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A landscape beyond reference points

Vija Celmins bases her graphite drawings on photographs, so it sounds paradoxical to say, yet it is true, that her drawings elude the camera. The reason is that she understands and practices drawing not primarily as the formation of an image but as the enrichment of a surface. And it is the precise character of a drawing's surface that the camera cannot transmit, for any photographic reproduction supplants the original object with its own tangible qualities. No photograph can show us the sensitive touch with which she evokes interstellar blackness or handles the dramatic transitions from dark to light that create the illusion of starlight. In fact, there is nothing ''personal'' in her technique except the degree of control it bespeaks, which is an achievement of personal skill. There is no sign of hesitancy, reworking, or overworking in her drawings. Their graphic consistency is awesome, because it is electrified by her focus of intense concentration and decisionmaking on every inch of the page.

Why choose an astronomical view of the night sky as an image? For one thing, it provides a random and completely impersonal, and therefore unexpressive, composition. Though not quite abstract, it is minimally representational, and its definition wholly in terms of light and dark corresponds perfectly to the capacities of her medium. The artist may also like the fact that areas of emptiness in the image are the areas of fullness with respect to the drawing process, for the points of light we see as stars are the only portions of the page that are not marked. Their apparent glow is the white ground of the page (which she prepares with acrylic) showing through.

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More philosophically, the image of interstellar space is a futuristic extension (or maybe just an updating) of the landscape format traditional to Western art.''Moving Out'' is a landscape with the horizon line removed, one in which we do not know how to take our bearings, even though it is the ultimate context of our actions. There is further an affinity of style and imagery in this work: the cosmic view of personal experience which this image invokes is associated in every spiritual tradition with the kind of contemplative and self-effacing attitude evidenced in the artist's working process.

Making this drawing must have entailed shifting attention back and forth countless times between the fictive immensity of the image space and the real minutiae of its graphic details. So we may wonder whether Celmins was also attracted by the analogy between galactic depths and the physicist's vision of matter as constellations of molecules permeated by gulfs of empty space.