Text: Luminita Sabau

“A photo is not what’s photographed. It’s something else.”

Gary Winogrand

A fruitful generator of contemporary art in recent decades has been the friction zone between painting and photography. Well-known products to spring from it include Gerhard Richter’s “photo painting,” Jeff Wall’s staged “reportage,” and Thomas Demand’s use of models. Anyone who saw and remembers the film In the Mood for Love by Wong Kar-Wei will discover amazing parallels with the works of Sabine Dehnel. They reside in the principle of repetition. What is the film element in the oeuvre of this artist that is less prominent in the work of the other artists mentioned?

It is the way Dehnel ultimately really provides not individual pictures so much as slight variations of her principal subject, the human body and its coverings. The strongly sectional nature of her paintings and photographs draws attention to this key characteristic of the photographic picture but Dehnel also forms virtual “typologies” (Rock, Camping Chair) that could be formally derived from Bernd and Hilla Becher, in that she is interested both in the ornamental design of the overall space, and in the end her pictures are portraits (for example, Frieda) that, so it seems, are made in the knowledge that portraits also always de-individualize. Not infrequently for example the faces are cut off or the figures are seen from the rear and shown without feet on terra firma.

We are sent to look for clues. Colors and patterns tell of unfinished stories. You discover every change in the details, and yet the outcome remains uncertain. We have long realized that figuration and abstract are only apparently opposites. Dehnel also works with frictional energies from this area of conflict. Her pictures are both figurative and abstract at the same time, as they are both paintings and photos. In Dehnel’s artistic strategy a superficial formalism is simulated, which unmasks social interaction itself as conventionality or ornamentation.

The colors and decors, masks and modes are the codes that it all depends on. In this sense, her pictures are akin to the portraits by the commercial photographer Seydou Keïta in Bamako, the capital of Mali, from the fifties and sixties. Keïta set his women clients in their African robes against a backdrop of traditional materials, with comparable delightful aesthetic effects, so that the picture becomes decorative and flat and the materiality and graphic quality of the surfaces acquire an eloquence of their own. That makes Keïta’s historic, supposedly non-artistic photos so interesting. The codes of the fabrics and things in these traditional portraits are unknown to us Europeans, whereas the retro-aesthetics of young people’s clothing in Dehnel are familiar. They tell of stories and moods. In contrast with film, however, they are not spelt out.

Dehnel’s paintings and photographs arise in parallel. This brings out clearly the differing materiality of the surface of the photographic and painted picture. They age quite differently. The difference is not incidental, because it draws attention to the different temporalities of the two media. In a figurative sense as well, since the ambivalent relationship of the two pictorial registers shows up not least on the differing time horizons of an individual artistic gaze (subjectivity) on one hand and a description of reality (objectivity) on the other. Questions of clothing—which are prima facie superficial things—are today perhaps more than questions of identity. As Velvet Underground plaintively asked some years before Sabine Dehnel was born: “And what costume shall the poor girl wear/To all tomorrow’s parties?”