Vija Celmins at the Hammer Museum

Christopher Bedford

Tags: Christopher Bedford, Los Angeles, Review

Reviews / 05.04.2007
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With every scrupulously placed graphite stroke, Vija Celmins's deceptively analytical drawings bear down on the question of representation and throw into high relief both the power and the limits of the drawing medium. Celmins's subjects - ranging from handguns to spider webs - frame a sustained exposition of the drawing act. Her work, however, is unfailing seductive and never descends into pedantic didacticism. Zeppelin (1968), for example, is a graphite and acrylic drawing on paper that depicts a photographic clipping of a zeppelin, set against a dull, purposefully incident-free acrylic ground. While Celmins is rigorously attentive to the information contained in her source image - the dramatic tenebrism of the airship's body, the small passenger compartment, the rigidity of its aluminum alloy skeleton - neither the zeppelin nor its slow progress through the sky is of her chief concern. Her focus, rather, is the photographic clipping as a specific mode of representation, and indeed, as an object of marked interest in and of itself. Accordingly, she is careful to capture the formal particularities of the image, paying fastidious attention to the creases, shadows and tears that endow the clipping with a three-dimensional presence and mark it as a singular 'thing'. Although Zeppelin is rendered with meticulous care, ultimately the image materializes without discernable sentimentality. If the objecthood of the clipping is foregrounded, then the zeppelin itself is a ghost presence, lost in photographic reproduction and further distanced from the eye by Celmins's hand; 'this is emphatically not a zeppelin', as Celmins's forebear René Magritte would have it. Nevertheless, this drawing - like many others in the Hammer Museum's admirably restrained survey1 - is a deeply auratic work that quietly but willfully declaims its singularity and focuses on the act of looking, making the experience of the exhibition slow, meditative and sensual.

Untitled (Coma Berenices), 1974, graphite on acrylic ground on paper. Collection of Riko Mizuno, Los Angeles

The earliest drawings in the show (executed in 1968 and 1969) are both virtuoso demonstrations of tromp l'oeil draftsmanship and a restrained, literal parsing of representational mark making. Clipping with Pistol (1968) is a manifest example of this strategy and one that also emphasizes Celmins's interest in World War II military imagery, a fascination that emerged (not by coincidence) at precisely the moment when American military involvement in Vietnam began to escalate. Her drawings of weapons, airships and fighter planes do not make her subjects any more present or palpable for the viewer, but their sheer hand-wrought facticity records a personal encounter with objects rarely humanized, since so few people have seen or operated them. Celmins's drawings are successful not because they propose themselves as substitutes for real objects, but rather because they tacitly admit to their status as representation and therefore offer the viewer new points of identification.2

If the initial years of Celmins's career are distinguished in part by her careful, obdurate engagement with the machinery of war, then later work sees her retreat from world affairs almost entirely to explore sublime, natural imagery deliberately selected to emphasize her formal procedures and conceptual concerns. Celmins's exquisitely rendered ocean studies, twelve of which are included in this show, date from 1968 to 1977. Installed in a single gallery, this suite of serene, lambent drawings create a total environment of uninterrupted calm. Works like Untitled (Ocean) (1970) pose as full-bleed, black-and-white photographs, but only momentarily - trickery is not Celmins's objective. These drawings are quite literally magnetic, compelling a progressively closer encounter until one is mere inches from the paper; Celmins's process of rendering is thus unveiled, though not demystified. Most palpable in Untitled (Ocean) is the evidence of time elapsed in production, and it is this intuitive sense, derived from the density of the surface, that encourages the viewer to mimic this longue durée in a prolonged act of looking.

