On the Transformation of Things
Stephanie Pech at the Osthaus Museum Hagen
Floating animals, abstract faces, oversized plants as pictorial protagonists, an egg yolk placed in the middle of a pond, accompanied by titles such as I wandered lonely as a cloud—Stephanie Pech’s paintings offer views we can hardly perceive in this way in our real world, even if everyday objects, such as cables, electrical plugs or irons, are shown in addition to motifs like the ones mentioned. It is therefore quite logical to raise the question as to the nature of these paintings. In thematic terms, some appear to resemble still lifes, while others that encompass more energy make an impression of action-packed dynamism. Strangeness and familiarity are brought together poignantly in a painterly presence that forms a symbolic unity. Our senses are aroused and from time to time our perception is rocked back and forth, revolving around objects we perhaps recognize, but have never seen in such a way. Questions upon questions are raised by almost every one of her paintings.
We can assume that Stephanie Pech intentionally stages these extremely effective pictures in a way that prompts us to question ourselves and our perception each time we look at them. Working with alienation is a leitmotif of the artist, who thus employs a stylistic device that Bertolt Brecht introduced into theater art in the 1930s. In 1917, the literary critic Viktor Shklovsky (1893–1984) already wrote about the concept of ostranenie (defamiliarization) in his famous essay “Art as Technique.” Shklovsky was of the opinion that we no longer see the objects of our daily life in their actual meaning, but instead perceive what happens around us more or less automatically. Art, in turn, lets us actually see these things again, and to achieve this, they must be defamiliarized. At issue is therefore a cognitive alienation that makes us as viewers not simply recognize what is allegedly familiar, but see its real quality. The image is to be perceived exceptionally, in a way Shklovsky describes as follows: “And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged. Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object: the object is not important.” (1)
The alienated image worlds of Stephanie Pech can be verified from picture to picture in our exhibition entitled Floating Strangers. For example, we can let ourselves be fascinated by the painting How much is the fish, in which an eel apparently pushes a kneeling, female figure downwards. The fish is hanging around her neck like an extremely heavy scarf. But what does the hand at the top left of the picture mean? Five fingers are spread in the left third of a shadow, from which two rings to the right are oriented in different directions in the lower part. The hand is a sign—but what does it mean?
In the painting Tira mi su (Pull me up), an oversized daffodil swings over a woman bending to the right, whose long hair falls to the floor. A calligraphic sign in a bluish square on the left alludes to an incomprehensible message. We are familiar with the title of the work from restaurant visits, as it refers to an Italian dessert. But who is supposed to pull this woman up? Once again, an enigma.
The works of Stephanie Pech are executed in a masterful way. The painterly quality is the prerequisite for the stylistic device of alienation to be introduced in the first place. We are also faced with paintings that take place on a stage, in the true sense, either in closed rooms or even in the water—observed by us as in an aquarium. Horizons are not discernible, while the depth of the space is created by a refined compositional technique. In Sleepwalker, we recognize behind the huge amaryllis body imprints on the canvas, created not as an illusion but through a real painting action during which a person covered in paint lay down on the image carrier and moved back and forth. Especially with large canvases, Stephanie Pech prefers this procedure, which is called “anthropometry” after Yves Klein. Following the painting action that leaves an abstraction behind, the artist can then superimpose the actual motif. The result is a synthesis painting that unites smeared surfaces with realistically painted motifs—a crucial contribution to an alienated image world.
I would like to thank everyone who contributed to realizing the exhibition and the catalog. I cordially thank the artist who prepared the exhibition with great dedication and irresistible energy. I am also grateful to Stephan Berg and Dorothée Bauerle-Willert for their knowledgeable text contributions to this catalog. Both the exhibition and the publication would not have been made possible without supporters and sponsors. I cordially thank the Werner Richard – Dr. Carl Dörken Stiftung, Herdecke, the Kunstverein and the City of Offenburg, Galerie Tammen, Berlin, as well as the Ministry of Culture and Science of the State of North Rhine-Westphalia for their non-material as well as financial support.
“Art is thinking in pictures,” the philologist Alexander Afanasʹevich Potebnja (1835–1891) once said. Stephanie Pech’s artworks provide eloquent evidence of this recognition.
