Picture in Picture

The mini-retrospective of Latvia-born American artist Vija Celmins is a quiet little gem of an exhibition that might get lost in the embarrassment of riches currently on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Comprising works from Edward R. Broida's collection, the show charts the different phases of Celmins's career, all the while drawing attention to her work's common thread: painstaking observation.

While in graduate school in the early '60s at UCLA, Celmins left behind the abstract painting that was then still the dominant mode of art practice in favor of an exacting representational style. After making deadpan paintings of objects in her studio, she began working from more violent images in photographs. Gun with Hand #1 (1964) is just that, a disembodied forearm and a hand holding a pistol that has just been fired. A thin cloud of white smoke surrounds the barrel, emanating from the revolver's chamber. The arm and hand are almost lost against the beige background, so that the gray gunmetal stands in stark relief. As this description might imply, it is a curiously dispassionate portrait of a violent act.

Taking her images from photographs allowed Celmins the detachment needed for both analysis and contemplation. "The photo is an alternative subject, another layer that creates distance," she has said. "And distance creates an opportunity to view the work more slowly and to explore your relationship to it." There's a suggestion here of exorcism, as if Celmins focused on these violent images in an attempt to come to terms with her childhood wartime experiences. (World War II forced Celmins's family to flee Latvia in 1944 and live as refugees in Germany.)

In an odd little sculpture called House #1 (1965), postwar Germany meets prosperous postwar America. The exterior of the house is covered with scenes of the war: a burning city, a locomotive, a plane (in relief) breaking up and crashing, a naval battle and, on the roof, a hand emerging from smoke (or clouds) firing a revolver. Is there comfort and safety to be found inside from the force and violence outside? Perhaps -- the roof has obligingly been left askew. But the house is filled with fur, calling to mind Meret Oppenheim's surrealist masterwork Objet, the fur-covered teacup and saucer. The interior of this potential sanctuary is as unsettling as what's happening outside. In a 1966 painting, Flying Fortress (the nickname of the B-29 bomber, the plane that dropped the two atomic bombs on Japan), Celmins further undermines any pretenses of security or impregnability: The Fortress's tail is separating from the body.

In the 1970s, Celmins put down the paintbrush, took up the pencil and moved away from images of violence. She turned to more neutral imagery -- a desert floor, starry skies, the ocean, the surface of the moon -- suggesting the vastness of her subjects by focusing on very circumscribed "moments" of them. She has spoken of the "process" (a big word in the early '70s) of drawing in almost mystical terms: "each point of pencil to paper is a point of consciousness, a record of having been there." Consider a work like Ocean: 7 Steps #2 (1972-1973). Across the seven sections of this drawing, each the same square of ocean waves, the pencil is applied with increasing pressure; the drawing is like a journey of moods. One is reminded of Monet's experiments with portraying light at different times of the day or year, but Celmins's project is more inward-directed.

She stayed with these natural images as she picked up the paintbrush again. In Untitled (Comet) (1988), a frame is implied in the almost imperceptible bands of dark brown defining the upper and lower edges of the painting. It's as though we were seeing this too close celestial object through a window. At the center of this mini-survey, both literally and figuratively, is To Fix the Image in Memory (1977-1982), 11 pairs of matched stones -- or so it seems. Each pair is a stone and its painted bronze replica. No mere trompe l'oeil trickery, Celmins's intent was "to see how much [she] could see…not [to] project a view, but [to] test seeing and making." The test is passed on to the viewer, as well. If you wish to determine which is the stone and which the copy, you will need to look long and closely, perhaps longer and more attentively than you've ever looked at anything.

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John Devine