Celmins's drawings are first and foremost detailed records of seeing and doing, transcription and adjustment, working and reworking, each tiny mark in graphite - made or erased - an index of a roughly equivalent abstract fraction of a source photograph. The drawings are built up in infinitesimal increments until an image emerges and sign and signified, drawing and photograph, finally relate but never so much so that one loses sight of each of the careful marks that compose the whole. The surfaces of the oceanscapes are dense with information, atmospheric effects and moody chiaroscuro, but despite the vigor of Celmins's efforts, her encounter with the paper is never heavy enough to violate or pulverize the surface - one never senses the three-dimensionality paper can assume when heavily worked.

In order to precisely distinguish the achievement of Celmins's drawings from that of her photographic sources, it is useful to return to an empirical account of the photographic process. In his discussion of the ontology of photographic images, Hubert Damisch defines the photographic process as follows:

Imprinted by rays of light on a plate or sensitive film, these figures (or better
perhaps, these signs?) must appear as the very trace of an object or a scene
from the real world, the image of which inscribes itself, without direct human
intervention, in the gelatinous substance covering the support. Here is the
supposition of 'reality' that defines the photographic situation. A photograph is
this paradoxical image, without thickness or substance (and, in a way, entirely
unreal), that we read without disclaiming the notion that it retains something
of the reality from which it was somehow released through its physio-chemical
make-up
3.

Celmins's process and the character of her drawings could not be more removed from Damisch's careful account. Her oceanscapes, desert studies and cloud drawings reanimate the act of looking by thematizing representation itself as a performative act, the labor of which is implied in the richly crafted surfaces of her drawings. As a result, Celmins's drawings often feel like performance documents - concrete evidence of a direct physical involvement with her materials.

Celmins's latest series of spider web drawings further complicate the relation between her drawing practice and her photographic sources. With the exception of one work (Web # 9, 2006), Celmins renders her ethereal white webs by carefully rubbing out sections of an evenly applied charcoal ground with an eraser. The principal image, therefore, is actually generated by drawing with negative space. So, while Celmins's source remains, as ever, a photograph, her drawing is more akin to the negative from which the photograph was developed. The results of this process are ineffably delicate webs of light, which stretch out across grey fields of charcoal and evoke the ghostly sight of a spider's web backlit by dull ambient light.

These solemn, unassuming drawings are so arresting in part because they are so diametrically at odds with the digital and televisual streams that now mediate our primary visual experience. Indeed, slowness, stillness, and careful close looking have been resurrected recently as preeminent virtues by artists (Charles Ray), art historians (T.J. Clark) and critics (Brian Sholis). The long pause has become a contemporary leitmotif, and if one reads between the lines, a mode of resistance to what T.J. Clark has recently called the 'ludicrous and mind-numbing … flow' of visual stimuli we experience courtesy of media saturation. Celmins asserted the vital need for a slower visual experience as far back as the 1960s, when she painstakingly transcribed photographs of planes, clouds, guns and even the moon's surface, at a time when newspapers and television were reporting images of world events such as the Vietnam War and the moon landing at an ever accelerating pace, replaced the next day (and the day after that) with new images that would in turn be quickly forgotten and unceremoniously superseded by the next spectacle. Celmins's drawings are self-consciously irreplaceable and radically non-reproductive. Her works take the measure of progress, not as a form for protest, but as an alternative mode of encounter with the visual. Though she has long since retreated from world affairs, stillness is still at the core of Celmins's practice, and behind the cloistered veneer of her unassuming works on paper, the dull hum of energy still buzzes, compelling us to stop, look and think.

- Christopher Bedford

Footnotes
  1. Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, 28 January-11 April 2007, http://www.hammer.ucla.edu/

  2. This formulation owes a great deal to Douglas Crimp's essay 'The Photographic Activity of Postmodernism', October, vol.15, Winter 1980, pp.91-101.

  3. Hubert Damisch, 'Five Notes for a Phenomenology of the Photographic Image', October, vol.5, Photography, Summer 1978, p.71.

  4. T.J. Clark in an interview with Kathryn Tuma, The Brooklyn Rail: Critical Perspectives on Art, Politics, Culture, November 2006, http://www.brooklynrail.org/2006-11/art/tj-clark