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Monday 9 May 2011

Vija Celmins, Television and Disaster (1964 - 1966), LACMA, LA.

Review by Jareh Das

Los Angeles County Museum of Art presents an intimate exhibition of Vija Celmins works, focusing on the artist's time in Los Angeles between 1964 - 1966. These works comment particularly on the media's representation of disasters, at a time when war, guns and other images of death and disaster were repetitively prominent and reported. Having escaped Soviet invasion in Europe as a child and emigrated to the USA, as a young adult, Celmins was about to experience a different type of war given that 1960s America was characterised by The Cold War. This began with the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, through to the easing of relations between the Soviet Union and The Unites States of America in 1969 to late 1970s. Other significant unsettling events included the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War antiwar movement.

During this period, Celmins was a graduate student in California, and although she is now renowned for palettes of realist black and grey imagery, she often used HB pencil. Celmins renders these limitless spaces i.e. seascapes, night skies, and the barren desert floor with an uncanny accuracy, working for a long period of time on a single image. This period between 1964 – 66, although often overlooked, forms a significant part of Celmin's oeuvre as it presents her preoccupation with current affairs of the time. It was also a period which illustrates early painting and sculptures that inform her later career. In California, Celmins was making art about cold hard facts, she has said: "I decided to go back to looking at something outside myself. I was going back to what I thought was the basic, stupid painting. You know: there's the surface, there's me, there's my hand. There's my eye, I paint. I don't embellish anymore, I don't compose, and I don't jazz up the colour”.

As one approaches this modest exhibition space located on Level 2 of LACMA's Ahmanson Building, a small miniature sculpture of a house titled, House #2 (1965) sits on a plinth outside the exhibition space. The sculpture, a miniature house reminiscent of a dollhouse is painted in grey and depicts a sombre skyline with clouds on the exterior of the structure. The roof however, is more chaotic as it is represents the burining aftermath of a plane crash. It looks as if the plane crashed on the roof of the house, with flames coming out of the top windows. It's almost an ironic gesture symbolising quite literally “The roof is on fire”. There is another dollhouse in the main gallery space House #1 (1965), although the same scale as to the other house, this piece depicts a flying plane, a train and a figure in flight. Its roof has a poignant image of a hand pointing a gun through the clouds. The roof is detachable, exposing the fur interior of the house.

Other works in the exhibition continue in this grey skyline palette depicting war planes in the painting T.V.(1964), guns being aimed about to be fired, Hand Holding a Firing Gun (1964) and more plane crashes in Burning Plane (1965). Celmins wittily presents sculptures such as House #1, House #2 and WW II Puzzle Toy (1965) as if they were children's toys, perhaps a parody of man-made disasters such as war and violence.

Television and Disaster (1964 - 1966) feels contemporary as although today we experience war and disaster as familiar to contemporary life, we face a new type of warfare that has similar innuendos with the cold war i.e. the threat of terrorism, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, as well as the threat of nuclear invasion. We are still constantly bombarded with imagery from disasters, wars and devastation by the media. It’s almost as if we watch and follow these as if they were theatre, something to be intrigued as well as repulsed by, which opens up new lines of enquiry between art and terrorism. A relationship which may not be as antithetical as the media would have us believe.

Television and Disaster (1964 - 1966) is on show until 5 June. For further information and opening times please visit www.lacma.org

Vija Celmins Burning Man (1966)
Courtesy the artist 2011

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