Now on View: Vija Celmins’ “Ocean Surface”

Elizabeth Kilmer, Exhibitions Content Manager

Lasting works of art all have one thing in common – they provoke an emotional response, whether powerful or subtle. Vija Celmins’ 1992 woodcut, Ocean Surface, brings forth a feeling of peace and relaxation: one can hear the ocean waves, swelling and receding, and feel the warm sun, cooled by a calm breeze. Despite our inability to go to the ocean due to current travel restrictions, Celmins is able to transport us there nonetheless.

These feelings of relaxation are brought forth by this simple print, despite it only showing the waves of the ocean – that’s all Celmins needed to capture in this work. In order to elicit emotion, Celmins was meticulous in her rendering of an ocean’s infinite waves; this is especially noteworthy as this print is, in fact, a woodcut. In the Western tradition, woodcuts are often roughly cut, at times even primitive, works of art; prints that contain harsh and aggressive shapes and lines rather than intricate and elegant ones. Celmins’ work, in contrast, pulls from the tradition of Japanese woodcuts. Japanese artists perfected woodcuts, or woodblocks, around the 8th century A.D., starting out as religious texts for Buddhist temples or royal commissions. They were a far cry from the blocky, elementary shapes that Western artists first produced. Japanese prints utilized flowing, curving lines the emulated the soft wind, winding trees, delicate mountain summits, and undulations of the sea. These prints are elegant and detailed to the highest degree, and viewers quickly get lost in their intricacies. Celmins’ work emulates the delicacy of Japanese woodcuts. Ocean Surface actually looks liquid. We can see the undulations of the water and anticipate the falling of each wave as it reaches its crest – we, as viewers, are quickly lost in the scene, diving into the middle of the ocean.

A black-and-white woodcut of waves.
Vija Celmins, American, b. 1938. Ocean Surface. Woodcut, 1992. Gift of the Rick Hauck Memorial Fund, June E. Enoch, and Joyce Leckrone, 1992.04. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Celmins is noted for creating intensely realistic renderings of the natural world. Her meticulous compositions are known for incorporating, almost exclusively, black, white, and grey, and this allows the viewer to become completely lost in the detail. Extraneous colors and subjects are purposefully eliminated, to ensure the viewer’s full focus. Additional important aspects of works of art like this are its lack of a central focal point and its lack of depth – at least discernible depth. This is accomplished by having the waves take up the entirety of the composition. We can see that there is some semblance of depth, as the waves get smaller towards the back of the composition, however, as a whole, the print is flat – the waves “climb” the back of the composition rather than recede into the background. This is another attribute of Japanese printmaking that Celmins has drawn on; Japanese artists also capture depth differently than Western artists, climbing the composition rather than delving deeper to create the illusion of dimension. This allows the eye to wander almost at will rather than be dictated by the composition, which works well for Ocean Surface. This maintains the illusion of the immensely vast ocean, stretching far beyond what the eye can see.

This woodcut shows a Japanese landscape. In the foreground, a green hill, dotted with trees, overlooks a village with houses. In front of the village, a meandering rivers runs off the composition. In the background the village recedes into an ocean view, with boats out in the winter. In the very back, a mountain range stands tall against a gloomy, cloudless sky.
An example of the intricacy and detail of a Japanese woodcut. Hiroshige, Japanese. Shinagawa. Color woodcut, 19th. century. Gift of the Betty Parsons Foundation, 1985.10. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Throughout her career, Celmins’ has noted that her use of intense photorealism was more than just a style choice. Her goal, through all of her visual tools, is to dispel the idea that nature is romantic, sublime, and inherently capable of inspiring awe. Throughout art history, nature is often used as a tool to reference the power and grace of God or other deities, reinforcing the small, helpless stature of man within the vast and untamable universe. While one may not find this print of ocean waves awe-inspiring, per se, it is romantic in that it evokes a strong emotion – that of peace. There’s a reason why the ocean is a vacation destination for so many people, as the sound of infinite waves and the warm sun create an intense feeling of peaceful relaxation. Additionally, Celmins’ skill with woodcut is truly awe-inspiring. Her ability to manipulate such simple elements of wood and ink is some of the most precise in FWMoA’s collection. As a result, while she has technically subverted the traditional definition of a sublime landscape, Celmins’ skill brings the feeling back for her audience.

Ocean Surface is meditative, the repetitive waves creating a cool, calming sensation. Need a break from the chaos of the world? Come view Celmins’ work on display in By Women: A Selection from the Permanent Collection at FWMoA through September 13, 2020. If you’d like to learn more about Celmins and her prints, or similar Japanese woodblock prints, contact Sachi Yanari-Rizzo, FWMoA’s Curator of Prints & Drawings.

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