised in In­di­ana, Celmins has pa­tiently pur­sued her own path in paint­ing, draw­ing, and sculp­ture since the 1960s, ig­nor­ing trends in New York and Los An­ge­les, the cities she’s called home. Her photo-re­al­is­tic ren­der­ings of the night sky and the ocean’s sur­face have won the most at­ten­tion, but whatever the sub­ject, her de­vo­tion to fine-grain see­ing al­lows her ac­cess to the sub­lime. On that happy day when the art world be­gins cel­e­brat­ing sin­cer­ity again, Celmins will be seen as “one of the foun­da­tional fig­ures of the new age.” “Be sure to put a lot of time on the park­ing me­ter, be­cause this is not a show you can breeze through,” said Charles Des­marais in the San Fran­cisco Chron­i­cle. Many of the more than 140 works here are men­tal puz­zles, as much about the com­pli­ca­tions of artis­tic rep­re­sen­ta­tion as about the ob­ject of at­ten­tion. Early works in­clude al­most monochro­matic still lifes of var­i­ous ev­ery­day ob­jects: a hot plate, an elec­tric fan. But Celmins also played with the idea of pho­to­re­al­ism, col­lect­ing pho­tos of war im­agery, in­clud­ing bomber planes and mush­room clouds, and then re­pro­duc­ing the im­ages in pre­cise draw­ings that made clear she was draw­ing pho­tographs. She has done sim­i­lar things in sculp­ture: cre­at­ing “star­tling, dis­ori­ent­ing” en­larged repli­cas of such ob­jects as a comb or a pink eraser. For five years, be­gin­ning in 1977, she worked on cre­at­ing from bronze 11 ex­act repli­cas of stones she’d found in the desert. The orig­i­nals and the fakes are ex­hib­ited to­gether.

“The para­dox is that when Celmins jazzes up her work even slightly, we lose in­ter­est,” said Peter Pla­gens in

The Wall Street Jour­nal. There’s lit­tle re­ward in seek­ing mean­ing in a draw­ing, for ex­am­ple, that jux­ta­poses an im­age of a plane with an im­age of a night sky. But to cre­ate Black­board Tableau #1 (2007–10), Celmins spent years col­lect­ing an­tique school slates, com­mis­sioned a sculp­tor to build pris­tine du­pli­cates, then painted the du­pli­cates to re-cre­ate the nicks, scratches, and what she called the “ro­man­tic at­mos­phere” of the orig­i­nals. This is work that is de­fi­ant in its metic­u­lous­ness, and “it’s that ob­du­rate­ness that moves us.”

A Celmins ocean draw­ing: De­vo­tional-level see­ing

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