Lothar Osterburg’s Inner Longings

HUDSON, New York — I first saw Lothar Osterburg’s work in a group show in 2022, Still Life and the Poetry of Place, at Pamela Salisbury Gallery, and ever since that encounter I have wanted to learn more about what he is up to. I got more than I bargained for with his solo exhibition, A Celebration of the Small, at the same gallery. Spread out over the entire five floors of the Carriage House that stands behind the storefront gallery, as well as the courtyard connecting them, the exhibition consists of nearly 150 works in different media dated between 1999 and 2023. Among them are found-material model ships that can float; hanging sculptures of planets with oversized buildings, highways, and ships jutting out from the surface; photogravures; and other objects, such as a toolbox into which we can peer and see an entire miniature world. Considering the work’s diversity and time frame, I think it is fair to call this exhibition a mid-career survey. 

The photogravures compose the bulk of the exhibition. They depict four general subjects: sailing ships; zeppelins, biplanes, and gliders; subways and locomotives; and fantastical cities and houses, along with their empty rooms. Osterburg is master of the photogravure process, achieving a wide range of tones, from deep, velvety blacks to subtle grays. Through this complex technique, which achieved its high point in the late 19th century, the artist transports us to an alternate world. 

The ships — sailing, beached, or lying on the ocean floor — harken back to the Age of Discovery, while the trains and zeppelins summon their own chapters in history. These unmanned vessels are steeped in longing, and it’s this longing that sustained my attention to Osterburg’s art. 

I think Osterburg sees this as part of humankind’s DNA: Whatever obstacles we might encounter in our lives, our longing does not cease. Looking at his ships, trains, and planes, I thought of figures as various as the Belgian-French explorer Alexandra David-Néel, who traveled to Lhasa, Tibet, in 1924, when it was closed to foreigners; poet Allen Ginsberg, who traveled to India in search of spirituality after becoming disillusioned with the United States; and poet Ed Robeson, who drove from Pittsburgh to the Pacific Ocean in 1970. These three figures share a search for an outer reality that spoke to their inner longings. 

The longing Osterburg evokes in his sculptural models, which he uses in his photographic scenes, is tinged with wistfulness. His weathered ships from a bygone era convey his inventiveness with found materials. Might the materials be a comment on the legacies of an earlier age? That tension between optimism and yearning remains taut throughout the exhibition. 

At the same time, many of Osterburg’s images feel haunted. Where are the vehicles going? Are the ships drifting aimlessly? His crowded metropolises and gridlocked roads seem to portend a loss of identity. An air of melancholy and loneliness permeates these works, underscored by the palette of dark blacks and grays. The artist stirs up these distinct states of mind — we enter into this dream world and become dreamers. We board a boat or zeppelin without knowing the destination. Believing we will arrive offers a sense of hope, something rare in today’s art world. 

Lothar Osterburg: A Celebration of the Small continues at Pamela Salisbury Gallery (362 1/2 Warren Street, Hudson, New York) through June 9. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

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