“To ‘fix’ the image in memory ... not for itself but for its clarity and balance. Art offers its beautiful stillness ... a sense of wonder constructed over time ... sustained emotions.” Vija Celmins, 1980
Vija Celmins’ opening quote at her SFMOMA retrospective sets the tone for an unassuming yet consistently powerful exhibition of an artist whose subtle, contemplative oeuvre shows an engagement with the poetic possibility of the everyday. Best known for her photorealist drawings and paintings in monochrome or grey tones, Celmins’ work has always shown a fascination with what we see, how we see it, and the experience of seeing itself. ‘To Fix the Image in Memory’ presents some of Celmins’ most iconic works. Her early 19060s sculptural and pictorial renditions of everyday objects like hair combs and desk lamps are followed by her famous 1970s drawings of expansive oceans and night skies. In turn, bronze cast, painted stones and writing tablets made during the 1980s display an idiosyncratic sense of humour, while her most contemporary works engage with negative space and conceptual ‘doubling’ of the artist and the object.
Often cited as part of the pop-art movement of the sixties, Celmins’ work offers a distinctly different critical context that has little in common with pop-art’s investment in the languages of mechanical reproduction, advertising and popular culture. Rather than proliferating the object through mechanical abundance, she investigates the poetic possibility between one moment and the next in works that are painstakingly created by hand. Even though repetition plays an important role, every ‘rendition’ is in fact a work in its own right.
For example, the oil painting ‘Lamp #1’ (1964) may seem to engage with the universality of a common household item – the lamp even resembles the famous Pixar logo and, as such, its ‘visual coding’ has grown recognisable beyond its day-to-day purpose – yet its importance lies in its relation to temporality and presence. ‘Lamp #1’ is both commonplace and acutely intimate, embodying the reality of its presence at a time in the artist’s life. The image shows Celmins’ experience of the everyday as shot through with moments of poetic potential. Similarly, her graphite seascape series, ’Untitled (Ocean)’ (1977), are not just exercises in meticulous explorations of subject and materiality but render the experience of viewing into a careful narrative of undoing. By repeatedly redrawing an always changing force of nature Celmins asks not what we can see, but what we can imagine. Similarly, ‘Two Stones’ (1977, 2014-16) confounds our desire for experiencing the ‘real’ and instead offers a complex narrative of becoming in which the uniqueness of the object is sacrificed in favour of imaginative possibility.
At the centre of the exhibition emerges an artist whose tools of perspective and repetition draw out an ability to trace parallels between fictional and real worlds – while questioning the validity of both.