(1) Šklovskij, Viktor, “Art as Technique,” in: David Lodge, ed., Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader, London, 1988, pp. 16-30, here p. 20.
Dr. Tayfun Belgin
Osthaus Museum Hagen
The Dis-Placement of the Everyday
In his book Historia Naturalis, Pliny the Elder relates the creation myth of painting, according to which the daughter of the potter Butades sublimated the pain caused by the departure of her lover by capturing his silhouette with charcoal and thus creating, as it were, the first picture. In this respect, painting would express structurally the desire for something that is disappearing. It is precisely this duality that can be also found in the work of the artist Stephanie Pech, who was born in Unna in 1968 and has long been living in Bonn. Her paintings featuring intensive colors, hyperrealistically rendered motifs, and brilliant, mostly monochrome picture grounds establish a presence that is hard to elude. Painting lives from being viewed, but here viewing becomes imperative. The pleasure in painting displayed on these canvases sparks an unconditional pleasure in seeing, forcing us to accept it as an erotically charged, voyeuristic act. At the same time, and therein lies the high conceptual quality of her art, the pictures defy any explanation. The more clearly, emphatically, and distinctly they display their potential on the surface, the more elusive, opaque, and puzzling they become. What connects an iron with a frog? What is a sardine doing on a tiled shelf? Whither is an oversized blossom with an oddly distorted body fragment heading? And how do actionist, smeared body prints that could derive directly from Yves Klein’s anthropometry fit into this always so ostensibly cleansed, paradoxical image world?
We could say that Stephanie Pech pursues her painting as an act of hot-cold image magic that maintains a fragile balance between the enigmatic, inherent reality of the painting and its longing to convey something about the world. It is necessary actually to see what is there in these pictures in order to understand that they are actually about something else. In this regard, Pech’s paintings explore what is invisible in the visible, and simultaneously lend a shape to the visuality of the invisible. This always amounts to a balancing act which the artist intensifies in her explorations by courageously and self-confidently falling back on the history of art, in particular on Surrealism and the genre of still life. Accordingly, her paintings formulate a combinatorics developed from the principle of collage that applies not only to the motifs and method of painting but also to a reinterpretation of art-historical styles and genres.
This can be clearly illustrated using the example of the large-format work entitled Daffodil from 2020. Against a dark blue-green background, which is slightly animated gesturally, the artist spreads out a palette of various motifs and painterly formulations. The bottom level is formed by a whitish, blurred body print rushing diagonally across the picture. Parallel to this, we see the hyperrealistic rendition of the eponymous daffodil with its flower head still closed. The third diagonal element is a withered crescent-shaped leaf that Pech paints almost abstractly with a cheeky, rose-colored shimmer. A yellow, cable-like form meanders over this heterogeneous threesome, fraying out in the lower part of the painting into a brushstroke and a zigzag line, also tinged with rose, that can be interpreted either as nothing but a line or as a blade of grass.
What we see here is a surreally charged still life that already subverts the tradition of the genre in that it completely resists a credible spatial setting of its motifs, while simultaneously incorporating the human in the composition, albeit ex negativo, through the body print. The picture’s compositional consistency results primarily from the diagonal layout of the three principle motifs, thus echoing a compositional rule that has been applied since the Renaissance, above all in painting. But Pech immediately counters this recourse to the classical painting tradition through the commanding flippancy with which she lets entirely different stances toward painting and the image clash in the form of color contact printing, hyperrealism, cool abstraction, and gestural color field painting. This is also true of the new mid-format works. In Wild Thinking (2021), a hose attached to a metal pipe that attains physical volume through the frottage technique runs through a glowing tangerine body print. Furthermore, the abstract, blue-and-red stripe pattern is replaced in the upper part of the painting by a dark blue background through which a sprayed grid pattern shines. Between and over all of this are realistically painted blossoms that are either closed or open.
In this image world, a variety of different painting stances almost always encounter each other, as do the levels of the artificial and natural. At issue is not so much a confrontation but a dialectical movement, during which the cables meandering through the paintings all but lose their technical-industrial character, while the meticulously detailed realism of the blossoms and plants appears nearly virtual in its crystalline hardness, thus also reflecting the presentation possibilities of a digital image language. Also contributing to this are the artist’s vivacious experiments with perspectives and proportions, with small things that are enlarged to such a degree that they emanate a latently eerie outlandishness, while the way they are arranged on the image surface suggests they could be shifted around at any time, as on a screen.
