texte

Meditations in an Emergency. On the images by Stella Bach.

 

Nature is this-being, in Japanese shi-sen, written with the characters for self and evident: 自然. In this sense, nature is what is and nothing else. If seen this way, nature stands outside morality, it is impartial, neutral, and also outside the cultural counter-model of a Rousseauian ideality: there is no mother nature, no diversity of creation that can be seen as an expression of a Creator. There is no cultural transformation, no overloading of the individual that leads to unease with culture and the cyclically recurring desire to return to nature, , while linear and teleological historicity moves ever farther away from its origins. In this context, nature, in particular flowers, have been seen as symbols of individual existence, of its beauty and transience.

 

According to Lévi-Strauss, bricolage re-semantizes materials that have been dissociated from their signification context.[1] A creation that has been neutralized in this way is placed into a new relationship. The works of Stella Bach are interpretive drafts of this kind; they incorporate a certain type of objet trouvé, photographs from the collection of the artist Mathilde ter Heijne, from photo archives and antique shops: anonymous photos of women between exoticism and ethnicity, between culture and history, role and family, class and function.[2] These anonymous portraits are paired with calendar pages of watercolours of plants by the Flemish "Raphael of flowers", Pierre-Joseph Redouté (1759–1840), a master of botanical flower painting. Between the archives and the herbarium, the photo albums and the plant calendar, there is on the one hand anonymity, prototypes and inventory numbers, on the other a plethora of species and Latin names. The two contrast and enrich one another, form a space, a link that has been separated from its normal order: on the one hand the familiar and recognizable, on the other, 19th-century attempts at comprehensive classification.

 

What is distinctive about these photos is the anonymity of the persons being portrayed. The flowers have names; the images of nameless women have numerical inventory codes. The only name known is that of the photographer: Library of Congress, Prints & Photograph Collection, LC-USZ6-1957, unknown woman, 1850–1860, photo: Matthew B. Bradly; or: Mission 21, Archive of the Basel Mission, A-30.71.028, unknown woman, Yuankengli, 1905–1930, photo: Robert Krayl; or: Library of Congress, Edward S. Curtis Collection, LC-USZ62-119411, unknown Tewa woman, ca. 1906. For some portraits, the identification is still less abundant: California Historical Society, Chinese. These are contrasted by the wealth of categories, families, lineages and relationships found in the Carl von Linné names of the flowers: Lilium candidum: Madonna Lily; Lathyrus odoratus: Sweet Pea; Nymphaea caerulea: Blue Egyptian Lotus; Hyacinthus orientalis L.: common garden Hyacinth; Campanula Clochette: Bluebell; Colchicum variegatum L.: a type of autumn crocus also called Variegated Naked Ladies.

 

Re-linking, assemblage, figurative overpainting and appropriation art: something that already exists is picked up, adapted and given a form. Three processes or levels are evident: selection, combination and compilation; appropriation, adaptation, inclusion in the collage; addition of intuitively expressed and presented gestural elements to make various ideas visible – “The Shape of My Thoughts” could have been another title for these images.[3] Stella Bach works with correlation and opposition: on the one hand the technical aspects of the photo (the camera’s mechanism, optics, the lens) and the black and white photo itself (or more precisely, the gray-scale photo), on the other, the “handicraft” of watercolourists and the multi-coloured image. The photos show  concrete persons in their historical and cultural environment at a particular time. The expression of their social and ethnic belonging, their definition, is found in their jewellery, ethnic dress, hairstyle, clothing, body language. This is where the gestural drawing process steps in and radically intrudes. It manipulates and liberates, comments and interprets, it makes assumptions that are challenging and caring, light and lively, almost humorous.

 

It is the visual invasion that often spills over from the eyes of the female viewers (which are also those being viewed) and envelops and covers the plant or flower in a cloud of black ink, yes, "devours" it. The movement originates from the head, mouth and body, lines of vision flow from the eyes that wish to realize and recognize, that are anonymously masked with bars, suspended in eddies and spirals. The ink drawing overruns and penetrates. It masks the woman who disguises and camouflages herself, covers up what is sprouting (as behind a yucca with its large seed balls, stretched out sword-like arms and lance-like leaves), picks up what flows out, entwines with a band or a ribbon, or with feelers and tentacles. The eyes are covered as if veiled; the burqa-like overpainting is sometimes a mask and sometimes a helmet or a visor, a scarf, a nun’s habit or the robes of a Doge. They involve the head, form a collar, coat, hat and moustache, hairstyles that swell and spread like something bulging out of the head. Playful variations on the graphic form reveal a wide range of ideas.

