An exhibition of five new paintings by Helmut Federle, titled Scratching Away the Surface, is at Peter Blum in Soho through January 2, 2010. These small understated paintings are installed to powerful effect in Blum's cavernous shoebox shaped space, with many meters of white wall between each work, so the paintings at first read as tiny dark spots punctuating an expanse of white. This separation serves to isolate each painting as a distinct moment, pulling us up close and eliminating the others from view, while simultaneously activating the whole space like a choreographed arena. The five paintings are all variations on a geometric spiral image that originates with light near the center of the canvas, and layer by layer, becomes darker and denser moving out to the edges. The paint is carefully scumbled in many thin layers with the tooth of the canvas causing surface irregularities as it catches small hunks of paint. Within such a focused program, Federle achieves a remarkable variety of effects from one work to the next, from dry schematic precision to fluid atmospheric space. These are rather modest paintings that collaborate with each other and with the gallery space to make a rather grand statement -- a metaphysical passage, stark and searching, penetrating toward light.