How strongly Stephanie Pech’s work is determined by image-analytical considerations—alongside the painterly curiosity regarding the production of a purely painterly reality that is never unambiguously resolvable—is revealed not least by a series of mid-format works created in 2021/2022. Tira mi su (2021), for instance, contains a further sky-blue picture field with a sprayed loop that vehemently points to the fact that each image is always only an image of other images. In You may say I’m a dreamer (2021), the additional picture field is integrated more strongly into the overall context in terms of color and composition, but surprises the viewer with traces of individual, broad brushstrokes going beyond its edges, thus intensifying the confusion generated by the different levels of the painterly illusion. In Purple Dignity (2022), in turn, Pech confronts us with the bare, untreated canvas and lets her blossom motifs appear as actors distributed wildly across the square, as it seems. But they actually bring the square into a perfect compositional balance, while simultaneously indicating the lability of this balance.
Within this virtuoso game of deception, the dark-brown anthropometries assume the task of grounding the picture. Like the index in the field of photography, they refer to the link between picture and body as a material trace. Their raw, seemingly abstract gestures stand in total contrast to the intricate verism of the blossoms. While the blossoms appear to speak of reality, this claim is realized precisely in the body prints.
Skinwalker (2022) is one of Stephanie Pech’s most consequential new paintings. Against a bright, light-blue background making a completely virtual impression hovers a strange, hybrid form composed of a blue body print and a pepper cut open with some of the seeds oozing out. It is suspended by tentacle-like cables. The blue body print that Pech complements with toes painted realistically on the right foot merges with the shiny orange, yellow, and green fleshiness of the pepper to form a contradictory unity possessing a further spectrum of meanings. First, an unmistakable sexual connotation is evoked by the lambent pepper penis of the pod and its seeds. What is even more important, though, is the equilibrium prolonged to jnfinity that is celebrated here. We do not see to what the tubes and cables holding this double body in balance are connected, nor is an end to this state foreseeable. The existential mode of the painting is oriented entirely toward an eternal, precarious balance of hanging, hovering, and the possibility of falling. Not least, what impressively shows itself in this work is Stephanie Pech’s ability to create painterly situations that, as precisely worked-out constructs, refer to the fabricated nature of the picture, on the one hand, while lending it an inner and outer credibility that is logically not communicable, on the other. The body bastard that Pech offers in Skinwalker, refers not just to the surreal logic of Lautréamont’s chance encounter of a sewing machine, an umbrella, and a dissecting table, but above all to the dissolution of the distinct borders between different identities, bodies, and realities in favor of a painterly reality that bears both a compelling presence and the artificiality and ephemerality of an apparition. What is certain is that with the commanding combinatorics that Stephanie Pech has developed, her paintings, which are not only what they seem to be, refer far beyond the Vanitas topos to the imagery of the unconscious. All the motifs we are permitted to see are ambiguous figures, image traps that pursue their dis-placement of the everyday with an equal amount of pleasure and precision, and lead us up the garden path of an image seduction behind the surface of which lurks a hidden uncertainty of seeing.
Prof. Dr. Stephan Berg, 2023
Stephanie Pech – Floating Strangers
“For I was once already a boy and girl, thicket and bird, and mute fish in the waves.”
In his Fragments, Empedocles speaks of “untiring eyes”(1) —and Stephanie Pech’s eyes, too, gaze at the world in an open and receptive way, indulging in the flow of things. With the sharp attention she pays to everything visible, with her alertness, she sees and orders, absorbs and models that which is visible to create new and unexpected forms. Her painting gives rise to image fields in which continuous floating combines things and living beings, the animate and the inanimate, figuration and abstraction, to an iridescent liaison, to new hybrid formations.
What we see is not only an individual but also transition. The canvas becomes a bio-topos on which the dynamism of creation is repeated in a participatory manner. In this image world, shapes are brought forth and rise to the surface—in all their splendor and volatile beauty. The singular is unbounded, like the shimmering of the tone or the light. The plants, the marine animals, the moths, the fragments of civilization are within one’s grasp, and yet they elude the fixating gaze by simultaneously referring to the monochrome and iridescent ground from which they emerge. It is always about the eloquence and the potentials of color: On the canvases, they can bloom and wither like flowers, explode and die down, and be brought to themselves by the light. At the same time, the color always emerges through interaction with the surface, the depth and its own brilliance.
