Friday, 26 April 2013

Research Point: Tight and Rigorous vs Sketchy and Expressive

Find drawings by two artists who work in contrasting ways: From high, rigorous work to a more sketchy, expressive style and make notes in  your learning log:

Tight and Rigorous: Vija Celmins

Vija Celmins is an American Painter, sculptor and draughts woman. She was born in Latvia in 1939 just before the outbreak of war. She became a refugee in Germany and migrated to the USA with her family at the age of 9years.(1)

I first encountered the work of Vija Celmins when she was featured in the series 'Art 21: Art in the 21st Century'.(2) The artist was filmed painting on a large board which was painted almost uniformly black. She was using a tiny brush which looked like a toothpick and applying a tiny dot of white. She was painting a starscape from a small and slightly crumpled photograph. She talked about the fact that she will often paint over what she has achieved the day before so the image is painted on top of itself many times. That way she feels that picture attains a certain memory and density which pleases her. Watching her work in such a painstaking way with such a tiny brush and knowing that she was likely to repeat this over and over and over again on the same piece  of board before the painting was finished filled me with an overwhelming sense of fatigue.

I was reminded of her work when researching David Musgrave as he cited her work as one of his influences so I decided to find out a bit more about her. Below are links to a number of her works.

Drypoint Ocean Surface 1983

Untitled (Web 1) Mezzotint on Paper 2001

Night Sky No 19 Charcoal on Paper 1998

Web no 1 Charcoal on paper 1999

Desert 1975 Lithograph

To Fix the Image in Memory1977 - 1982

Her best known works are probably the starscapes and seascapes which cover the surface of the paper without giving the viewer a focal point or point of reference. I would like to see these in 'the flesh' as I have only seen photographs on the Internet. I think that not having a focal point might be a bit disorienting for the viewer much like the experience of being out at sea looking at a moving section of water without reference to the horizon makes you feel very small and a long way from home as well as inducing motion sickness. These images really do give a sense of the vastness of the ocean and the sky but at the same time are very closely observed and rendered in fine detail. 

Other natural forms which are rendered with sensitive attention to detail are her images of spiderwebs. They look so delicate that you feel like you could destroy them with a single touch and may, therefore say something about transience. 
In fact, Celmins does not work from life but from photographs and says that her work is about the tension between the illusion of depth and the flatness of the paper. In her catalogue for an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York in 2002 she says "The Edge and approaching the edge are important events in my work since the image is defined by it" "at the edges one breaks the illusion of continuous space and sees the making process and that the work is really a fiction"(3)

In some ways this tension between depths and flatness is common ground with the Abstract Expressionists who Celmins admired during her formative years. (The push-pull theory of Hans Hoffman)  However her work does not fall into this category. In fact she is very difficult to place in any 'movement'. She has gradually pared down her way of working. She said in an interview in 1993 " I wanted to purge myself of style. I had given up on colour. I had given up on gestures and strokes. All I had left to work with was the image, so I had to use the image to create a different kind of space'.(4)

Because of her very arduous way of working it can take Celmins up to a year to complete a painting. This means that her production of work has been relatively small. One of her more challenging conceptual pieces is "To Fix the Image in the Memory" which consists of 11 bronze "rocks" which were painted with acrylic paint and were produced between 1977 and 1982. The "rocks" were based on rocks which Celmins had found and were displayed alongside their originals. So accurate was the reproduction that it was difficult to distinguish which were the real rocks. This was meant to challenge the viewer. Celmins said " The point is not to fool the eye, but to open it up. This is an instigation to look, to open up your eyes and look and look more. It's a piece that says 'looking is one of the answers'". (3) This final quote resonates with me at the beginning of my studies as I'm spending quite a lot of time at the moment learning to look.

(1) Johnson, C : Celmins, Vija. Grove Art Online via Oxford Art Online
(2) Art 21: Art in the 21st Century: Season 2, Time (PBS) 2003
(3) Enright, R: Tender Touches: Interview with Vija Celmins. Border Crossings , Aug 2003, Vol 22, Issue 3 p21-35
(4)The T.H Wilson Company. Celmins, Vija. Current Biography 2005.

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