A Painting in Six Parts, 1986-87/2012-16. Oil on canvas, six parts. Overall dimensions 38 x 645 cm. © Vija Celmins – Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery
Greek philosopher Plato condemned painting and other artistic disciplines. According to him, they emulated reality deluding the spectator as to what he called the “actual world”. Imitation duped and pulled us away from the essence of things, so was the argument of Plato. Yet, when someone observes a painting from Vija Celmins and discovers that the canvas in front of their eyes is not a photograph but a meticulous composition, we feel more thrilled than mislead by her work. At the beginning of her career, Celmins’s paintings depicted a reality that was close to the cultural scenario of her time: televisions, airplanes, bombs and everyday objects dominated her imagination. Suspended Plane portrays what seems to be a war plane from World War II, a possible reminder of the Vietnam war. But soon after the early 1970’s, space exploration and ocean waves became predominant in her work. Culture and any suggestion of humanity was completely erased from her paintings replaced by sober compositions depicting nature. The critic Carter Radcliff even compared her passion of nature’s portrayal to the urge felt by the Romantics who conceived the latter as a deity. One is indeed amazed by Celmins’s narrow selection of subjects and her obsessiveness when constructing her paintings; the ocean’s infinity and the vastness of night skies are sufficient enough to nourish her body of work. To her, repetition is not equivalent to cloning, for every painting and drawing has its own life. Moreover, Plato’s judgment on painting and other mimetic disciplines wasn’t perhaps directed towards the painter. In the philosopher’s eyes, the audience was poorly considered as he believed they were easily duped. In Celmins’s case, the inattentive spectator is likely to think he’s beholding a scientific photograph, nevertheless, when he approaches the work the true nature of the flat surface reveals itself. Although she plays with us, her viewers, she never doubts we will discover the truth beneath her creations: Celmins’s objective is to enlighten us about what dominates our view and how it works.
Paintings then, appear less cold despite the monochromatic palette, the eager spectator can recognize Celmins’s precise expression and expansive compositions.
Observing is crucial to grasp the artist’s work; details are what separates photography from her paintings. “The camera sees everything and understands nothing”, so were the words of Nadar describing the camera’s lack of aptitude to perceive the world affectedly. What Celmins’s intricate compositions do to our vision is to paralyze it, stillness is requested, our bodies can gravitate but our gaze must not. As we contemplate our mind is freed from the burden of relentless time and movement. Any reference from the outer world is completely blurred by the soothing ocean. The paintings therefore, do not suggest any activity, her drawings are not fragments of time but fragments coming straight from Celmins’s imagination. Untitled (Ocean) mimics the wave’s movement. However, the frame together with the quietness of the composition exposes the canvas’s essence. Other creations such as Untitled (Sequoia and Moon) or Jupiter Moon – Constellation juxtapose two images, a creative process she repeats several times. Constellation – Uccello, is one of the most prolific examples of this operation. On the one hand, we are confronted with an image of the universe painted by the artist, on the other, a found image by Uccello depicting a three-dimensional chalice highlights the object’s volume. The concept of space is seen through different angles, via the sole association of images, Celmins opens a discussion on how linear perspective monopolized our sight. Although inspired by photographs, her artistic gesture transforms the mechanical vision into affective configurations. Paintings then, appear less cold despite the monochromatic palette, the eager spectator can recognize Celmins’s precise expression and expansive compositions. Despite creating two dimensional structures, the artist conveys certain depth through the texture of the objects. Haptic was the word used by Cécile Whiting to describe the effect produced in our eyes. When moving closer in the direction of the painting, the eyes can almost caress the painting. Celmins “reconfigures the visual experience in an era of space exploration,” modern man’s cyborg vision transcends to another dimension. Her paintings revive our senses as well as our mind. Contrary to what we are taught, it is not the eye that governs but the mind that arranges our world. Celmins creates an intimate bond with her audience bringing the spectator closer to her paintings and to her.