In the seductive dynamics and iridescent ambivalence of these Floating Strangers, in the eeriness lurking in these pictures in all its beauty, the polysemy of the word pharmakon may resonate. It can be translated as medicine, magic potion, drug, remedy, poison, tincture, color, pigment, or makeup. Painting and drug, poison and color: It is fitting that in Greek, pharmakon also means paint, not in relation to “a natural color but an artificial tint, a chemical dye that imitates the chromatic scale given in nature.”(2) Socrates, for instance, expressly uses the word to designate the paint employed by artists: Pigments are pharmakeia “that resemble the imitated things and are that which the picture consists of.”(3) The liquidity of these paintings and the play with opposites that merge as in a flow also underscore this association, since liquid is the element of the pharmakon.(4) Moreover, color as pigment and color as pharmakon “can be used against itself. What is poisonous, inferior or ugly turns into beauty under the brush.”(5) Stephanie Pech’s paintings also operate in such a counter-tension. Transformation and opposition take place in the color.
But how do the paintings act in the world? How can their power, their efficacy, be understood? Painting is—like the pharmakon—alchemistic transformation and enchantment; it mixes self-complacencies and oppositions, operates with contradictions and an inexhaustible turning-against inherent in its reservoir. Stephanie Pech’s paintings also engage with the fund and ground of the pictures in an idiosyncratic and free manner. In her still lifes, or allusions to the still life with its “exciting, vague, infinite echo,”(6) this genre is mobilized and becomes a living organization of figures, shifts, and repetitions. The artist opens a showroom, an orbis pictus of the history of nature and fantasy. What has been seen, what has never been seen, what has never been thought, wickedness and innocence, becoming and ruin, exquisite colors, wondrous shapes—all this is combined in her art. The seduction and consumption of the still life as well as the tradition of allegorical meaning are at once alluded to and subverted. The beings and structures hover, float in space, beautiful and enigmatic, fully vivid and yet alien. There is always something else that resonates, this disquieting undertone that Musil describes as follows: “For in real still lifes—objects, animals, plants, landscapes, and human bodies conjured up within the sphere of art—something other than what they depict comes out: namely, the mysterious, demoniacal quality of painted life.”(7)
In an idiosyncratic sleight of hand, Stephanie Pech transfers the genre of still life to a moveable, moving event, to a game of deception that does not bring a pictorial situation to an end, but opens it up. The paradox of life, of the natura morta, is brought to a standstill and is truly captured in this way. In the realm of visibility, we enter into a moveable and moving event that as a matter of course dances on either side of the border of signification without being reducible to one side. Strange things can occur in these image spaces: ovaries explode, frogs sit piggy-back under the shower, a crab thrones like a sculpture in splendid isolation, pieces of filet whirl around each other, plants and flowers unfold, magnificent and poisonous, squids gaze at us from their humid terrain, moths fly through a dark ground to the light—night fowl indeed, reminiscent of Francisco de Goya’s The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.
In daring color chords, deceitful dream worlds emerge whose variegated image levels and collage-like, subtle textures become pictorial events in which the object and the color, the subject matter and its materiality, act together and communicate in a wondrous way. Marine animals, plants, fruits, flowers, and all kinds of objects of daily use enter the picture stage, act and negotiate a course of events under the surface. The almost unsettling, uncanny concreteness of the scenes, the opulent or cool coloring, are borne by a zestful élan, by both tenderness and latent aggressiveness. Stephanie Pech’s calculated, precisely balanced compositions are constructed from subtle observations that, however, refer beyond their facticity to unfathomable spaces of ambivalence and correspondence, just like any life constructs the feeling of being-in-the-world out of different and incompatible ingredients and is often unknown to itself.
