‘The stars … they are holes in the great curtain between us and the sea of light’
Charged with monastic restraint and intense conceptual energy, Vija Celmins’ Hubble #3 (1998) is a captivating celestial vision. The image, executed in charcoal on paper, is based on a photograph taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. Myriad galaxies, nebulae and stars are scattered across rich, velvety black space. For all its intimate scale, the work is utterly absorbing. Our eyes gradually adjust to the charcoal darkness as if we are seeing at night, revealing endless nuances of luminosity in Celmins’ starlight, from hazy glows to points of bright radiance. More than a meditation on the vastness of the universe, Hubble #3 forms part of an incisive inquiry into the dialectic between photography and drawing, and between object and depiction. ‘I treat the photograph as an object,’ Celmins says; ‘an object to scan’ (V. Celmins, ‘Vija Celmins Interviewed by Chuck Close at her New York loft on September 26 and 27, 1991’, Vija Celmins, New York, 1992, p. 12). By drawing from a photograph, she creates an image of an image, with a fixed, mediating layer between the view through Hubble’s lens and her completed work. The galactic subject adds poignant depth to this formal distancing: while any photo captures a departed instant in time, a photo of stars captures light that has taken thousands of years to reach the camera. Hubble #3’s galaxies might have been long gone, and others born, even by the time the telescope caught their image. In a type of negative drawing, Celmins picks them out against the darkness using a fine eraser. The white paper becomes analogue to the old light of fading stars. The artist moved into galaxies from similarly intricate graphite compositions of desert and ocean, which she had been making since the late 1960s. While these works’ even, all-over expanses learn from Abstract Expressionism, Celmins’ astutely chosen figurative subjects conjure compelling, disorienting tensions. A glimpse of the infinite is held forever in the slow, subtle, condensed stillness of her work’s surface. Launched in 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope sent back images that forever altered man’s sense of himself in the universe. In its own complex and deeply rewarding way, Hubble #3 likewise destabilises what it is to see, and to be, in time and space.