Vija Celmins at Matthew Marks Gallery, West Hollywood Reviewed by Christopher Michno
In a world increasingly short of attention, Vija Celmins has for more than four decades been depicting a narrowly delimited set of subjects with a degree of emotional distance that has offered expansive space for reflective thought. In her current exhibition at Matthew Marks Gallery in West Hollywood, Celmins returns again to these same subjects—the surface of the ocean and views of the night sky, littered, as it were, with stars. Accompanying the paintings, mezzotints and drypoints of these familiar motifs are examples of Celmins’ formal dexterity applied to trompe l’oeil objects, paired with real world counterparts: two rocks, one, a painted bronze, the other, geologic artifact; and two sets of blackboards, each set comprised of a fabrication and its found partner. These six objects engage themes that run beneath the immediate surface of her constructions: the natural world, and human systems of knowledge that reflect our constant probing of that world.
As noted in “Arresting Ambiguity: Vija Celmins in the 1960s,” Michelle White’s essay for the Menil Collection and LACMA exhibition of 2010 – 2011, in the early ’60s Celmins’ paintings of common, functional objects found in her Los Angeles studio utilized a kind of trompe l’oeil approach in a nearly grisaille palette. She later applied these methods to her repeated investigations of ocean, desert and night sky, her use of both trompe l’oeil and grisaille tracing back to this early work. Her night sky paintings are subtly inflected with color, hovering somewhere between Romanticism and the real.
The ambiguity and emotional detachment in the artist’s treatment of her subject matter, both in this current exhibit and in the past, opens space for multiple readings. An example from her early work, a depiction of a plane falling from the sky, as viewed on the screen of a television (T.V., 1964), shows a plane that looks like a WWII era bomber, shot in half, with smoke pouring from its fuselage. In “Vija Celmins in Los Angeles,” Franklin Sirmans explores the image’s possible connections to Celmins’ own history, growing up in Latvia during the War, and the ubiquity of images of the Vietnam conflict at the time of its making. This picture, and others, for example, her reproduction of the Time Magazine cover with photos of the 1965 Los Angeles riots, suggest an interest in how events are portrayed in the media.
While Celmins abandoned painting the “ordinary objects” that she observed in her studio and images drawn from the media, the emotional ambiguity with which she treated those subjects has carried through her work. In fact, I would argue, the subjects she turned to have allowed for greater ambiguity, opening her work more deeply to subjective response. Celmins’ use of grisaille moves the works even further into a realm of thought.
In the current exhibit, Celmins’ paintings and drawings of star-filled night skies inspire an age-old sense of wonder about the universe as much as they pose a way of framing the incomprehensible. Complementing these works, which provoke reflection on the immensity of the universe and our own place in it, Celmins’ mezzotints and drypoints of the ocean’s surface introduce mesmerizing patterns of waves—a continually shifting interplay between chaos and pattern, temporarily immobilized by the artist’s intervention.
Of the works in Celmins’ current exhibition, one of the most intriguing is an untitled painting of a ceramic vessel. Like the ocean paintings, which excerpt a section of a body of larger expanse, the painting of the ceramic object is restricted in view, focusing in on the surface. Celmins masterfully draws attention to the spidery cracks running through the glazed surface. The chiaroscuro of her painting tracks the light reflecting off the curved object, from an obvious highlight on the vessel’s shoulder—as if the artist stood in front of it with her camera and recorded a light reflecting in the shiny surface—to the shadow enveloping the lower right corner as the belly slopes away. The spidery cracks echo the many images of spider webs the artist has made. Both objects, the painting, and what the painting depicts, speak to time’s passage.
Celmins’ works register as deeply personal, even though they strike a coolly ambiguous chord; like a snapshot, they retain a sense of a subjective window of experience. Her pictorial fabrications orient our attention to the sky and other wonderments. The spaces created within her works are indeed the interior spaces that become illuminated through nothing less than the imagination.
 Michelle White, “Arresting Ambiguity: Vija Celmins in the 1960s,” in Vija Celmins: Television and Disaster, 1964 – 1966, Houston: Menil Foundation, Inc., 2010, 10 – 13.
 Franklin Sirmans, “Vija Celmins in Los Angeles,” in Vija Celmins: Television and Disaster, 1964 – 1966, Houston: Menil Foundation, Inc., 2010, 30.
Christopher Michno is a Los Angeles area art writer and the Associate Editor of Artillery. Mr. Michno’s work has appeared in KCET’s Artbound, the LA Weekly, ICON, and numerous other publications. He is also an editor for DoppelHouse Press, an LA based publisher that specializes in art, architecture and the stories of émigrés.