New York

Vija Celmins

McKee Gallery

In the ’60s Vija Celmins was known for her paintings of everyday settings with eerie, not quite hidden agendas—cars with shadowy drivers slumped over the wheel, bomber airplanes in flight, the blinding headlights of oncoming trucks. Her work didn’t fit neatly into any existing categories, although it had a certain amount in common with the distressed realism of early Gerhard Richter. Like Richter, Celmins devised weirdly faithful facsimiles of disordered, uncontrollable things, knowing full well that to give them a design, borders, and particular colors was an act of riveting hopelessness.

This was Celmins’ first show of paintings since the late ’60s, when she began to concentrate on graphite portraits of remote natural locales and painted wood objects. But while she has reverted to an earlier medium, her subject matter—starry blue-black skies, aerial views of choppy seas, pale lunar landscapes—has remained consistent with the emphasis on nature in her ’70s works. In Celmins’ graphite pieces, the quality of her pencil-work tended to compete with her imagery; in these paintings, the surfaces, while heavily worked, are so glossy and smooth that the artistry is virtually invisible. Still, Celmins’ exhaustive effort weighs on each picture in the form of an interior, subliminal lushness, that feels compellingly “wrong” in relation to the minuscule, scattered, frozen subjects.

Celmins is one of those rare artists who labors long over each of her relatively small paintings and drawings, sometimes for up to a year. As a result her output is small, her exhibitions infrequent. The strictness with which she serves her own obsessions is virtually an act of anarchy, at least in relation to the herdlike decision-making of many conceptualists. Celmins’ unique brand of a hallucinatory illusionism is extraordinarily effective and under appreciated. At times she seems to be a kind of nihilist Vermeer, so moving are her stars and seas to look at, yet so emptied of everything but physical fact. Her work of the last ten years shares certain superficial concerns with Jack Goldstein’s phenomenological fireworks, Ross Bleckner’s solemn celestial webs, and Dana Duff’s charcoal whirlwinds. But Celmins’ preference for scenery that is untrammeled and untouchable gives her paintings a quality of intense and enviable solitude.

Dennis Cooper