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War and Remembrance

Menil presents Vija Celmins's early work.

Vija Celmins's contemporary work is filled with black-and-white paintings and drawings of the natural world — swatches of sea, fields of rocks, spiderwebs, night skies — executed with an exacting technique that in other hands would be coldly clinical. The results are a strange but compelling combination of dispassion and poignancy. That's a difficult — and unlikely — thing to create, but Celmins staked out her territory early on.

Between 1964 and 1966, she painted black-and-white images of WWII German planes, handguns, televised Vietnam War footage and photos of the Watts riots. Images of violence may seem antithetical to her present-day paintings of nature, but they reflect a singular vision.

"Vija Celmins: Television and Disaster, 1964-66" is a small, thoughtful show at The Menil Collection of seminal works created at the start of the artist's career — many created while she was still in grad school. Co-organized with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and curated by The Menil Collection's Michelle White and LACMA's Franklin Sirmans, the exhibition is both fascinating and revealing.

Image of violence: Gun with Hand #1.
Image of violence: Gun with Hand #1.
Painted from a photograph: Explosion at Sea.
Sarah Wells
Painted from a photograph: Explosion at Sea.

Celmins was born in the seaport city of Riga, Latvia, in 1938, a decidedly inopportune time to be a child in Europe. Her family lived through the Red Army invasion and the Nazi occupation of Latvia. In 1944, when Latvia was the site of intense fighting between the German and Soviet armies, many Latvians fled through the battlefields, traveling by boat to Sweden and Germany. The Celmins family wound up in eastern Germany in a Latvian refugee camp.

They immigrated to the United States in 1948, when Celmins was ten, and wound up in the Midwest, in Indianapolis. The placidity of the Midwest must have been a striking contrast to the turmoil of Celmins's childhood. In a quote from the exhibition catalog, she describes the war years: "There was an incredible anxiety from that time that I didn't really understand at all; an anxiety from my parents, everybody was always crying. Everybody was freaking out. I was scared I was going to be left somewhere. There was chaos everywhere."

Celmins attended art school at home in Indianapolis but received a scholarship for graduate school at UCLA. Living and working in a storefront studio in Venice near the beach, Celmins created paintings of the banal secondhand objects that filled her studio. In her hands, quotidian things like a desk lamp, a hot plate and a heater became powerful and riveting objects. It was the first time she had been away from her family for an extended period of time, and she says, "I missed my childhood...When I finally left my family and moved to Los Angeles to go to graduate school, I spent years working out my longing for that lost childhood. Because the first ten years of my life had been so dominated by the war in Europe, I found myself reaching back to it."

Celmins began to reflect on images of violence from her past, as well as the then-contemporary images of violence from the Vietnam War and the Watts Riots. This is when she first began to paint from photographs, a process she continues today.

And while artists today have an infinite number of Google images immediately at hand, in the 1960s, Celmins found herself in bookstores "tearing out little clippings of airplanes, bombed-out places — nostalgic images..." Her 1966 painting German Plane seems straightforward enough. Working from a photograph, Celmins rendered a bomber in mid-air, with a hazy landscape below. The whole image has the slight indistinctness of black-and-white photos in old textbooks, and it is no doubt accurately rendered from its source. The artist wasn't trying to feed emotional content into the work with painterly gestures, but the content is there for the viewers to interpret as they will. The small swastika rendered on the plane's tail speaks volumes. You imagine hearing them flying overhead, coming closer until they drop their payload.

The 1966 black-and-white Explosion at Sea shows smoke billowing out of a boat set against an empty sky, waves filling the foreground. In the similarly monochrome Tulip Car #1 (1966), we see a 1930s sedan; nothing appears amiss until we see the silhouette of the driver's head slumped against the wheel — then you notice the bullet holes in the car. Burning Man (1966) is the only work in the show to use intense color. We see the hot yellow of the fire as it engulfs a car, and a man running from it.

To create each of these works, Celmins had to painstakingly scrutinize each image in order to render it, likely gridding them off. But when you break an image into tiny parts that you exactingly replicate, everything becomes shapes and shades of color — you separate yourself from the content of the image. Each of these images represents death and violence, but they are multiple times removed from the actual source. A photographer witnessed and captured the scene in the photograph. A book or a publication reproduced the image. Celmins took the image and reproduced it again, in a labor-intensive painting process that distanced her from the imagery, allowing for a clearer and more objective presentation.

Celmins undoubtedly witnessed similar violence firsthand in her childhood, but in the process of making the paintings, the violence became something contained and controllable for the artist. At the same time, she was spotlighting and recording it.

Several sculptures are included in the show. House #1 (1965) is a painted wooden box that looks like a house with a peaked roof for a lid and the outlines of windows and trim. Painted in black and white, one side of the box depicts crashing planes, while a hand firing a smoking gun (an image also used in the painting Gun with Hand #1) adorns the roof. The roof is actually a lid that, when removed, reveals the box's interior, which is lined with fur, à la artist Meret Oppenheim's famous teacup. Where Oppenheim's fur lining surreally subverted the purpose of the object, Celmins's lining of the box with fur creates a feeling of warm, nest-like security, a place to hide from the horror outside.

Images of contemporary violence are shown in the context of their mediating sources — TV and magazines — in the same way Celmins and most Americans experienced it.  A 1964 painting of a television set shows crashing planes on its screen. The 1965 painting of the cover of a Time magazine with images of the Watts Riots is faithfully, if somewhat softly, rendered, except, like the image of the television, it is drained of color. In these works, it is not only the image of violence but the way the image is presented that's the subject.

This way of working from photographs and separating herself from, yet somehow more richly presenting, an image, has served Celmins well. The labor and scrutiny she puts into her works, some of which can take up to a year to execute, imbues them with presence far greater than that of their source images. Celmins has continued the black-and-white that at first was a consequence of the period images she used. It has become a kind of unifying filter for her work. Whether she paints rocks or an explosion, her images feel equally consequential.

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