GiG air – Stefanie Ullmann

Another studio visit and resulting exhibition text:

I owe you the truth in painting and I will give it to you


…d’un seul pas franchi…


The small problem of truth has been occupying me recently: the truth in painting, as promised by another “sauvage raffiné,” Paul Cézanne. A long time ago, it took a painting by Vincent van Gogh, Old Shoes with Laces (1886), for the German philosopher Martin Heidegger to recognise what this truth might be and for him, the artwork became defined through its revelation of this truth. We now consider ourselves too sophisticated to think that a painting of some worn-out shoes reveals something so profound about the peasant woman’s being that there is no other way this can be grasped. And yet a little of this heideggerian desire remains. I find we still look for truth in painting despite thinking it unlikely. Or at least, I do.

At the height of the pandemic Stefanie Ullmann would walk and run in the rose gardens at the Isar, in May, when the magnolias are in bloom. These caught her attention – I remember how bright that spring was, and how vibrant the greens. But again it took a painting by van Gogh, this time, Blossoming Almond Branch in a Glass (1888) for her to begin painting from memory a series of small canvases with flowers.  A second series of watercolours followed. The oil paintings share van Goghs’ shimmering green-yellow palette as well as his strong horizontal and vertical lines. 

Vincent van Gogh, Sprig of flowering almond in a glass, 1888, oil on canvas, 24.5 cm x 19.5 cm
Credits: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

When I look at these paintings I find myself standing in Heidegger’s shoes. There is a truth in Stefanie Ullmann’s work that has to do with his schematic definition. On the one hand he claims, art has long been thought as formed matter, in other words as a “Zeug,” translated by Derrida as a “product,” more commonly in English translations of Heidegger’s essay as “equipment.” And these paintings here, especially the abstract ones, have this workman-like quality of being built, almost brick by brick, layer by layer. Occasionally Stefanie Ullmann even uses a spatula like a masonry trowel. And yet, as Derrida in his interpretation of Heidegger’s argument rightly notes, an artwork is more than a product or Zeug because it does what no other product can – it resembles a thing, “Ding.” It is as if it were not produced. Thus, an artwork is a product that is also more than a product, because it crosses over, steps into the realm of the thing. In the same way, Ullmann’s paintings enjoy this self-sufficiency. Despite their lightness, they feel as sturdy as earth or rock or tree, untouched by human hand. 

The point of painting is – for Van Gogh, Heidegger, Derrida etc. – that this step crossing from thing to product and back again occurs within. Painting shows how tightly things, Zeug and artworks interlace.

Justina Becker

24.05 – 12.07.2019


P1030657Justina Becker, 2019, installation view


justina28Justina Becker, 2019, installation view


P1030722Justina Becker, untitled, 2019, antique wooden windowframe and egg tempera, dimensions variable


Justina14Justina Becker, 2019, installation view
justina26Justina Becker, 2019, installation view


P1030736Justina Becker, 2019, installation view


P1030735Justina Becker, 2019, installation view


Justina12Justina Becker, 2019, installation view


Justina Becker, 2019, installation view


P1030699Justina Becker, o.T., 2015, egg tempera and canvas strips, 20 x 32  cm
P1030716Justina Becker, o.T., 2015, egg tempera on canvas, 20 x 32 cm


P1030719Justina Becker, o. T., 2015, egg tempera on canvas,  20 x 32 cm


P1030686Justina Becker, 2019, installation view


Justina3Justina Becker, 2019, installation view (nighttime)


Justina4Justina Becker, 2019, installation view (nighttime)


Justina2Justina Becker, 2019, installation view (nighttime)


All things have a strangeness to them for those who care to look. Their foreignness has been long recognised, whether this takes the form of the thing-in-itself, never to be experienced or trauma, first defined as that which acts like a foreign body in the mind.  We notice the strangeness of objects for instance, when blunt or broken they stop being useful and they turn away from us and each other.  Justina Becker pays close attention to things in their strangeness. The objects she incorporates in her practice are always things that she finds close by, in her house or in the small town where she lives, and almost always, these things have been abandoned, damaged in some regard, without a use. The objects have a history to them – even the viewer not privileged enough to know more of their background, the wheres and hows they came about, can recognise the signs of their previous use. They retain a sense of having lived their own life, among other people and other objects. 

Having studied painting to graduate with Klasse Hildebrand,  Justina Becker approaches her objects with the eye of a painter. Her older work was concerned with the material qualities of painting. How the canvas goes around the stretcher would be important or the way that the canvas keys fit tightly into the corner of a frame.  A shift in her practice occurred when she discovered the readymade and began to use things that previously belonged to someone else. Initially she would wrap these objects in various ways. Some would be covered in a layer of light, sheer fabric almost like a shroud, others would be tightly wound with brightly coloured woollen thread. This protective gesture had a double meaning. On the one hand, it would be a way of hiding the object, obscuring its material qualities and past histories. On the other hand, the object would never be completely covered and through the various gaps and imperfections, its material history would become even more apparent. 

The current exhibition at GiG, shows two of Justina Becker’s older paintings together with a new body of work. One seems at first a straightforwardly abstract, but gives the illusion of a painting shrunk and stretched, the other, consisting of strips of canvas wrapped tightly like a bandage around a stretcher, utilises this double gesture of hiding and revealing. They provide a kind of framework for the new work, a complex installation of hanging window frames, made specifically for the exhibition room at GiG. The wooden windows frames are old, perhaps antique, but with none of the antique’s preciousness. They have been removed and replaced with something better and less rickety, glass taken out, the wood still having some kind of value, even if just as kindling for the fire. These frames have been partially painted by the artist in sympathetic colours and rehanged in the space no longer as windows, or even as architectural elements that would divide the room, but simply for themselves, in their best light. Justina Becker’s work takes on here an almost theatrical element, but the stage she sets is curiously not for us, the viewer, awaiting some kind of grand spectacle. The room in its theatricality is now left for the objects to be in.

Magdalena Wisniowska 2019