JTF (just the facts): A total of 17 color photographs, variously framed, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space, the entry area, and the office area. 13 of the works are directprints on silver-coated copper plate, made between 2014 and 2019. These works range in size from roughly 10×13 to 24×32 inches, and are available in editions of 3+1AP. The other works on view include:
- 2 directprints on aluminum, 2013, sized roughly 37×46, 72×91 inches, unique
- 1 chromogenic print, 2012, sized roughly 57×72 inches, in an edition of 7+1AP
- 1 chromogenic print, 2004, sized roughly 72×120 inches, in an edition of 5+2AP
(Installation shots below. A few of the works were not on view in the gallery space, as they were on view at the Armory Show at the time of our visit.)
Comments/Context: When Sonnabend Gallery closed up its public gallery space a few years ago, artists like Elger Esser (and others from the gallery’s stable) were left without a consistent physical venue in New York to show their work. A few of Esser’s photographs popped up at art fairs in the interim, but he has recently re-established a New York representation relationship, now with Bruce Silverstein. And while Silverstein’s intimate space isn’t a natural fit for some of Esser’s more monumental pictures, it’s undeniably good news to have the German photographer back in the mix.
This show takes on two tasks – it quickly connects back to Esser’s last show at Sonnabend in 2014 (reviewed here) to provide some context, and then moves on to a larger selection of new works. The four older works included here set an aesthetic foundation – an enlarged postcard view from 2004 (where a memory-laden coastline scene breaks up into textured dots), a yellow viaduct landscape from 2012 (which centers the viewer on the artist’s signature color palette and his particular style of serene composition), and two pastoral images from his Ninfa series from 2013 (where more enveloping scenes are printed on aluminum.) These few works orient those who may be unfamiliar with Esser’s recent artistic career, and help inform his new line of thinking.
Esser’s new works continue his experimentation with coated metallic surfaces, this time via layers of silver on copper plates. This technique creates a warm, burnished underlayer which shines through the images, brightening different portions of the pictures as the angle of the light cast on the prints changes. Each work is also coated with brushed on shellac, adding a painterly surface sheen reminiscent of an oil painting. The result is a set of photographs that have a shimmering object quality and an overt relationship to the appearance of painted surfaces. And each picture is displayed in an elegant wooden frame, further enhancing its tactile preciousness.
All of Esser’s new photographs are landscapes with water – some depict broad expanses of islands and sea, while others narrow in to more intimately cropped views of canals, quiet rivers, waterfalls, and still ponds. The wide views use the muted greys and beiges of the sea and sky to isolate small landmasses and horizontal shorelines, creating a gentle empty flatness reminiscent of many 19th century landscapes. Subtle nuances of color bring a hint of rosy pink or soft green to the underglow, activating what would otherwise be pared down static forms. In this group, both Ile de Guesclin II and Mornac sue Seudre have a timeless sense of the sublime, with Esser finding a refined stillness and visual harmony.
The tighter views tend to put the water in the lower part of the frame, surrounded by trees and overgrown greenery that tumble down and dapple the light. Leaves, branches, and weeping tendrils cut across the garden scenes, interrupting and dividing the reflected landscapes and creating all-over foreground interest. Gracefully aging stone houses and mills in the background add to the bucolic romance, and when the glow of the copper moves, the idyllic scenes seem to sparkle with welcoming summertime warmth. Esser’s jewel box views are unabashedly painterly in mood, recalling Pictorialist views from the early 20th century but updating them with a brighter sense of hazy emanating light.
What’s fascinating about Esser’s continued interest in the romance of photographic landscapes is how unexpected it is, given his early training with the Bechers in Düsseldorf. Instead of adopting their strict documentary and conceptual rigor, Esser has embraced a entirely different aesthetic, and has investigated its possibilities methodically and fastidiously over the past few decades. At this point, he has applied half a dozen alternate approaches to excavating the elemental lines and memories of the land, each subtly pulled toward an elusive sense of controlled connection and personal intimacy. When Esser finds the right balance of simplified loveliness, few contemporary photographers can match his eye for beauty in the land; with these new works, he continues that search for moments of exquisite radiance, his metallic plates adding gleaming luminosity to hauntingly humble old world views.
Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced between €12000 and €83000 each. Esser’s work is now routinely available in the secondary markets for both photography and contemporary art, with recent prices ranging from roughly $5000 to $140000.