Victor Schraeger at Edwin Houk Gallery

Victor Schraeger show at Edwin Houk Gallery, 745 Fifth Avenue through March 4th. This is Schraeger’s second exhibit from a body of work that has significantly departed from the work he has been known for- black and white still life photographs. This show consists of extremely out of focus images of books.

Not long after the advent of this technology, photographers began to discover devices which could be used to degrade clear and accurate descriptions of their subjects. One such device is soft focus photography which actually had its own movement, Photo Secessionism. Over the 150 years of photographic practice, various methods were devised to add interest to what might otherwise be an uninteresting photograph. When technique drives the main characteristic of an image, we should consider if its use is merely a gimmick, or if the artist has reached another level of visual investigation and thought.

For a few years, Victor Schrager, also, has been employing the technique of soft focus. These photographs are immediately suggestive of painting, with a kinship to De Stijl as well as some of the glowing qualities of Rothko. The color palette ranges from muted to intensely glowing colors.

Using just a handful of volumes, without book jackets, Schraeger has selected the books for the color of the covers. The books are then arranged in formal relationships to each other within the picture space. It all could have been a simplistic exercise, but Schraeger has a fine understanding of his technique, and he has created some surprisingly engaging images with great economy.

By using a very limited point of focus and light and shadow, his prints confound our expectations about still life imagery. When looking at Schraeger’s work, the viewer will not immediately perceive that these are images of books. What appears are glowing color shapes in overlapping or free standing configurations. When moving in closer to examine a print, one can see that within each image, a narrow portion of a book cover that is depicted with absolute clarity, while the surrounding books are increasing out of focus. That clear edge, when juxtaposed to an out of focus color of a book behind creates unusual spatial ambiguities. This effect is rather like that which can be seen in the work of Zupcu, which was discussed in an earlier E-mail.

The glowing colors, formal composition and the negative space that can be seen in Schraeger’s have all been explored before in painting. What is unique and exciting about this work is that it declaratively photographic. Schraeger has ingeniously used focus, a characteristic unique to optics and photographic technique to make us think about composition and space.

On a personal note, I seem to be particularly interested in these aspects of representation and spatial illusion. However, photography exploring these issues does seem to be part of a wider sensibility that has appeared in the galleries lately.