At a first glance, Lothar Osterburg’s photographic works can be visually disorienting given the textural presence of their surfaces. This is because these are photogravures, prints—that is, works on paper—rather than photographs. In the photogravure process, photographic images are transferred to metal plates like those used in etching, which are capable of printing ink in a wider range of tones than can any other photographic process. With the two-dozen editioned works now on view at Lesley Heller Gallery, Osterburg presents a masterful display of the technique. And this comes as no surprise, since the artist is one of the leading teachers as well as practitioners of photogravure.
Osterburg’s work constitutes a thorough investigation into dimensions of our world as seen at another time or with new eyes. The prints displayed in the front room represent an amalgam of New York City’s topography and Piranesi’s prisons – the 18th-century artist’s series of etchings is eminent in print history. Though tapped into art history, Osterburg is no academician; consider that subways take root in these depicted dungeons and, through a Matta-Clarkian deconstruction of architecture and space, the viewer and the camera’s lens are drawn up to street level in what is referred to as “Brooklyn, ca 2018.” This progression takes place over the course of a few distinct pictures, creating an almost filmic sense of narrative and continuity.
All of the prints in the show possess a unique theatricality as a result of Osterburg’s creative approach to subject and pictorial vision; the artist painstakingly constructed the photographed scenes in miniature, and then the sets were brought up in scale through camera placement and magnification. This makes for a much more compelling subject and printed image, as the play of scale and space is absolutely whimsical.
In a group of related prints, the artist depicts systems of planets that appear to float freely in the blackness. Each planet is populated by no more than a handful of boats, bridges, or condominiums, but the scale of every man-made construct is gigantic by any measure. With “Babylon,” the image depicts a moon colonized by a hi-rise condominium bigger even than the satellite on which it sits. The single mass floats, glowing with a bright light, surely velvety to the touch. Osterburg’s careful photogravures capture strange worlds, even universes, where architecture and landscape are brought within the viewer’s grasp because the artist has been clever enough to fit his constructions within the frame.