At first glimpse you’d be forgiven for thinking there’s a ghost amid Stefanie Gutheil’s surreal oil paintings. This white figure appears frequently in her recent sequence of paintings, hanging out drinking with friends, playing sports, even being ridden like a pony. But on closer inspection you notice that rather than an ethereal spirit, the pale figure is actually a suit, being put on and slipped off my human wearers. It’s Stefanie’s way of exploring the different identities the artist chooses or is forced to wear, with the surrounding figures also reflecting aspects of their personality.
“My pictures are about uniformity and trying to step out of it,” Stefanie tells It’s Nice That. “There are always chimeras, hybrids and mixed beings – the masks we don to try to escape social uniformity and social roles.” In most of Stefanie’s paintings the true character behind the mask is never revealed, leaving us guessing about the artist’s true nature. “For me that means freedom and anonymity at the same time,” Stefanie says. “It’s a deliberately chosen freedom both in content and formal painting way, in figurative-pictorial space.”
The paintings also have a more intimate poignant meaning, when it comes to Stephanie’s own exploration or self. “[The series] is also about transgender and trans identity,” Stefanie tells us. “Of course, I have always been part of my pictures too, there were some indirect self-portrayals or allusions, but there was never a clear portrait of me.”
Working often in series, Stefanie says this recent body of work is the most personal to date, far more so than the strange creatures and landscapes featured in past series. “These [new] characters symbolise, so to speak, the many different facets of my person. In terms of content, this recurring but changing being symbolises a kind of shell – the costume from which I slip out.”
In terms of style, Stefanie describes their approach as “a mix or old and new”, a blend of expressionism with comic elements and some surrealism. “I leave an idea there [in my head] for a while ripening, and when the time is ready, it has to get out,” Stephanie tells us. “It mostly starts in my head with an atmosphere, a space or form and some characters but this can change and things get added and erased.” Also on the canvas, this process continues, with Stephanie developing ideas as they paint. “But sometimes there is a painting very clear in mind and I just have to do it immediately.”
Stephanie chooses to work in oil paints, largely for their sensory qualities. “I love the feeling of the oils,” they say. “I love the moment when the hand and the brush gets the flow… when you feel that your hand is very close to bring the imaginary from head to the canvas.” For Stephanie painting is one of the most direct artistic mediums. “But it’s also about the failure,” they say. “The struggle in the piece – there is no Apple Z. But a failure can be a new option or bring new driving and ideas.”