Helmut Federle
Scratching Away at the Surface

October 29, 2009 – January 9, 2010
at Peter Blum SoHo

Helmut Federle, "Scratching Away at the Surface"

Time Out New York

The five identically proportioned canvases in Helmut Federle’s fourth solo show at this gallery are small and resolutely unspectacular, but they occupy the space with quiet assurance. Robert Storr, in his accompanying text, characterizes the Swiss-born painter’s work as “opaque and implacable” and compares the subterranean feel of the examples here to Plato’s cave. It’s an understandable take, though these variations on an abstract theme are perhaps not as impenetrable as Storr suggests.

Entries from a new nine-part cycle in which Federle has arranged flat planes of translucent oil and acrylic pigment into spiraling, tunnel-like forms, these compositions combine material experiment with a range of figurative allusions. Lying in wait for the contemplative viewer, they repay a patient gaze with subtle pleasures.

Federle’s palette here is wintery, with browns and grays predominating, but in every work there is a central glimmer of lighter tone or brighter color. Die Passage der Prismen (for Furuta Oribe) is typical of the set: Punctuated by a smoky rectangle of overlapping swaths suggestive more of charcoal than oil, its somber mood is leavened by a pale umber heart. In Japanische See im Mondlicht (Japanese Sea in Moonlight), acid yellow fulfills a similar role in more jarring style. Finally, in Requiem for my Cat (a title that brings things nicely down to earth), a graduated glow is balanced against a surface marked by an intriguing range of textures—fields of grit and vertical streaks that concentrate a good deal of painterly action in a compact arena.                                                                                    —Michael Wilson