The first time we saw Latvian artist Vija Celmins’ giant plastic comb at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) many years ago, we thought, “Oh, a giant comb! That’s cool. It’s kind of funny and cheeky.” We gave it a quick passing look and moved on to the next artwork in the gallery.
Over the years we’ve experienced Celmin’s comb — officially called “Untitled” — dozens upon dozens of times. It’s a landmark work of Pop Art. But it was only on a recent viewing at LACMA where we gave it more than passing attention and it blew our mind.
The comb of course is a larger-than-life replica of the common, cheap plastic comb that is ubiquitous around the world, from hotel-room bathrooms and barbershops to airline amenity bags and your local neighborhood drugstore a la CVS, Boots, Walgreens or Rite-Aid. It’s a disposable, mundane mass-produced commodity. Some might see it as a symbolic artifact of our contemporary consumer culture.
At large scale, however, we start to appreciate the design quality and sculptural aesthetics of the comb in a way we might not if we were looking at the actual real-size comb in our hand. What’s more is that this sculptural object is actually handmade, unlike an actual plastic comb which can be quickly, easily mass-produced at scale by a machine from a mold in a factory.
“Untitled” was laboriously crafted by Celmins with her own hands after drawing the comb pattern on a large slab of wood and then sanding it down and applying laquer to it to give it the smooth, lightly reflective and seamless tortoise-shell appearance.
Viewing the giant comb this time reminds us once again that there often is beauty to be found in the mundane, everyday objects all around us if we take the time to look at them closely. And it forces us to consider the need, endeavor, imagination, events, knowledge and labor that transpired over the course of humanity in order for such an otherwise simple object to even exist.