Vija Celmins at Tate Britain, London

Vija Celmins (born 1938) uses found images for her drawings and prints. Two adjoining rooms within the Turner collection in the Clore building at Tate Britain present Celmins alongside her own selection of Turner prints and small watercolour paintings.

One room is an exhibition space for Celmins’ drawings and prints on paper, whose subject matter is constellations of stars, sea and desertscapes and delicate cobwebs such as Web Ladder (2010). The drawings of starry skies are erased into charcoal giving a softness of surface, while the sea and desert prints resemble photographs in their clarity. Many of the images suggest the infinite, while at other times Celmins juxtaposes a print of a tree with a moon or starscape as in Untitled (Tree and Sky) and Untitled (Sequoia and Moon), both mezzotints (1985). The drawings and prints are also presented in limited edition books alongside poems or commissioned texts.

There are multiple print processes on display:

woodcut (a print with the original wood block), lithography, mezzotint, drypoint, etching (with sugarlift and drypoint), photogravure (with burnishing, scraping and drypoint), photoetching (with aquatint, photogravure and drypoint), aquatint (with burnishing and drypoint).

In drawing there is:

charcoal (removal creates the image) and graphite on acrylic ground.

Celmins’ work is almost photographic in appearance and scale, and as captivating as looking at old photos. Comparing herself to Turner, she remarks on the stillness of her work which contrasts with his more gestural work. However, she suggests they share a love of the physicality of materials. She speaks of the ‘impossible image’, capturing a wilderness on a small piece of paper, and believes she shares with Turner the necessity to observe and describe the world. Her selection of Turner paintings (JMW Turner 1775-1851) are small watercolour works on paper and in sketchbooks. These mainly comprise clouds, sea and sky – although the thin washes of paint on some paintings are merely a residue of paint covering the entirety of the surface, so that the paper appears a pinkish brown, with very little to describe the landscape except a watery translucent stain. In Crimson Clouds (c.1820-30) the pale wash is disturbed only by a few distinctive brushmarks of crimson. In other tranquil works the thin wash creeps to the border of the painting or saturates the edges of the paper.

Both Celmins and her selection of Turner’s works are captivating and worth going to take a look. On display at Tate Britain through January and February 2013.