At age 30, the Berlin painter Stefanie Gutheil may not know, or care, that once upon a time Willem de Kooning said that flesh is the reason oil painting was invented. As Gutheil demonstrated in her New York solo debut (and first solo outside of Germany), pigmented grease also lends itself nicely to shit, sputum and vomit.
Her exhibition was titled “Kopftheater” (roughly, “theater of the mind”), and the 19 canvases (2009), many of them large, presented a bizarre demimonde that is equal parts memory and nightmare. Berg I, Berg II and Berg III are each dominated by a fecal mountain inhabited by joyless creatures. Gutheil sticks a lot of printed fabric and metallic foil onto her paintings, as in Öl Mischtechnik Leinwand (Oil Mixed-Technique Canvas), which features a hunky Cyclops wearing collaged flower-print shorts and standing knee-deep in a tin-foil ebbtide. The character spews technicolor chunks as a serpentine alien springs from his chest, likewise blowing chunks. A wide-mouthed shark circles below, gobbling up the runoff. Gross, right? One of the trio of figures in Pyjamaparty has lost his head, which lies wide-eyed and open-mouthed on the floor amid random litter and arbitrary stripes. Fraught relationships among apparently psychically damaged individuals in claustrophobic spaces really shouldn’t be this much fun.
Hokusai meets Kirchner in Koi. Under the steely gaze of a vulture that appears to grow out of his shoulder, a hunchbacked, musclebound troglodyte with nipples like eyeballs grabs a walleyed fish by the tail. The lower half of the painting is graphically complex, as delicate as the upper half is ham-handed. Waves of oil paint, fabric and foil lap against the big fish’s face while a couple of other sea creatures gambol in the surf. Meanwhile, it was hard to know which of the 10 jumpy, angst-ridden characters in another work is the “newcomer” the title Der Neuling refers to; maybe it’s the viewer. The serene soul at the painting’s center, who gazes lovingly at a little ball in his hands, is the one figure in the entire exhibition who seemed at ease.
Sure, there are problems: too many pop-eyed goofuses, too many fingernails and brushy knuckles, too much undigested Bosch, Beckmann and Ensor. Kopftheater, the largest painting at roughly 8½ by 13 feet, was not the show-stopper it should have been. Full of good stuff, including a leering black dog foaming green at the mouth, the composition got away from Gutheil a bit. But you figure that with this much material panache, pictorial inquisitiveness, youth and iconographical nerve, she’s just warming up.
Photo: Charles Seliger: Ways of Nature: 17, 2008, acrylic, pen and mixed mediums on Masonite, 16 by 20 inches; at Michael Rosenfeld.