 

Meditations in an emergency: the programmatic title elevates the precarious and threatening moment to something permanent. It is the title of a book of poetry by Frank O'Hara, poet and curator at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.[4] The imagery of O’Hara is lush and associative, and has a startlingly similar pictorial idiom: descriptions of the ecstasy of hyacinths in their finery, lotus flowers that protect themselves from grime and filth, observations such as how easy it is to be beautiful, how hard on the other hand to feign beauty. And repeatedly the determined readiness of the lover: “I want my wants.” Coverings, veils and embraces can be found in phrases such as “I wrap myself in the robes of your whiteness,” the gesture of concealing in “I choose a piece of shawl and my dirtiest suntans,” demands for the unconditional in radical exclamations such as “Destroy yourself, if you don’t know!” Stella Bach is inspired by this attitude; when considering her figures, she looks for their submission or holding back (how does the camera see me, the stranger, the other?), invoking this in the dreamy realities of leaf shapes and the fruits of their passion.

 

But plants can also have a will; they intrude, send out their runners, they grow and spread in vegetative craving. The blossom and the glance: The eye is deliberate; it levels at something, looks away, has an expression, responds to the person making and taking the image (“to take a picture”). The woman is reduced to her appearance, to the picturesque and folkloric, the bizarre and exotic, she is abstracted as something foreign, a self that is defined in fireside chats at various Geographic Societies’ gentlemen’s clubs: To dominate means to make the other an object. The collage breaks through this form of viewing, boycotts, eliminates and destroys it, the overpainting makes it ​​impossible. It rids the woman of the (at that time, male) interpretative authority and being made an object, the graphic intervention makes the alienation of the subject recognizeable, it supports the figure’s emancipatory self-legitimacy that wants to grasp and understand.

 

The graphic gestures accomplish this – in some cases fleetingly, in some calmly and in others dramatically, sometimes from the distance or from a new viewpoint – by breaching the woman’s marginalization and filling her with an ​​emotional reality, by "realizing" her thoughts. The formal gesture that attempts to bring together, the third level in this ordering game, makes it possible to see the reflective reception as grasping and understanding. It establishes new relationships, releases the person from the rigidity of her objectification, her characterization as a thing, allows her to have feelings – her own feelings – which empathize, contemplate, within and without. They follow her gaze, hide her protectively behind a cloak of blackness (that non-colour of refusal), let her retreat, such as from the excessive demands of social and cultural duties, functions, categories. Obliterating the visual expression through the overpainting removes the demeaning aspect of the ethnological photo whereby a person is degraded to a type and an example in a collection of folkloric, picturesque objects. It returns to her the meaning of life: being able to feel.

 

Stella Bach’s approach expresses itself in analogy and intuition, it attempts to compare and match through the gestural process of painting/drawing. Attention is drawn to image motifs, the person’s thoughts are given expression, free of their symbolism. The thoughts are in no way personified, but nonetheless are always referred to, as when, for example, Stella Bach combines character traits with plant images: An expression of pride combined with the modesty of the hazelnut; reflectiveness ("pondering" or "mooning around") gripping the foliage of the yellow iris, where again we find lovely clearness and purity; a wide forehead mirrored by a white lily, the two bound together by a black, velvet-like ribbon, as intimate as secret girlfriends; scepticism at the corner of the mouth and an orchid blossom connected with straight, direct thought-forms painted black, grasping the sharp, sword-shaped leaves as if with fingers. Sometimes the overpainting touches the face, becomes a helmet, a weapon, an escape. Sometimes it looks like a veil, or like feelers, groping to understand, spatial invasion, circles and tendrils, flung cloaks, inventive circles around the eyes and a wall behind the flower (as in the image of the dahlia); the two peaches next to a photo of a young girl are echoed in the circles on her cheeks; the deep nose and mouth wrinkles of an old Asian woman relate to the pear next to her; grace and trumpet-shaped flowers are protected by a black outline around a girl and a blue flower, fragrant sweet peas, English morning glory, in the glory of youth.

