Celmins has been rendering nature imagery from black and white photographic sources since the 1960s, exploring the same subjects repeatedly in paintings, drawings, and prints. For this exhibition, she focuses on two motifs she has employed for several decades: the ocean’s surface and the night sky. The imagery, however, is not her foremost concern: “The recognizable image is just one element to consider. The paintings seem more a record of my grappling with how to transform that image into a painting and make it alive.” This process can be seen in Untitled (Ocean Paintings) (1986–87/2012–16), a group of six oil paintings based on a photograph she took fifty years ago from a pier in Venice, California. The role of the photograph, she explains, is to provide an “armature on which I hang my marks and make my art” — in this case, six distinct variations on one moment frozen in time.
The exhibition’s largest work, an oil painting nearly five feet wide, depicts an array of stars floating on a dark field. As in the other night-sky paintings on view here, its seemingly monochromatic palette includes vivid colors applied in numerous layers to create a sense of depth. Other works in the exhibition show a night sky inverted, with black stars on a light-gray or white field.
The scrutiny of Celmins’s gaze is perhaps most evident in her new sculptures. The two titled Stones (both 1977/2014–16) consist of small rocks accompanied by painted-bronze replicas virtually indistinguishable from the originals. For each of the two Blackboard Tableau works (2007–15 and 2011–15) Celmins collected a nineteenth- or early-twentieth-century writing slate and then used wood, paint, and pastel to create an identical twin. Exhibited side by side, each pair is a perceptual conundrum that invites sustained looking.