VISUAL ARTS Vija Celmins ICA, London

Richard Ingleby
Friday 13 December 1996 00:02

Vija Celmins is a 58-year-old, Latvian-born American currently enjoying her first European retrospective and first ever British exhibition at London's Institute of Contemporary Art. She is, according to the blurb that accompanies the show, American art's best-kept secret - much lauded over there but barely known here.

One hears this sort of claim too often to pay much heed but in Celmins' case it is backed by an impressive cv showing a history of museum exhibitions in Philadelphia, Seattle, Minneapolis and at the Whitney in New York, and work scattered throughout the best collections in the United States. All this American fame and yet not a single picture in a museum on the side of the Atlantic where she was born and lived the first 10 years of her life and, until now, no opportunity for us Europeans to judge her work.

So, what have we been missing? The first thing one notices at the ICA is a continuity spread across 30 years, not exactly sameness, but a single- minded approach and consistency of mood. The earliest works date from 1964 when Celmins was 26 and recently moved from her adopted American home of Indianapolis to Venice Beach, California. Nothing, however, about these grey, monochromatic pictures could be less Californian, or less in keeping with the fun and fizzy pop culture that was beginning to find its feet on the American west coast.

There is a circumstantial likeness to pop art in her choice of everyday subject matter, but Celmins's reason for painting fans, pans, heaters and hotplates was simply that these things were the contents of her studio. It is as if she never glimpsed the sun, let alone the beach.

She has acknowledged the influence of Morandi, master of the pale grey still life, but while the effect of a Morandi painting is of harmony, the feel of these paintings by Celmins is consistently of isolation. This seems to be the key to her work: a continuing solitary mood that extends from these early domestic pictures through to her most recent paintings of the cosmos and the sky at night.

Between these early and late pictures she abandoned her paints to concentrate on making meticulous pencil drawings from photographs of subjects with a similarly lonely atmosphere - the open sea, the desert and the surface of the moon. They are unquestionably well done, highly observed and beautifully made, but there is something ultimately unsatisfying about their lack of emotion or imagination.

Celmins was stuck making these small drawings of big subjects for nearly 20 years before she returned to painting in the late 1980s, a return that was helped by the making of a rare sculptural work which is included at the ICA. To Fix the Image in Memory, as it is rather pretentiously titled, is made up of 11 pairs of stones - each pair comprising an original bit of rock and a reproduction made by Celmins in bronze and painted in exact replica of the original. This is the visual trickery of her drawings of photographs taken to its logical conclusion and, arranged in a glass table top in the centre of this exhibition, they are a curious sight and offer a moment of light relief in what is otherwise a pretty sombre experience. It is easy to see why Celmins's work has a following in America, where such moments of quiet contemplation are few and far between. She has a singular talent, but on a grey December day in London rather a dispiriting one. To 22 Dec. Info: 0171-930 3647

Richard Ingleby

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