Two beautiful exhibitions by two very different artists -- Vija Celmins and Frank Gillette -- are currently on view at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. He photographs, she draws. He works with video monitors and Plaroid SX 70 photo sets; she shows pencil drawings of the surface of the sea. What they share is motive: Both, in Gillette's phrase, make art to "reembrace the world."
It is not the world of planes and cars and high-tech electronics -- nor that of modern art. Though their work looks wholly new, it returns us to the timeless. Nothing made by man is permitted to pollute the seascapes, starscapes and landscapes they display.
"The menace and caress of wave that break on water," a line of T.S. Eliot's, is called to mind by Clemins' perfect drawings of the sea. She was born in 1939 in Latvia and raised in war-torn Europe. Her early oils here -- of Nazi planes and pistols and bullet-ridden cars -- are pictures gray with terror. But by the time we reach her seascapes, we feel her fear subside as if washed away by love. For there is in these astonishingly meticulous drawings, in the patience of their making, something close to prayer.
A similar epiphany -- in which violence becomes quiet and death turns into beauty -- is suggested by Gillette's Polaroids and video tapes. He might spend a day walking on the beach, taking, as he wanders, perhaps 70 different photographs of the debris at the water's edge, picture which he then arranges in a sequenced grid and displays within one frame.
He quotes in his catalog a parable of Kafka's: "Leopards break into the temple and drink the sacrificial chalices dry; this occurs repeatedly, again and again; finally, it can be reckoned on beforehand and become part of the ceremony." Many of his photo sets deal with the dying -- tattered palm fronds, fading flowers, sea-washed bones or stranded fish. Yet these complex sequences of nine, or 25, or 77 photographs, sing a hymn to life.
Both Gillette and Clemins have taken much from the seething, nonhierarchical drip-paintings of Jackson Pollock. (She says that at first she "hated" them, but later came to love them.) To look at Gillette's photo-grids, or at Clemins' all-over drawings, is to see that both of them are field painters of a sort. Though questions about pop art, process and conceptual art are also raised by many of the works in these exhibits, they are easily disposed of. These are not works about art theory. Anyone who's spent hours in observing sunsets, grazing deer, or wind moving on water, has sensed within such sights a beauty beyond art. That non-human beauty is the subject of these shows.
What makes them seem so fresh is the way they deal with time. To stand among the six video monitors of "Aransas: Axis of Observation," Gillette's major video project, is to be surrounded by the wildlife and landscape and mule deer, whooping cranes and floating leaves, pattern formed by wind and wave; and these images all move. Watching -- and listening, too, for Gillette has recorded the sounds of birds, of wind and lapping water -- is uncannily like being there, except that one's experience is guided by the artist. His presentation is orchestral.
To see his photo sequences, in which each detail takes its place in a larger whole, is to feel again that same sense of passing time. Celmins' drawings, too, are extraordinarily slow.
Both Gillette and Celmins rely on the camera. He shows his photographs, she draws from hers. Yet they do not freeze the instant. Instead they let it grow. Their resonating shows suggest that though the look of art may change, the goal is constant. Gillette loves the large and small details of nature with a love much like Thoreau's; the peace that Clemins takes from the surface of the sea is the same peace that brought calm to sailor Joshua Slocum. Frank Gillette and Vija Celmins care as much for nature as they care for art.
Gillette's photography exhibit, and the Celmins retrospective -- which was oraganized by the Fellows of Contemporary Art Los Angels, in cooperation with the Newport Harbor Art Museum -- will close at the Corcoran on Nov. 23.