"I think there's something profound about working in material that is stranger than words and is about some other place, which is a little more mysterious. In the end, there is not so much to talk about, but something to experience with the eye" (V. Celmins, "Interview with Chuck Close," ART Press, 1992).
Among the preeminent artists of her generation, Celmins' singular practice reaches its most complete expression in Night Sky #14, 1996-97, a sumptuous painterly transcription in velvety blue-grays and a rendering of unexpected transparency, where explosions of sudden light shimmer through a field of lush darkness. Even as Celmins creates a muted nebulous field, that field has untold spatial depth, sprinkled with light-filled contrasts that only a master of materials and composition such as Celmins can achieve. An essay in refracted and reflected light becomes, in Celmins labor-intensive process, a testament of how, in essence, one sees. Like Cézanne's apples and his aspects of Mont Sainte Victoire, or Giacometti's fierce portraits of his brother, Diego, Celmins' iterations of a single motif through her career, whether sea, desert or sky, are campaigns leveled at the act of vision, of looking and getting it right. The sheer pleasure in mark making for Celmins--in the accumulation of tiny incident over a broad expanse--is singularly palpable here. Night Sky generates for the viewer a mode of second sight, a sense that between and beyond Celmin's deft markings, one may discover transcendent imagery.
This is not to say that Celmins' attitude toward her subject relates to the sublime. Rather, Celmins' work evolves from the culture of its time. And while she shares her early subject matter, such as objects from the domestic sphere, with masters of Pop (such as Gerhard Richter's early blurred visions of sourced photographs to Warhol's screen paintings of commercial objects), unlike these artists, Celmins' artistic process relies on "a [reinvention] of [the photograph] in other terms that gives it another quality" (V. Celmins, statement in The Painting of Modern Life: 1960s To Now, exh. cat. Hayward Gallery, 2008, p. 71). That quality can be found in a form that causes the viewer to, in effect, mirror the process by which the work came into being, to "scan it. The photo is an alternate subject, another layer that creates distance. And distance creates an opportunity to view the work more slowly, a chance to explore your relationship to it" (Ibid., p. 71).
Shifting slowly between the photographic object, its subject matter, and the illusion of both created by the artist, constitutes the heart of the experience of looking at Celmins' work. At the end of the 1960s, Celmins took on what she calls the "impossible images, impossible because they are non-specific, too big, [where] spaces abound (V. Celmins in conversation with J. Silverthorne, Parkett, no. 44, Zurich and New York, 1995, p. 40). At first it was the moon, the desert and the sea, but by the 1970s, the artist was making graphite renderings of galaxies. In the 1980s her drawings began to feel to her like they wanted to be paintings, which pushed her to take up oils after a several year hiatus. Moving between mediums was a way to refresh her technical mastery. As the artist suggests, "I thought the pencil would be more precise and more limited. Then after a while you can see that that's trying to become a painting. It's very clear that the later works all become very dense and then the paper doesn't hold anymore the density" (V. Celmins, "Interview with Vija Celmins, November 6, 2008," in E. Reifert, Die 'Night Sky'--Gemälde von Vija Celmins: Malerei zwischen Reprasentationskritik und Sichtbarkeitsereignis, Bielefeld, 2011, p. XIII).
The sources for Night Sky might come from anywhere, but Celmins' ownership of the image begins with cropping it into a shape and proportion of her liking. In a process that can take months or years, the artist then builds spatial illusion with tiny, brushed layers that move further and further away from the photograph to recreate in grisaille a new image that rephrases memory, more than realizes likeness. "The compelling nature of her art is not that her paintings arrive at a meditation on photographic melancholy. It is how Celmins shows that painting can grapple on its own terms with issues of distance and detachment" (R. Rhodes, "Vija Celmins, painter," in Vija Celmins Works 1964--96, exh. cat., Institute of Contemporary Art, 1996, p. 99). And yet in distancing and detaching herself, the artist makes room for a palpable immediacy of presence--that of the depth of the sky, as if the fullness of its dark expanses shared the viewer's space. Night Sky summons vision in a way that can also be destabilizing. Celmins remarks that her images contain both depth and flatness: by creating layers using "little strokes" and then "knocking them back," the artist asserts a flatness that then, paradoxically, holds depth. This she does by sanding each layer applied to canvas, repainting that surface image again, then re-sanding, and continuing this process of layering and sanding until the requisite effect is achieved. "In the paintings I just wanted to make a very closed off surface. I paint in little strokes, then I sand it off a little bit, I paint around and then sometimes, on the gray ones, I spray a ground on, and I block out the little stars and then I would repaint the stars. And then I would sand the whole thing down again. [In this way], something would remain in the paintings that I couldn't really do in any other way" (In E. Reifert, op. cit., XIV).
Night Sky transmits the meticulous rendering of an artistic process dilating over expanses of time as well as space, where layer upon layer of azure painted surface creates a visual density inhering in its apparent tactility, where the artist's hand constructs deep space within a seemingly collapsed surface. Celmins, with a masterly command of vision and materials, reorders our relationship to the image, creating a dynamic tension between how we look and what we see. In this way, Celmins "replays our relationship to any and all imagery, catching the fluctuating dynamic of near and far, promise and fulfillment, showing and telling, truth and untruth" (R. Rhodes, op. cit., p. 99).