ART REVIEWS : A Rare Show by Reclusive Vija Celmins

“Everything else is moving--I think art ought to be still,” says Vija Celmins, whose work seems frozen in a state of suspended animation. Precise renderings of the ocean, the desert floor and the heavens, her work feels keyed up with compression and tension. Mostly, however, it feels exquisitely sad. One senses the isolation and intense concentration that goes into these drawings, and one also feels the violence that threatens to disrupt the rigid control central to Celmins’ style.

Often mistakenly described as a Pop artist, a Photo-Realist, a Surrealist or a Conceptualist, Celmins actually conforms to none of those schools. Reclusive and not too prolific, she has never concerned herself with the shifting currents of the art world and has struggled through long, dry periods and bouts of self-doubt. Born in Latvia in 1939, where her childhood was spent in the shadow of World War II, she emigrated to America (Indiana, to be specific) in 1949, and moved to Los Angeles in 1962. Eighteen years later, she relocated to New York, and she now claims to have no interest whatsoever in the West. She occasionally shows new work in Manhattan, but Los Angeles will have to be satisfied with this mini-retrospective comprising 10 prints and two drawings from 1972 to 1985.

There are no surprises in this show, which is basically Celmins’ greatest hits. Graphite renderings drained of color, her nature studies have a flat coolness evocative of Jasper Johns, an artist she acknowledges as an important influence. Also reminiscent of Johns is the way Celmins’ work warps one’s perception of time and spatial depth. She once commented: “The one thing I got from Los Angeles was a spatial interest that is not like that of a New York artist,” and she does invest space with a strange, piercing clarity uniquely her own. Panoramic yet finely articulated, her pictures read as photographs from a distance, and grow softer and looser the closer you get. A master of surface on a par with Jackson Pollock, her images are unified fields that seem not so much drawn as gently unrolled like a taut skin across the paper.

In an untitled work from 1975, we see a distant galaxy represented by glowing pinpoints of light--a profoundly simple image that simultaneously telegraphs terror, ecstasy and curiosity. Celmins describes her work as “a record of mindfulness” and it does conjure a vision of a silent watcher gazing at the physical world with endless patience and a strange sense of foreboding.


Also on view is “Sixth Sense,” a group show introducing six young New York artists. Their work tends to be elegant, dandified--a bit mannered in fact. With art this slick, it’s a good bet we’ll be seeing more of them.

Pence Gallery, 908 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica, to Aug. 18.

Hard-Edge Rigor: Scot Heywood’s painting is many things, but one thing it’s not is new. Malevich made this painting at the beginning of the century, Mondrian updated it a few decades later, Ad Reinhardt did his version in the ‘50s, and Peter Halley and the ‘80s Neo-Geo crowd did the latest variation on the theme.

Heywood, however, conforms to the rigorous brand of hard-edge geometric abstraction that flourished in the ‘70s. Harking back to an era when art couldn’t seem to get clean and empty enough to satisfy itself, his detached, unemotional inquiries into composition, surface, texture, edge, volume and space resonate with ideas associated with Zen. Austere in the extreme, it’s a style completely at odds with the viewing habits of 20th-Century man, who hungers for the spectacular and the new. This is art equivalent of a macrobiotic diet--all the fat has been pared away.


Like all Minimal art, Heywood’s paintings rely on the energy the viewer brings to them, and in the four stark-white paintings on view here he creates a sterile chamber suitable for navel gazing or catnapping, depending on where you’re at. Oddly shaped modular units fitted together and positioned on the wall at a cocked angle, the paintings engage and activate the entire space--possibly because the gallery rooms (designed by artist Larry Bell) abide by rules similar to Heywood’s. The meticulously buffed hardwood floors and pristine white walls stripped of embellishment seem an extension of the paintings, which appear to hover in front of the walls rather than cling to them.

Heywood’s work initially seems a bit wan, but this style curiously has come to be perceived as rather macho--a reading possibly explained by the fact that the making of this sort of work calls for intense soul searching. With no image, color, narrative or distraction of any sort, it’s just you, the materials and the void. Sissies need not apply. Defiantly out of step with current art world trends, this style of painting has the cranky eccentricity of people who insist on caning their own chairs or churning their own butter.

Kiyo Higashi Gallery, 8332 Melrose Ave., to Aug. 24.