ARTIST ROOMS Vija Celmins: Image and Scale

Vija Celmins, ‘Web #1’ 1999
Vija Celmins
Web #1 1999
Tate / National Galleries of Scotland
© Vija Celmins

“Maybe I identify with the spider. I’m the kind of person who works on something forever and then works on the same image again the next day.” - Vija Celmins [1]

For Celmins a work of art doesn’t represent anything but itself. Through the photographic source material of oceans, night skies and deserts she relentlessly explores the image and the richness of its variation. As subjects they are united by their depiction of boundless nature and suggestion of the infinite. Speaking of her use of these images Celmins stated: “I was so turned on by these scientific images, and I just couldn’t help but redo them.” [2]

In her prints such as Alliance 1983 Celmins began making double-plate images just as she had previously made double image drawings (see Untitled (Desert-Galaxy) 1974). The juxtaposition of the images creates a dialogue between the night sky and another kind of spatial exploration on the picture plane, such as an engineer’s drawing of a ship or a desert floor. The placement of the image on the support is of crucial importance to Celmins because “the images tend to run on and on, they have to be carefully ended.” [3] In her printmaking the area of white paper increased so that the image became more concentrated. Celmins has said: ‘My feeling about the size of the borders has a corresponding effect on how one perceives the image.’ [4]

Viewing Celmins’ works based on photographs of spider webs offers a different sense of perspective to the night skies and deserts. The spider webs are viewed relatively at the same angle and scale as they might be in nature. The web however – like the night sky and desert floor – acts as a kind of map as it describes a surface. The effect of seeing these works together invites the viewer to consider not just perspective but proportion and scale.

Like the desert, lunar surface and galaxies Celmins has explored the spider’s web serially. The writer and curator Elita Ansone relates the spider’s web to the night skies and that “with each work Celmins presents a different feeling and a different image, as if each were a new galaxy.” [5] Web #1 1999 is one of five spider web works by Celmins in ARTIST ROOMS, the remaining four of which are examples of the artist’s wide ranging printmaking practice, produced and published two years after Web #1.

Discussion
Think about other artists who depict the natural world such as J.M.W. Turner and discuss how their work differs from Celmins’ in approach and subject.

Activity
Ocean Surface Woodcut 1992 is a type of relief print. The process involves a drawing being cut into the wood surface so that the incisions translate in reverse and seen as the un-inked white lines of the print. You can create your own relief print substituting wood for lino or polystyrene remembering to remove the areas you want to appear white, inking and then pressing the surface with a sheet of paper.

Artist Link
The American artist Agnes Martin (1912–2004) is known for her paintings which are made up of horizontal bands of colour, separated by faint hand-drawn pencil lines. Martin, like Celmins, had a love of the surface and accounted for every inch of it with her vigorous grids.

Notes and references
[1]. Samantha Rippner, ‘The Prints of Vija Celmins’, exhibition catalogue, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2002, p.30.
[2]. Betsy Sussler, ‘Interview with Vija Celmins’, The Museum of Modern Art, October 18, 2011, https://www.moma.org/pdfs/docs/learn/archives/transcript_celmins.pdf, p. 29, accessed, 1 April 2014.
[3]. Samantha Rippner, ‘The Prints of Vija Celmins’, exhibition catalogue, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2002, p.14.
[4]. Ibid. p.15.
[5]. Elita Ansone, ‘Vija Celmins Double Reality’, Latvian National Museum of Art, 2014, p.113.