Elger Esser: Wrecks and Landscapes @Sonnabend

JTF (just the facts): This show includes three different sets of new work. In the entry room, 3 wall sized silver prints with hand coloring are displayed, framed in black, all from 2007. In the main room, 3 color landscapes are shown, in two sizes (40×48 and 70×80), framed in blond wood, C-prints on Diasec, all from 2008. In the far left room, there are 9 black and white heliogravure landscapes, each 48×54, framed in black, all from 2008. (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: If we play a word association game and start with “Elger Esser“, the first word that comes to my mind is yellow. Esser’s large scale landscapes have often been diffused with a soft, washed out earthy yellow that is reminiscent of dreamy, lyrical 19th century romantic paintings. For me, it is a signature color; I can immediately identify his works from across a room based on the use of this particular color; no one else uses it the way he does.

There are a few images in the new show at Sonnabend that continue in this same “yellow” direction, combinations of painterly sky and water, from beaches or valleys or picturesque wetlands, often with a subtle 20th century intrusion. While Esser did his studies with the Bechers in Dusseldorf, his work seems to have evolved away from their deadpan objectivity to a warmer, more subjective reality in his picture making.
Three new works at Sonnabend seem to extend this romanticism further. Rather than starting with “real” images of sky filled landscapes, these pictures are built upon enlarged vintage postcard images of aging and decaying shipwrecks, hand colored with his same earthy palette, to create smoky, melancholy scenes, much darker in color and mood than his other works. The images are extremely grainy, to the point of almost having a Pointillist feeling, millions of tiny dots making the pictures vibrate. While they were completely unexpected in terms of my vision of what an Esser looks like, these pictures grew on me as I looked at them more. Perhaps we can place them in the context of a larger definition of his neo-Romanticism, not just sunny and idyllic visions, but also scary, sad, and almost apocalyptic ones.

In the back room, there were a group of more traditional black and white landscapes of France that seemed to lack emotional punch in comparison to the works in the other rooms. Perhaps I just needed some further background information on the significance of the images or their relationship to Esser’s art, as on their own, they weren’t particularly memorable.

Collector’s POV: The large silver prints with hand coloring are priced at $50000 each. The color landscapes are either $10000 or $30000 based on size. The heliogravures are $8000 each, in editions of 12. Esser’s work has generally been available at auction in recent years, typically ranging between $25000 and $75000 (with a few outliers).

Rating: * (one star) GOOD (rating system described here)

Elger Esser: Wrecks and Landscapes
Through March 21

Sonnabend Gallery (artnet page here)
536 West 22nd Street
New York, NY 10011

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