New York

Elger Esser

Sonnabend Gallery

Had Elger Esser deliberately set out to produce two apparently opposite bodies of work, he might well have settled on the landscape photographs for which he is best known and the enlarged shots of vintage seaside postcards in his recent show. The former photographs, large-scale in the manner of much current German photo art (Esser is yet another former student of Bernd and Hilla Becher), are beautiful in interesting ways. Some are striking for the flat featurelessness of the expanses they show, often of water and sand; others describe coastal or riverine spots of no self-evident uniqueness, so that it is hard to tell what prompted their selection. In either case Esser seems to be attempting to unravel the codes of the picturesque, deflating the dramas of perspective and the carefully shaped view. The postcard series, on the other hand, is explicitly bound up with those codes, which are the stuff of this kind of image. Far-off mountains, crashing waves, scene-stealing children, local landmarks—all the features that were previously so painstakingly shunned have insinuated themselves here with a vengeance.

And yet the new images are not merely picturesque. They recall, in fact, a group of mountain landscapes that Gerhard Richter painted in the second half of the ’90s, which scrupulously block the sense of expansive space and panoptic vision that mountain landscapes are specifically good for. Greatly enlarged—the largest work here was nearly ten feet wide—the postcards develop a mottled grain, a screenlike barrier precluding total immersion in the view. The old-fashioned clothes of the figures and pictures like 52_Berck, 2004, which shows a beached fishing or cargo sailboat, place the pictures firmly in the past, adding to this sense of inaccessible remoteness. The color, similarly, is at once rich and faded, sumptuous and antique. Some of the images, including several of Saint-Malo in Brittany, show sweeps of coastline, high skies, and grand marine distances, and one guesses they pretty much follow the framing of the original postcard. Others, however—268_Le Havre II, 2004, for example, which focuses on the Chaplinesque oddity of the stance adopted by two men on a stone breakwater—are surely incidental details cropped out of some larger panorama. Here there may be no clear perspectival vanishing point, or a figure may be isolated against a flat field.

Taken as a group, then, the works show an alternation between a nondescript dailiness—any beach, any summer, though always a long time ago—and a conventional loveliness that is reached for but always qualified. The effect, paradoxically, is quite lovely. Esser’s approach to landscape reminds me of Beckett’s to writing and to life, expressed in many tenderly contradictory apothegms: “imagination dead imagine”; “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” When the pictorial codes available for dealing with the world’s geography have become stale and questionable, how do you make pictures that confront it anyway? Both here and in his earlier photographs, Esser is seeking out answers.

David Frankel