I was entranced this month by Vija Celmins’ work on show in Gracefield Arts Centre. Small greyish frames of sketchy dark, lit by stars and cobwebs, mostly. It’s part of the Artist Rooms On Tour exhibition that is showing around Britain this summer, and I think it’s great that Gracefield has succeeded in bringing it to Dumfries.
I walked slowly round the exhibition, trying to tune in to what the artist was doing. There is much repetition of subject. Or a sense of someone trying afresh, afresh, to catch something there. It feels quite meditative, all that near-focus on cobwebs. They are extraordinarily beautiful and have the imperfections of a torn thread caused by a passing sleeve; or a rent where a fly was captured. They have just the right torsion and drag on their connecting threads, whose anchors are just off the paper, but you feel that they too would be everyday and recognisable. Celmins takes the everyday, and makes us see it with wonder. Well that’s art, for me.
I started off by thinking the stars were curiously ‘similar’ to the webs. And in certain ways they are. But the webs are close up. And the stars are infinitely distant. They are still familiar to us, but in all ways they are truly stranger.
I am impressed by Celmins’ dedication, almost a vocation, to her subjects. You really have the impression of a mind at work, really working, sticking at it, doggedly, inventively. Then there are the starscapes set beside tumbling aeroplanes, and my mood darkened. This work says so much, without seeming to.
My favourite piece is 'Constellation – Uccello 1983' which brings together Celmins' own image of the night sky and a found image of a drawing by the Renaissance master Paolo Uccello. While Uccello’s drawing of a chalice explores the representation of three-dimensional space on the flat page, Celmins' own image explores a different way to render space. I sat down among the drawings and thought about the shape of space, and what we think we see as we look back millions of years into the past. Webs, waves, stars, sand - Celmins is inspirational.