Susan Sheehan Gallery
Vija Celmins: The Image Redescribed
Vija Celmins: The Image Redescribed
Vija Celmins (b. 1938) is renowned for her meticulous renderings of vast natural wonders, such as the ocean, the desert, and the night sky. Throughout her six-decade career, Celmins has employed her signature style using a variety of media including painting, drawing, sculpture, and printmaking. Using many of the traditional printmaking techniques, Celmins creates masterful prints that are at once painstakingly handcrafted and almost scientifically anonymous. This presentation brings together six prints created between 1971 and 1992 which serve as key examples of the uncompromising precision Celmins continually uses to depict her favored subject matter.
Celmins typically works from photographs, referring to her source image as the work’s “skeleton.” The artist describes her process as a “redescription” of the source image, rather than a copy or a reproduction. Prints from the 1970s, such as "Untitled (Large Ocean)" and "Untitled (Large Desert)," reflect photos Celmins took in Venice and the Mojave Desert. Working from photographs enables Celmins to achieve nearly scientific precision and aids her in rendering her subjects with a detached, unemotional flatness. In fact, Celmins’s depictions of the night sky often reference technical photos found in magazines and books. Celmins admires images like these for their anonymity, as they allow her to translate the image to “the human context.” This is especially evident in prints such as "Strata," which Celmins created using 25 copper plates adhered together. Celmins made the grid visible by drawing it in, emphasizing the printing technique and the physical labor of the process.
Celmins does not aim for her works to serve as illusionistic “windows” to another world, preferring instead to put her own viewpoint and process on view. To this end, she often belies any discernible perspective or horizon, thus rendering the recognizable subject matter eerily unfamiliar. Upon close inspection, the texture and detail that she is able to achieve through printing enables Celmins to paradoxically counter the immensity of her subject matter. As this selection of prints suggests, Celmins frequently returns to the same subject matter, continually adjusting her approach until the image becomes, in her words, “a real physical object.”
Celmins, "Untitled (Ocean)," 1975
I do repeat the same image, but I see that every time I make it, it is in some way different, even if it is the same image. I remove a lot of obvious signs of expression, but my hand is still in there. Each maneuver and slight change adds a different emotional tone and feeling.
Vija Celmins, artist, interview with Samantha Rippner from "The Prints of Vija Celmins", The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 2002
Celmins, "Untitled (Large Desert)," 1971
Celmins, "Strata," 1983
Celmins, "Untitled (Large Ocean)," 1972
Celmins was born in Riga, Latvia and immigrated to the midwestern part the United States at age 10. After graduating from the John Herron Art Institute in Indianapolis in 1962, she moved to California to pursue an MFA at UCLA. Although once fascinated by the Abstract Expressionists, while in California she rejected the ideas of the New York School and focused on the simplicity of her subject and her desire to communicate her artistic process. Celmins began making prints in the 1960s, immediately gravitating towards labor-intensive techniques such as etching and lithography. While living in Venice, California, she created images of the desert floor and the Pacific Ocean first in graphite and then using lithography, such as Untitled (Large Desert), the earliest work presented here.