In her new show at McKee, Vija Celmins provides us nothing less than a vision of the universe, and its attendant perceptual problems, within the four walls of a gallery. At times, she verges on preciousness, but always manages to pull us back into different ways of seeing.
Central to the installations are drawings of stars, as they are observed through a radio telescope as points on a sheet expanding outwards with the universe. The long scroll called Double Galaxy, with its gray points in a field of white rhythms, is particularly lovely, contrasting with the holes in a seashell pictured just around the corner from it.
Secondarily are a series of small blackboard tablets leaned against the wall on a small ledge, some found objects but others Celmins has constructed from materials of different weights and densities, such as wood and bronze. In their blackness, these efforts evoke cosmological identities such as dark matter and gravity, only overreaching in one sculptural installation that unnecessarily includes a gun atop several tabletst on a chair, a kind of invitation to suicide in the face of nothingness.
Between these visions of darkness visible and giant stars as pinpricks, is fragile, recherché planet Earth, reformed by Celmins as a plastic sphere on a fishing pole and an ancient print of Earth, which is really a new work by Celmins, appropriately prepared for the market, like much of the work in the show, in editions of 20 or so. I walked across the hall to the bombastic Sherrie Levine installation at Mary Boone, consisting of four Brancusi recreations each sitting with aplomb on top of a black grand piano, and found that I could instantly forgive Celmins for breaking up the universe as recreated at McKee to make a little money.
Do you know the feeling of entering an empty classroom after the last school bell has sounded and everyone has left for the summer? This is the perception that Celmins has recreated as our way of experiencing darkness visible and silence deep, the cosmos beyond the last breath and pulsating quasar. By and large, she has succeeded.
Vija Celmins, "New Paintings, Objects, and Prints," Apr. 29-June 25, 2010, at McKee Gallery, 745 5th Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10151
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).