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Getting under the surface

The subtleties that are layered into Vija Celmins' powerfully evocative drawings are a challenge to parse, sometimes even for the artist.

February 11, 2007|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

"MY work is very hard to take apart," says Vija Celmins, gazing around the exhibition of her drawings at the Hammer Museum. "That's why I am always talking about it."

Always? Her conversations with artists Chuck Close and Robert Gober are available in books, and she recently talked to Hammer chief curator Gary Garrels in a public program that filled the museum's Billy Wilder Theater. But the works in her show still raise questions.

What about the impossibly detailed little drawings of torn photographs she did in the late '60s? Why and how did she come up with the moonscapes, rippling oceans, desert floors, night skies and spider webs in her later work? What causes an artist to examine such things so obsessively? And what is her real subject anyway?

Critics say that her early work reflects her childhood experience as a World War II refugee. Celmins doesn't dispute that, but it isn't what interests her now.

"This first period is something that I must have gotten out of my system very fast," she says in the first gallery. "I worked on war images for only about eight months to a year."

And even then, she was thinking beyond the pistol, plane crash and killing fields depicted on the creased photographs and scrappy illustrations that she recorded so faithfully.

"This object is not only a gun," she says of "Clipping with Pistol," a 1968 pencil drawing of a carefully rendered gun on crumpled paper. "The clipping is also an object. The drawing is an image within an image, kind of distancing it. I didn't want an object sitting in an illusionistic space. I'm starting to use the photograph as a way of flattening."

Born in Latvia in 1938, Celmins and her family fled to Germany in 1944, in advance of the Soviet army. They proceeded from Berlin to Leipzig to Esslingen, a center for Latvian refugees after the fall of the Nazis, and immigrated to the United States in 1948. The family settled in Indianapolis, where Vija studied at the Herron School of Art, now part of Indiana University. She decided to pursue a career in art while attending the Yale Summer School of Music and Art in 1961 and landed in Los Angeles in 1962 with a scholarship to UCLA, a studio in then-sleepy Venice and a white Nash Rambler that she describes as a refrigerator on wheels.

"I felt quite isolated," she says, "but I was a very serious painter. I loved De Kooning and Gorky. I was going to make great paintings. And then I dropped it all. I dropped color, I dropped gesture, I dropped composition. I had to move on from Abstract Expressionism. I was looking for something that seemed like mine."

At first, beginning in 1964, she made sinister paintings of electric appliances and other ordinary objects on gray backgrounds. Then she edged into objects that read both as paintings and sculptures -- a tiny house on fire and a 6-foot-tall tortoiseshell comb inspired by Belgian Surrealist Rene Magritte's painting "Personal Values."

The comb, on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's exhibition, "Magritte and Contemporary Art," represents the light side of Celmins. A few works at the Hammer -- such as a drawing of a sky with a length of wire floating in front of puffy clouds -- would fit equally well at LACMA, but her drawings are packed with subtleties that demand slow looking.

"This show is a real eye test," Celmins says. A stickler for detail who exudes warmth and good humor, she confesses that she walks her dog and goofs off a lot between intense work sessions.

She soon abandoned objects for scientific photographs in an effort to find "cool images" that she could "warm up" in what she calls "an overall space." In her drawings of the moon, some surfaces seem to be slipping.

"You can see me grappling with this deep space," she says. "These drawings look so kind of turbulent. To me, they look like they have touches of Surrealism in them. I was still not comfortable with re-describing photographs. It's not just working from photographs, but re-describing them through my own sensitivity and placing them in another context and bringing them to life."

The next gallery marks a shift from moonscapes to segments of the Pacific Ocean.

"Almost all of this work was done in 1968 and '69," she says. "I had just gotten out of school and I had been down at the ocean looking through the camera. I like inspecting things through instruments -- cameras, telescopes, binoculars. I had tons of photographs, but I didn't really like them. I was trying to find a touch, like an electrocardiogram. How my arm went and what my eyes saw and my brain could imagine, I recorded. I wanted the drawings to be concentrated, so that they would be really closed, but projecting out."

Celmins drew oceans for a decade, gradually shifting from roiling images to relatively flat ones.

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