Abstraction and representation are not opposites that exclude each other here; Stephanie Pech’s paintings transgress the boundaries of either/or in a commanding way. Recognizable, associatively charged things and beings come closer, yet remain enigmatic. Organic and inorganic, natural and technical, proximity and distance marry each other and merge. But unlike in classic still lifes that often juxtapose rare and exotic things with everyday objects, thus creating an encounter between the familiar and the foreign, Stephanie Pech’s use of mundane details of reality lead to an atmospheric openness. The image space also contributes to this, for it is not an identifiable one but rather a pulsating color space in which figurative things float. Despite all mimetic finesse, the pictorial objects thus establish a new and unusual pictorial reality, with bold top views, shadows, details, and sections creating tension and drama. In the still life genre that Stephanie Pech updates in a spirited way, the increasingly complicated relationship between art and nature, between mimesis and creation, is at once reflected upon and exposed. The artist spreads out an inventory of pictorial possibilities that does not fall for prescribed orders, but instead provides flexible, transformable proposals as to what is given-to-be-seen and provides space for the juxtaposition and simultaneity of different perspectives on the world. Pictures of this kind are oriented toward visualizing a potentiality, toward the still unknown residuum of other possibilities. Art gives rise to what has never existed before. Prior to the artwork, there is no content that is expressed. Hence, the image spaces vacillate between figure and pure color and their ability to make the energetic, the aleatory, that which dissolves, visible in the first place—a play with nuances. Between readable visual data and their dissolution, between silhouette and surface, a fragile unity is formed that never solidifies. These paintings are places where transformations and, translations do not simply occur, but where they themselves appear to be in a state of continuous flux, in ongoing metamorphosis that knows neither beginning nor end. An old story that still deals with magic and enchantment, illusion and reality, fleetingness, time and eternity. Expanding and reverting, Stephanie Pech’s paintings establish variegated, indissoluble relations between the what and the how of the picture, between the indefinite openness of the texture composed of color shapes and the pictoriality crystallizing in figuration. This is also true of the anthropometries employing the body as brush and thus keeping the corporeal-figurative present in the imprint or discharging it as a wave of color.
Beyond the simple opposition between abstraction and figuration, the means of painting are elucidated—also and especially in the idiosyncratic connection between concept and flow. In the play and counter-play of the opposites of traditional image media, in the intermediate realm of object and dissolution, these artistic explorations shed light on the unrestrained adventure of perception. Like a paradox, the works balance reduction and abundance, dispersion and concentration, to a condensing reflection. In the oceanic image world, so to speak, in the emergence of the images, the flexibility of Stephanie Pech’s art turns into flowing and marginal figures of eidetic, sensual thought. At issue, then, is also the constant transformation and “renewal of the image of the world and behavior in the world by blasting the formula of experience through its experiences.” (8)
In Stephanie Pech’s art, seduction and frisson meet. Her paintings combine extreme movement and the statuary, dance and dream, the endpoints of the pendulum. The canvas becomes the site of emotional oscillation that leads to undermining the rigid opposition of work, eye and experience. In the subject matter as texture, the sphere of a connection between association and vision comes to light, transitions open up, as do passageways to other, latent images. What can then develop in such a merging of opposites is liberated and liberating contemplation. Only here is a sense of potentiality awakened that can playfully create something else. For example, art can offer counter-images to one-dimensional reality. Her art relates how humans engage with the world, how they shape it, how they can experience it as tangible and mobile: a pleasurable affiliation and a play with mésalliances, with influence and influenza. Idea and chance, determinedness and freedom, are in an idiosyncratic, floating state of ambivalence.
Stephanie Pech’s imaginations transfer energy and form to the presence of the power of imagination. Thus, her pictures also remind us that the root of the German word “Bild” [image] signifies a power or a miraculous sign, a bringing to light. And we may marvel at the fact that these pictures exist.
(1) The Fragments of Empedocles, trans. by William Ellery Leonard, Chicago 1908, p. 43.
(2) Derrida, Jacques, “Plato’s Pharmacy,” in: idem, Dissemination, London 1981, p. 129.
(3) Leonhard, Karin, Bildfelder. Stilleben und Naturstücke des 17. Jahrhunderts, Berlin 2013, p. 181.
(4) Derrida 1981 (see note 2), p. 152.
(5) Leonhard 2013 (see note 3), p. 247.
(6) Musil, Robert, Man Without Qualities, New York 1995, p. 1324.
(8) Musil, Robert, “Skizze der Erkenntnis des Dichters,” in: idem, Gesammelte Werke, ed. Adolf Frisé, Reinbek 1978, vol. 8, p. 1152.
Dorothée Bauerle-Willert, 2023