Untitled (Irregular Desert) by Vija Celmins

Vija Celmins

Untitled (Irregular Desert), 1973, Graphite on synthetic polymer ground on paper, 30.5 x 38.1 cm, The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Gift of Edward R. Broida, 678.2005, © Vija Celmins / Matthew Marks Gallery; Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art / Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY

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A Landscape of Desolation

Individual Commentary
Commentary by
Jennifer Sliwka

Joel describes the drought, the withering of the crops and trees, and the subsequent famine at length in an effort to mobilise the indifferent to repentance.

In his commentary on this passage, the fifth-century theologian Theodoret of Cyrus attributed the cause of the land’s infertility to the lawlessness of the people who ‘confounded joy’ and whose happiness, therefore, withered like the dried crops. Accordingly, the barren landscape described in Joel might equally be associated with a psychological or spiritual desolation.

This photo-realistic drawing of a rocky desert by Vija Celmins, a Latvian-American artist known for her paintings and drawings of natural environments, helps us imagine the state of the earth following the drought and withering of crops described by Joel. Using one of her own photographs of the Mojave Desert, northeast of Los Angeles, Celmins executed this fine drawing in a meticulous and time-consuming technique using graphite pencil on paper prepared with synthetic polymer ground. The surface texture of the dry earth is rendered so that it completely fills the picture plane, unbroken by the horizon, a building, or any form of life.

Celmins has described her painstaking drawing process as ‘thinking’, and as a means of ‘moving from one place to another’; therefore, the creation of this work might also be understood as a record of a kind of psychological movement. Untitled (Irregular Desert) conveys a sense of emptiness and loneliness: a vastness that simultaneously suggests an engulfing or an oppressive barren landscape—a sense that is compounded by the absence of colour. Indeed, Celmins’s use of grey, a colour long associated with mourning, in this work makes it an especially powerful evocation of the ‘mourning’ ground described in Joel (v.10).

References

Ferreiro, Alberto (ed.). 2003. The Twelve Prophets, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. Old Testament, 14 (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press).

Theodoret of Cyrus. 2006. Commentary on the Twelve Prophets, Commentaries on the Prophets, 3, trans. by Robert C. Hill (Brookline, Mass: Holy Cross Orthodox Press).