This exhibition of recent works by Vija Celmins featured imagery familiar to her followers: starry night skies and wispy spiderwebs in meticulously wrought paintings, drawings and etchings. However, with an intriguing new series of a dozen or so paintings and sculptures produced over the past three years, the Latvian-born New York artist introduced fresh motifs and subjects, and ventured into some challenging new territory with her art.
Near the gallery entrance hung a small (14-by-20-inch) oil painting, Darwin (2008-10), in black and gray with silver-white lettering, showing the frayed covers and spine of an early edition of Darwin’s 1859 On the Origin of Species. The finely rendered cover, elaborately embossed in leather, assumes an iconic quality and manages to be at once somber and exciting. As a keynote element in the show, the painting immediately triggered thoughts of 19th-century scientific investigation and new frontiers of knowledge that reverberated throughout the exhibition. The loaded image also inevitably calls to mind creationism, intelligent design and other beliefs opposed to Darwin’s that persist today.
Augmenting the theme was a striking sculptural piece, Globe (2009-10), installed nearby. Made of carefully pieced-together colored etchings, which the artist painstakingly copied from early 19th-century maps, the 12-inch-diameter globe dangled on a string attached to a yard-long pole fixed to the wall about 5 feet from the ground. The globe could be the focus of a grade-school geography lesson. Deepening the classroom allusion, a group of wall-mounted and freestanding pieces in the main gallery, “Blackboard Tableaux,” incorporate found antique wood-framed slate chalkboards, averaging about 18 by 12 inches. Arranged on narrow wooden shelves or small wooden tables or desks, the found objects are placed side by side with bronze casts of the chalkboards that Celmins painted to precisely match the originals. Given the artist’s obsessive attention to detail, the found objects are indistinguishable from the handmade reproductions. An exercise in mimesis and technical prowess that recalls pieces by Robert Gober and other artists, Celmins’s work also corresponds to her 1977-82 sculpture To Fix the Image in Memory, in which pairs of small identical rocks, one real and one painted bronze, rest side by side.
Lying atop a blackboard placed on a classroom desk in a freestanding sculpture, Table with Gun (2009-10), a hyperrealist hand-painted bronze pistol (very similar to the vintage handgun that was the subject of a mid-1960s series of paintings by Celmins) adds a jarring note of violence to the show’s overall meditative tone. Conjuring images of Columbine High School and subsequent acts of campus violence, this work perhaps best demonstrates how Celmins created a level of tension amid the prevailing propriety. Using a rigorous contemporary idiom and cool objective approach, she communicates, perhaps paradoxically, an impassive and nostalgic view of a past era of scientific investigation and geographical exploration.
Photo: Vija Celmins: Darwin, 2008-10, oil on canvas, 14 by 20 inches; at David McKee.