Ralf Schmerberg, Greetings from Our Planet @Bryce Wolkowitz

JTF (just the facts): A total of 36 large scale color photographs, framed in white and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the front and rear gallery spaces. All of the works are ditone prints, made between 1994 and 2013. The prints are shown in one of three sizes: 47×35 or reverse (in editions of 9+2AP), 79×60 or reverse (in editions of 5+2AP), and 89×60 or reverse (in editions of 5+2AP). A catalog of the exhibition is available from the gallery. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: With the growing ubiquity of smartphone cameras and the larger embrace of continuous everyday photography, the snapshot aesthetic is one that has now become routine in contemporary practice. Ralf Schmerberg’s globe trotting snapshots sit somewhere between deadpan clarity and intimate looseness, his tight framing bringing attention to fleeting details often lost in transit. They have a sense of open eyed wonder, even when his camera is pointed at subjects we might normally associate with ugliness.

Taking a cue from early Stephen Shore, Schmerberg’s stacks of dishes and tabletop aftermath revel in unexpectedly luscious blasts of color, from the shocking magenta table cloth underneath a plate full of stubbed out cigarettes, to the murky red of a liquid slosh of citrus peels, cigars, and broken glass swizzle sticks. This mix of harmony and dissonance is seen throughout this show, particularly in foreground/background contrasts – a stack of noodle bowls in front of the majestic mountains of Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, a pile of rubbish in front of a perfectly still lake scene in Russia, a tourist umbrella obscuring a Venice view. Subtle visual ironies upend our expectations again and again – a long haired biker in the galleries of Romantic paintings, a sea of fancy tables on the beach in Cannes, the bent over form of a maid in yellow cleaning up among the modern furniture. Poverty mixes with excess, quirkiness (a rainbow of fur wearing Barbies, a dashboard full of feathers) distracts his eye, cultures clash, but every once in a while, Schmerberg is interrupted by a moment of quiet beauty that seems to being things back into positive balance – the reflected flash of fireworks in the night sky, a rainbow, a cone of sunlight on the ocean in Big Sur, a warm sparkle of sunset out an airplane window.

Finding a durably unique voice inside the snapshot approach is increasingly hard, and some of Schmerberg’s pictures float off into a 21st century global uniformity, following in the footsteps of Wolfgang Tillmans and others but without a definable signature point of view. But seen together, there is a subtle optimism at work here, a celebration of diversity and difference without falling into the trap of overly cleaned up inclusiveness. His most successful pictures are those that push and pull with more juxtaposed harshness, recognizing and acknowledging the cracks in the global experience but still finding a silver lining worth highlighting.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows. The 47×35 prints are $6500 each, the 79×60 prints are $13500 each, and the 88×60 prints are $15000 each. Schmerberg’s work has not yet reached the secondary markets with any regularity, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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