A few years ago the museum of modern and contemporary art launched an exploration of the contemporary identity of painting- the noble medium, with the exhibition « Intra muros », and more recently, « Le Chemin de Peinture » (The Path of Painting). Continually alive and inventive, pictural techniques continue to seduce and intrigue artists, critics and spectators alike. The observation and reflections of painting diehards can be brought together and concentrated in the arena that museum walls offer. The Mamac’s programme has progressively dealt with fields of research focussing on artistic figures who are particularly innovative in this field, and has regularly offered a place for such curiosity, while never neglecting the historic role of 60’s avant-gardes. Furthermore, the museum has forefronted the specific mission of organizing projects of a European and international dimension, and is proud to have successively presented Adolph Gottlieb from the New York School, Luca Pignatelli from the Milanese artistic scene, and now, the young Berlin painter, Stefan Sehler.
Stefan Sehler’s work is disturbing by its very nature, not by being particularly provocative, but by destabilizing our bearings by its strangeness, by the virtual impossibility with which we are faced, of knowing exactly what we are looking at. Preparing to view a photograph, we rapidly realize that it’s something else entirely. At first sight, the glossy surface causes confusion, but then we quickly perceive, (and that’s exactly the right word), the depth of space that floods these forms, so close to us, right behind the Plexiglas. As such, everything goes against the norm. It would be easy to imagine that this object on the wall contains some kind of light-box system, and that the shadows are projected by vegetation that has somehow been applied to the opposite side of the surface. It’s nothing of the sort. The perceived phenomenon is achieved by the artist’s scholarly, scientific, refined technique. Against appearances, we are deep in the domain of painting.
Evoking the notion of “work” is most appropriate here. Sehler devotes himself to an endlessly repeated, slow, meticulous task. He has the conscientious craftsman’s standards of quality, and the goldsmith’s unerring concern for precision. Above all, the artist brings to the work his own invention of a personal system of constant risk, since at every moment he must master his tools and his concept, as well as the duration of the process, while also anticipating the result.
The artist has borrowed and adapted the precepts of the very ancient technique of reverse glass painting: Egypt, Syria and Phoenicia, then Rome, Byzantium and Venice, all contributed to the technique’s renown. More recently, the genre established itself in Bavaria, Bohemia and Lower Austria. Artists such as Francis Picabia, Paul Klee, August Macke, Man Ray or Wassily Kandinsky all tried their hand.
In the work of Stefan Sehler, glass is replaced by Plexiglas, which itself is diverted from its normal use. Instead of affording protection to the painting, and taking no part in the creative act, here it actually becomes the surface to be painted, and so conditions the work.
The forms that Sehler selects are generally vegetal, though they include mountain landscapes, but never the human figure. From newspapers, various publications, and his own drawings and photographs, he selects motifs that are redrawn and cut out of adhesive film, to be applied to the back of the Plexiglas as a masking device. A fine coat of paint is then sprayed over the whole surface to produce the background. The medium deposits a translucent coat of diffuse graduations, giving a pearly glow to the final result with an effect that suggests satin. We’re still far from the end of the process, however, with the artwork still horizontal. Once the background is dry, Sehler removes the masking to reveal the unpainted areas. Now he begins the long process of rendering the mental image he wants to obtain- of vegetation, flowers, trees, plants. He builds up very fine layers of paint in successive glazes, respecting the necessary drying times between layers in order to avoid accidents that could cause unintended transformations, perhaps even necessitating complete rejection of the work. Sometimes he might privilege the dropping of paint onto a particular spot of the form he is painting. For example, in Red Flowers 2005, (Mamac Collection), at the centre of each corolla of the red flowers of uncertain species, can be found some light-coloured, rounded shapes that look like, and indeed they are- teardrops that fell right onto the heart of the flower. Sehler allowed the drops of liquid paint to fall from the tip of his paintbrush onto these precise places. The fluidity of oil, enamel or acrylic is taken into account in each pictural decision.
He might prefer on occasion to direct the flow of paint along a contour. While the liquid is being guided, it might encounter an influx from another direction, and, mingling with it, launch tributaries and confluences, so increasing the proportion of chance results.
The density of the liquid paint exercises some influence, making different effects, providing nuances of colour or different qualities of transparency, that will end up giving the appearance of a copse of trees or a lush, bristling bush.
Appearance indeed, since nothing here is of a natural order. We are dealing with illusion and the virtual.
Once everything is in place, Sehler considers the work in relation to his intention. If it fails to correspond, it will be rejected. Such self-imposed constraints demand extreme concentration at each stage of the process. And yet the work is carried out practically blind, in uncertainty and expectation.
For the spectator, confronted with the shining surface of the work, a uniform smoothness is initially perceived, like that of a photograph. Effectively, all the painted matter (maintaining its strong presence nevertheless) is crushed - visually smoothed out by the Plexiglas.
In this way, a certain distance is established between the work and the viewer. Similarly, a distance exists between the work and nature, the vegetation and what Sehler has produced as a form of representation. We are in the presence of an abstraction of nature, of landscape, since it is not a question of reproducing something that exists, as everything is constructed mentally beforehand. Stefan confuses the bearings we usually employ when looking at photography. While normally, an image becomes more precise as we approach it, here the opposite occurs: from a distance the image is as sharp as a well-produced still, whereas modulating details appear close up. The globules of paint lose focus, glazes mingle in diffuse layers, and our perception develops towards identification of the medium.
The luminous background, achieved with spray paint, projected white colour, gives the impression of fabric, as if the motif were placed on a shiny canvas, interrupting the transparency of the Plexiglas. Space recedes all around the forms within the picture; and it’s as if we are entering a fictional forest with the vegetation closing behind us even as we advance. We can let ourselves be carried into the almost cinematographic fiction that exists in the picture field like a closed world. The effect is particularly subtle in Stefan Sehler’s works of 2007 and 2008, where he focuses on the exploration of wooded vegetation. In Untitled, 2007, the elements used mean that we cannot differentiate between climbing or hanging branches, leaf stalagmites or stalactites. The artist adds a warm, golden atmosphere of summer’s end, giving the works an aura of byzantine icons, or of those metallic golden mirrors in which we’re told the most beautiful faces of history were once reflected in far-off, ancient times. More recently, the artist has opted for larger formats, with several works reaching 4 m across, creating a plausible universe of perceptions into which spectators can simply let themselves slide. One of the latest series, realized for the current exhibition, presents a territory of introspection in which we can alternately lose and find our bearings. Referencing the celebrated Rorschach test, known for its ability to scientifically measure the human unconscious, Sehler has developed the effect of natural landscapes reflected in a mirror of water. The narcissistic impact is clear. And in turn, viewers can lose themselves in the mirror that is proffered.