Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Vija Celmins

American artist Vija Celmins makes paintings, drawings and prints. Using charcoal, graphite and erasers she produces delicate monochromatic images based on photographs of the sea, deserts, the night sky and other natural phenomena. Through her slow rigorous approach, the meticulous precision of her technique, and serial exploration of her subjects, Celmins seems to question the nature of representation.

Ocean Surface wood engraving 2000


Celmins had completed two small wood engravings of the ocean surface before making this image, which she worked on for four years. Like woodcut, wood engraving is a relief technique whereby the area around an image is carved from a block of wood, leaving only the raised surface to be inked for transfer to a sheet of paper. In wood engraving, however, a tool known as a graver rather than a knife is used to make finer lines and more detailed incisions. Here, Celmins incised the hard block with a seemingly infinite array of strokes that range from the deepest black at the lower right to white at the upper left. Each cut is skillfully placed to enhance the remarkable surface rhythm of this tightly constructed field.

Vija Celmins, "Untitled #10," 1994-95, charcoal on paper

Oil Painting

Interview with Simon Grant

SIMON GRANT: It's definitely a different feeling. You get a very good sense of intimacy with the desert and ocean works. The galaxy works are more intensely made.

VIJA CELMINS: The material, charcoal and pencil and paper are bigger players in the night sky pieces. The work is much more abstract, and even though your mind says this is a deeper space, I think the uniform nature of the graphite sitting on that surface keeps you engaged in the flat plane. There really is no depth to it.

SIMON GRANT: How are the pencil marks actually made?

VIJA CELMINS: The graphite is just laid on bit by bit, as dense as it can go. The white spaces - the stars -are patches of the paper that have been left blank; I have drawn around them.

SIMON GRANT: Some of the pencil marks are so thickly laid on, it almost looks like paint.

VIJA CELMINS: Yes. Star Field III (1983) took about a year to do. This is a terrific drawing, though I thought I would go crazy if I did another. I did do three, then I stopped drawing totally. As you can tell, even though I try to keep my brain out of things, I'm always beating up the work with a relentless criticising of it. I went back to painting, and did a series of paintings that looked very much like this drawing - dense, layered, very physical. I used to say they looked like a rubber tyre or Formica, they're so closed off and over-finished. I didn't get back to drawing for about ten years, until around 1994.

SIMON GRANT: Did your approach to the work change?

VIJA CELMINS: Yes. I started to use charcoal dust to make some pictures, and I started using an eraser, which I never used before. Some - such as Untitled no. 14 (1997) -are done with an electric eraser along with other erasers, which is why there is a slightly mechanical quality of recording the stars. I got so crazy working on these, so I relieved this by doing the very corny image of cobwebs.

SIMON GRANT: Why cobwebs?

VIJA CELMINS: Well, first, I found some scientific images of webs at the natural history museum. Very exciting. I thought these webs described the space I always wanted to describe -a surface that has small facets that rigorously account for and record every intersection; a lived on surface. Also, it was an emotional image that would draw people in, so the carefully accounted for space was contrasted with an emotional melacholic image. You know I like that combination of contrasts- a sort of double reality

Vija Celmins Web Charcoal on Paper

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