Friday, March 27, 2009

Elger Esser, Sonnabend and the Dussledorf School

Elger Esser is back at Sonnabend, one of the Hound's favorite Chelsea galleries. There weren't that many pictures in his recent show, and they were of varying intensity and not as gripping as the last show I saw, which was very moving in its grand stillness. Esser has been photographing large scale landscapes, richly detailed and luscious in their depth for some time now. Esser's photographs are of landscapes, sometimes buildings, but mostly shorelines, oceans, clouds--a very evocative, moody eye. Surprisingly there were also a few photographs from Candida Höfer and those proved to be the highlight.

These two photographers are not unalike in terms of their interest in representing vast spaces, stillnesses, the pomp of abscence, not to mention their lineage. Höfer is a photographer who has been documenting empty space for several decades, but her space is interior, Esser's exterior. They are both former students of Bernd and Hilla Becher's--two German photographers who have nurtured a whole school of photography including people such as Andreas Gursky, Andrea Robbins & Max Becher, and Jeff wall. The Becher's were famous for photographing industrial spaces (but I do recall also seeing a series of grain silos by them for example). They were interested in lines, in architecture. I say were because a quick google of them for this post tells me that that Bernd Becher passed away in 2007.

This is the group of photographers that seem to have compelled Michael Fried to write his recent, Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before. They are artists that use painterly compositional techniques, that engage with history more explicitly perhaps than others. There is also a sense of theatricality, but more urgently these are artists that are documenting human intrusions and interactions with landscapes and cultures.

Here is a blurb from an earlier 2007 post on Höfer:
I am haunted by "Architecture of Absence," the Candida Höfer exhibit I saw last year at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia. The large format images resonate with human potential--their emptiness speaking somehow to that potential. There is no nostalgia, no sorrow, but rather a revelation of intention, of expectation. Entrance ways, libraries, museums, theaters--all reverberating with human presence, despite the absence of human form. As if the hands that created the forms, and placed the forms, and picked up and put down the forms, were hovering there. And perhaps it is scale: the grand canvas, the sheer number of objects she is able to include. The images become a kind of cabinet of curiosity. Then there is light, the way Höfer courts it as it falls through space
While I don't think that Jeff Wall or Edward Burtynsky see themselves as explicitly political provocateurs, they, like Hofer and the Esser, the Bechers and Gursky, mirror our human landscapes, scars, and seeing, back bigger and more profoundly than other artists--and poets--seem able to do. Sweeping statement I know, but not having read Fried's book yet, I can already say that I will be agreeing with his argument--broadly. I don't think I buy the part about painting taking an aesthetic retreat, but I do buy that photography matters. It really matters now.

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