Vija Celmins’Blackboard Tableau #8 (Edward) is a haunting display of the artist’s meticulous and unwavering eye for detail. Celmins, who often paints and draws from photographs depicting seemingly limitless natural landscapes—the ebbs and flows of the Pacific, the star-dotted night sky, the parched desert—has a love of sensuous detail which manifests itself in a meticulous photorealism. She brings this uncanny visual accuracy and technical prowess to her object-based work with a scrupulousness that is rarely seen in contemporary sculpture. Celmins’s sculptural process begins with the collection of found objects, like stones and 19th and 20th century classroom slates, in the grisaille palette of her photorealistic drawings. The artist then produces handmade, three-dimensional reproductions which art historian Richard Schiff has described as “work of trompe l’oeil sculptural imitation” (R. Schiff, ‘Originality,’ Critical Terms for Art History, 2nd edition, Chicago and London 2003, p. 154). As with Blackboard Tableau #8 (Edward), the final sculpture consists of a display of the original object together with its indistinguishable simulacrum. The pairing disturbs perception, confounds the origin, and provokes a closer look. The present work, an impeccable example of the artist’s mimetic sculpture pairings, consists of an antique slate tablet and its meticulous copy. The component pieces are gorgeously material, with chalk-stained blackboard mottled with age and grainy wood frames into which the name Edward has been defiantly carved, presumably by a schoolchild. As with the artist’s graphite drawings, the lack of color in the piece draws the eye to tangibles like texture and tone; the monochromatic, modestly scaled slate with its fragile markings unexpectedly echoes Celmins’s expansive drawings of the night sky. Freestanding side by side, the piece’s component parts uncannily—fantastically— twin.
Celmins has explained that she likes to work with “impossible images.” Blackboard Tableau #8 (Edward) is one such impossible image, as the original schoolchild’s slate that the artist strove to copy is replete with erasures and marked by time. Yet Celmins, who remade the found object by casting it and painting the cast, is adept at accomplishing the impossible. She captures the slate’s rubbed-out chalk scrawlings and the pangs of nostalgia its old-fashioned form induces as she perfectly renders the nuanced gradations in its tone and the grain of its wood. While Blackboard Tableau #8 (Edward) is nested in a literature of mimesis, it also draws upon the philosophy of the trace. The chalk traces represent a moment where matter met motion, a place where absence slammed into contact; they induce doubt and dialecticism as much as the identical copy does. A tender sense of loss suffuses Blackboard Tableau #8 (Edward): the loss—the slippage—of the origin, the loss of time across generations and in a single life, perhaps even the loss of Edward, whoever and wherever he may be. That such a powerful wave of emotion is evoked from the basis of such technical prowess is a testament to Celmins’ formidable talent. The piece mesmerizes the viewer visually, conceptually, and emotionally, as it further develops ideas Celmins first touched upon in her 1977-82 mimicry sculpture To Fix the Image in Memory, which took her five years to complete and consisted of eleven found stones and the artist’s identical bronze-cast and acrylic-painted replicas of them.
Celmins, who is most widely known for her photorealistic paintings and drawings of oceans and galaxies, has repeatedly returned to the motif of common and found objects over the course of her artistic career. Her first body of work in the early ‘60s consisted of paintings depicting quotidian household objects—a hot plate, a heater— around her studio. These works marked a sharp departure from popular abstract styles and honed her formidable powers of observation. In the late ‘60s Celmins began to explore memory through childhood objects, producing paintings and sculptures of school pencils and Pink Pearl erasers; the early ‘80s witnessed her acclaimed mimicry sculpture of found stones and their cast imitations. The artist’s most recent work has featured old-fashioned schoolroom objects like slate tablets and globes. Celmins’s sculptures and paintings of three-dimensional objects touch on the “found object” aesthetic that was so popular with Los Angeles artists in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and engage with Pop Art’s subject matter. Celmins, however, is interested in “not using Pop’s commercial techniques, but a more tender touch” (L. Relyea, R. Gober and B. Fer, (eds.), Vija Celmins, London, 2004, p. 15). The objects she lovingly captures have an intimacy and a materiality; even when they exist in perfect double, they have a touching singularity.