Rendered in Vija Celmins' elegantly meticulous style, Untitled #8 explores the cosmic world of starscapes so characteristic of her oeuvre. Starting in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Celmins began a career-long investigation of distant galaxies, of the relationship between the hand drawn and technological reproduction, between the human eye and its replacement by advanced technology, and between perceptual closeness and distance. Untitled #8 achieves an illusionism through simulacra by replicating the effects of a photographed image while simultaneously bringing attention to its drawn surface. The play in the present work between perspectival depth achieved in the bright pinpoint stars and the artist's acknowledgement of the paper's foremost plane by means of the dark charcoal ground simultaneously confuse and emphasize these positions.
Celmins' work is a detailed translation of a photograph into the medium of drawing. The matte surface of Untitled #8 is brought about through a slow and exacting process in which Celmins rubs charcoal evenly onto the surface in layers, smoothing down the layers with varying degrees of pressure to achieve a rich modulation of black tones, "working herself into the space," as she describes. The built up layers of shading are rigorously controlled, and the physical labor involved in creating the surface is consistent with Celmins' most private and singular process.
Her charcoal drawings parallel the deliberate and insistent progress of her paintings, in which the artist builds up layer upon layer of paint, only to sand off one and add others: "Lately I have been painting a work over and over...sanding it off and painting it again on top of itself. Same image over and over. Actually I tend to end up with a simple-looking single image that may have six months of work under it...it lets you in for a little bit and you think you may be seeing something that isn't there. The black night sky paintings are especially hard to penetrate" (V. Celmins, quoted by L. Relyea, R. Gober, and B. Fer, Vija Celmins, New York, 2004, p. 10). This quality of assiduousness and perseverance, as well as the opaqueness to vision that arises, are characteristic, too, of Celmins' drawings, no more so than in Untitled #8. Merely the touch of a fine eraser produces the sea of stars in Untitled #8. Celmins masterfully creates light out of the layers of charcoal darkness through the simple act of removal, revealing the bright white paper underneath. Yet the contrast discovered by the tip of Celmins' eraser produces an almost artificial light source, as the stars seem to genuinely glow next to the dark of the charcoal. The points of light push forward off the page and out of the deep recesses of Celmins' illusionistic sky in the effortful thrust of penetration to which the artist alludes, yet achieved by the slightest of abrasions.
The tension between the ethereal constellation of stars and the layers of charcoal that lie on the surface like an undulating blanket of dark, engulfs light even as it draws attention to the flat paper on which the scene is rendered. Celmins' shower of stars is transcendental at the same time as it is material. The vast nebulous night sky becomes accessible through the world of drawing. The translation of a vast nebula into a drawn image pressures both, as the artist reconfigures in charcoal on paper the technologically transmitted vision of space.
Untitled #8 encourages deep reflection and suggests a viewing experience of infinite variety, much like the sky Celmins captures in the drawn image. The attention to detail in the artist's process creates an effect as deep in time as the cosmos, yet her hand drawn starscape both encourages and resists such depth by virtue of a few strokes of an eraser. Through sensuous tactility and a keen sense of mimesis, Untitled #8 draws the viewer in and in so doing conflates not only the near and far, the hand-wrought and mechanical, but also the profane and sublime.