New York

Vija Celmins

McKee Gallery

Vija Celmins’ paintings are dense and opaque, even when suggesting infinite galactic space. Though the night skies and ocean surfaces they so frequently and faithfully represent suggest the very stuff of which elegiac poems are made, as objects her paintings can seem bullying in their material insistence. “Lapidary” is a word that suits Celmins more, perhaps, than any artist around today, including her old Yale summer-school chum Brice Marden, now that he’s given up those smoothly encaustic, Ming-like veneers. Celmins, in fact, once made a group of trompe l’oeil pebbles (she cast them in bronze and painted them to look absolutely like the real rocks in their midst) as part of a piece entitled To Fix the Image in Memory, 1977–82 .

Celmins is an exquisite adept and a literalist nonpareil, and although I have been attracted to her work since I first came across it a decade ago, the several night-sky and ocean-surface pieces in this show (paintings as well as prints) were especially beautiful and bespoke a new rhetorical subtlety on her part. The central Celmins paradox of “dumb,” literal, two-dimensional surface-marks that conjure vast, sublime, metaphoric spaces—at once “realistic” and impeccably abstract—announced itself with gracious ease. These teleological implications were, however, also effective to different degrees in two paintings that constituted thematic departures in this show: A cracked-earth painting entitled Desert Surface #1, 1991, failed to transcend its “real estate”: while the painting’s tactile surface aroused the senses, it nonetheless remained a case of verisimilitude pure and simple. But Celmins’ slate-gray painting of an impossibly delicate spiderweb worked beautifully. Like seas and starry night skies, myths to do with weaving, labyrinths, or webs exert some great, collective subconscious pull.

Lisa Liebmann