Night Sky 18 1998 is a drawing in charcoal on paper that depicts an expanse of stars burning in the night sky. Some of the stars are clear and precise while others are faint and blurred, creating a sense of shimmering depth and potentially infinite recess. They are arranged in an all-over composition, so that no particular constellation can be easily identified. The work is thus an evocation of the night sky rather than a depiction of a specific location.
To make this work, the Latvian-American artist Vija Celmins used charcoal to create a tactile, velvety darkness on the page, before carefully picking out each individual star using an eraser. Charcoal is extremely liable to smudging, and so the creation of Night Sky 18 would have required attentive and laborious work.
Celmins started producing depictions of the night sky in the 1970s, based on source images generated by astronomy and space exploration. After growing up in Indianapolis (where her parents relocated from Latvia), Celmins studied in Los Angeles during the 1960s, and continued to live on the West Coast of the USA in the 1970s. The art historian Lane Relyea has noted that during this period ‘many artists were swept up in the enthusiasm over emerging space-age photographic technologies, especially in Southern California, where the close proximity of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) encouraged the establishment of the Los Angeles County Museum’s Art and Technology Program between 1966 and 1971’ (Relyea, Gober and Fer 2004, p.73). Celmins’s fascination with space-related imagery can be situated within this wider context, as well as manifesting her express interest in scientific imagery more generally.
Many of the found images of the night sky that Celmins worked from during the 1970s were small magazine cuttings. The artist has described how she would ‘scrutinize these little images in great detail. Their small size allowed for an intimacy with the subject. It allowed me to enter that grey world in a personal way and I would draw my way out of it’ (quoted in Close 1992, p.51). Rather than through direct observation, Celmins approached the representation of the night sky via reproduction and mediation, further complicating the play between proximity and distance in a work such as Night Sky 18.
Night Sky 18 is one of many night-sky studies that Celmins has made across a range of media, including painting and drawing, as well as printing processes such as woodcut, lithography and etching. Night Sky 18 can be related to Galaxy 1975 (Tate P78335) and Night Sky Woodcut 1997 (Tate AR00480). This is underlined by the title, Night Sky 18, which undercuts the romantic subject matter with a bureaucratic numbering system that explicitly denotes the image as part of a series. The artist has reflected: ‘I tend to do images over and over again because each one has a different tone, slant, a different relationship to the plane, and so a different meaning. The meaning for other people tends to be a projection of their own romance.’ (Quoted in Close 1992, p.52.) In Night Sky 18 Celmins not only reproduces photographic source imagery, but also in effect cites her previous work.
Night Sky 18 is almost photorealist in its detailed depiction of the night sky, but the use of charcoal to create the image replaces the instantaneous moment of the photograph with sustained durational meditation. The time and labour involved in the work’s production offers a metaphorical correlation with the aeons it takes light to travel from stars before being caught by a camera. The rough charcoal line visible at the edge of the sky and the empty border that Celmins has left around the drawing serve as reminders that the image is an illusion, calling attention to the act of artistic creation.
The desert, the ocean and the sky are spaces that Celmins has engaged with extensively and intensively in her work since the 1970s. They are all natural expanses devoid of human presence, and convey a sense of limitlessness that is both liberating and overwhelming. These spaces are also liminal, uninhabited zones that act as borders and boundaries as well as opening out onto apparent endlessness. This is the tense double register that infuses Night Sky 18.
Chuck Close, ‘Interview with Vija Celmins, New York, 26 and 27 September 1991’, in William S. Bartman (ed.), Vija Celmins Interviewed by Chuck Close, New York 1992.
Lane Relyea, Robert Gober and Briony Fer, Vija Celmins, London 2004.
Vija Celmins, Dessins / Drawings, exhibition catalogue, Centre Pompidou, Paris 2007.
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