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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Vija Celmins

Untitled (ocean), 1977, Vija Celmins...why?
Vija Celmins, Phong Bui 
In viewing the work of Latvian-born artist, Vija Celmins, the mind rebels. That has to be a photo; no artist would take the time and effort to draw something like that...nor would they be likely to do it so well as for it to be mistaken for a photo. That same mindset dominates her work whether in acrylics, oils, pencil, or even, incredibly, her Claes Oldenburg-sized sculptures of pencil stubs. Her work is so photo-realistic the obvious question arises--why? If you're going to draw a picture of the open sea so exquisitely rendered as to be mistaken for a photo, then why not skip the laborious drawing and simply frame the photo instead. Size is no excuse. Photos can be enlarged even to billboard-size with little loss of resolution even from digital pocket cameras.
Flying Fortress, 1966, Vija Celmins--creative destruction.
Time Magazine Cover, 1965,
Vija Celmins
The answer involves the artist wanting to make a statement. That's it. That's the sum and substance of her art. Perhaps that should be the case for all art. The subjects seem to be chosen at random--a pistol being fired, a Time magazine cover, a spider web, pebbles, the galaxy, a common comb--objects from the artist's environment so common that most artists wouldn't even consider considering them as apt subjects for their work, much less spending the hours needed to render them photographically real. In a nutshell, Celmins is saying, nothing is too mundane to become art. Though most of her subjects appear randomly (even blindly) selected, there are themes running through her work. One has been "Creative Destruction," that is, the oxymoronic, drawn creation of the act of destroying, or that which facilitates destruction. Vija saw WW II up close and personal as a child refugee, having had the misfortune of being born in 1938 in Riga, Latvia, and spending many of her formative years in European refugee camps. She knows her subject first-hand. Many of her early drawings were photographically accurate images of WW II aircraft.
Creating destruction.
Vija's family came to the U.S. in 1948, settling first in New York, then Indianapolis. She was ten and spoke no English. As a result, she escaped into her art. She claims that, only after graduating from high school and beginning college art classes at the John Herron School of Art in Indianapolis, did she really have a feeling of belonging. After the completion of her MFA at UCLA, Celmins joined the burgeoning artist colony of Venice, California, where she drew and painted while moonlighting as an instructor at three different nearby colleges. It was during this time that she became collectible, while routinely exalting the mundane. It was during this time, too, that Pop was all the rage. Celmins began as a Pop artist but soon veered of onto the remote side road of Photo-Realism. From there she explored the even more remote path alongside the "why" question posed before. Perhaps the answer is simply, "why not?"

Pencil, 1966, Vija Celmins
Eraser, 1967, Vija Celmins



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