 

Of course these flowers and motifs also follow and play with a visual language and the tradition of deciphering signs. White lilies, blue flowers, thistles and lotus blossoms are the symbols and topoi of mythical and religious imagery: they stand for purity and innocence, unending emotion, the passion of Christ, Buddhist purification. Here they are released from the rhetoric of a symbolic and signification function and are returned to the immediacy and innocence of observation that deals with a phenomenon and its empirically given condition, whereby there is also an echo, a reverberation, of history being culturally retraced. Sometimes the organic overpaintings reach out as if they are tentacles, the painting of the background surrounding the face and hands envelops and drapes the space, whereby the artist transforms the person into the motionlessness of an icon, marginal, frail, held up for worship. Also striking is the undulation of capes and masks, the camouflage of a helmet or a visor, of glasses or a nun’s habit, a veiling and covering from which someone peers, like peeking through the fingers of a hand held in front of the face.

 

Time and again, the overpainting contains art historical motifs. Sometimes they almost seem to be direct allusions: a long, curled moustache reminds us of Dali, a luxuriant black painted head and the ornamental accents around the hairdo, Art Nouveau tendrils, remind us of Klimt's painting "Expectation". In one you find something dance-like, in another something that climbs and rises in encircling spirals, concentric loops. The shapes in one overpainting suggest spores and ear-trumpet-like cones, evocative of the colourful tops and forms in Oskar Schlemmer's Triadisches Ballett. There are grid works and frames, lattices and wrought-iron scrollwork, tile and window ornaments. You can look through them, they form wide, swelling bubbles, give the impression of secret lives (or hidden views). In these transformations, alterations and intrusions, the Ovidian metamorphosis occurs by means of vegetation: We are plants, and I'm growing a little crooked.

 

The graphic impulse found here is based on perceiving and verbalizing, on reversing the other’s disempowerment. Insofar as Stella Bach focuses on the view of the view and the social definition of what is taking place, these pictorial images can be placed in the context of the social-historical "Ways of Seeing" as thematicized by John Berger.[5] And yet one must be aware of how her work is different from that of the painter who, with his early, nervous gestus, has made the technique and term overpainting well known: Arnulf Rainer, whose early work was based on existentialist photographic self-portraits and later, on Messerschmidt’s character heads and icons of the visual arts, classics of cultural memory, such as Leonardo's “Mona Lisa”, the self-portraits of Rembrandt, Van Gogh's sunflowers. In contrast, images of anonymous women are Stella Bach’s impulse, the basis of these works. Not only is her choice of images different, above all there is a difference in gesture, in temperament, moving from contemplation to a calm, cheerful and transparent handling of the subject matter.

 

If one thinks of the mythological significance of flowers in ancient times – as found for example in the Ovidian interpretation of Nicolas Poussin’s "The Kingdom of Flora" (1631, Staatliche Gemäldegalerie Dresden) – the modified plant and flower watercolours address a layer is that is culturally and historically still deeper[6]: Flowers are resurrected heroes, they blossom as a metamorphosis of death. When Ajax plunges himself onto the sword, a lily springs out of his blood; next to the dying Narcissus, daffodils are already sprouting from the ground; Hyacinthus is hit by Apollo’s discus and dies (as recounted in Ovid’s Metamorphoses)[7], but a hyacinth blooms as solace for his loss; the Adonis’ flower and anemone are considered tributes to Aphrodite’s lovers, etc. In this transfer one might see the secret sensual dreams of these women, just as images of fruit are considered symbols of sensuality and lust. They resonate in the space between the person and the flower. Surprisingly this closes the circle to the series’ title: In Frank O'Hara's meditations "in an emergency", love emerges as if an emergency and then flourishes.[8]

 

With all this, these works turn out to give distinctive rights to a subject that is not asking for institutional legitimacy. As an artistic means and medium, they produce a seismically accurate and meticulous corrective and regulation of the biases of an era that insisted on difference, inflexibility and otherness; peaceful or rebellious, defiant or insistent, always consistent. Thus in these variations, in each little scene, care has been taken when revealing or hiding, when framing or overpainting. The object is animated in a game of possible means of perception, the person becomes accessible, comprehendible. The gestural intervention reverses her degradation, tries to produce an adequate answer to questions that must be asked again and again: What is enough, what is needed, what can be?

 

Translation from the original German: Cynthia Peck