Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Helmar Lerski, Transformations Through Light @UBU

JTF (just the facts): A total of 88 black and white photographs, framed in black and matted, and hung against white walls in the entry/upstairs gallery and the larger downstairs space (separated by an angled dividing wall). All of the works are vintage gelatin silver prints, made between 1912 and 1944. The prints range in size from roughly 9x7 to 12x9. Unfortunately, no photography was allowed in the galleries, so there are no installation shots for this exhibit. (Eye Opened from Transformations of Light, Series No. 588, c 1936, at right, via UBU Gallery website.)

There are 23 images upstairs and 65 images downstairs, divided into five subject matter/thematic categories:
  • Verwandlungen des Lichts (Transformations Through Light)
  • Köpfe des Alltags (Everyday Faces)
  • Jüdische Köpfe (Jewish Faces)
  • Arabische Köpfe (Arabic Faces)
  • Menschliche Hände (Human Hands)
Comments/Context: Helmar Lerski's tightly cropped photographic portraits have an unusual patina that most resembles the look of sculptural bronze. His close-up, full frame faces and hands are lit with a mixture of natural, artificial, and reflected light, creating unlikely shines, shadows and highlights that appear almost buffed and etched.

While Lerski's subjects come from a variety of ethnic and cultural groups and backgrounds (taken in systematic series), each deadpan sitter has been transformed into a kind of heroic historical figure by the intense attention paid to his or her facial features. Often the faces are seen in angled profile or looking away, and a few of the subjects return again and again, the repetition enabling a multi-image mapping exercise of the weathered topography of a single face. Skin textures run the gamut from the furrows of dry, aged wrinkles, to the smooth perfection of youth or the greasy, oily glare of a sweaty brow. A whole wall in the downstairs gallery is taken up by detailed close-ups of hands, the fingers searching and intertwined in various tasks, working with pencils or playing instruments.

What is most exciting about Lerski's portraits is how they seem to balance an avant-garde aesthetic with a timeless, universal quality of humanity. At their best, these images take specific individuals and turn them into powerful symbols and archetypes, capable of transcending their own personal circumstances to tell stories that are relevant to all.

Collector's POV: The images in this exhibition are not available for individual sale. According to a gallery representative, the whole collection is for sale as one unit for approximately $1.5M. Lerski's prints haven't come up for auction much in recent years; the few lots that have sold have ranged in price between $2000 and $14000, but given the small sample size, this may not be entirely representative of the actual market for his work. (Arab, No. 375, c 1930s, at right, via UBU Gallery website.)

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

Transit Hub:
  • Reviews: New Yorker (here), New York Photo Review (here), Horses Think (here)
Helmar Lerski, Transformations Through Light
Through June 25th
416 East 59th Street
New York, NY 10022

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