Images that lie hidden behind images. The painting by Sabine Christmann.

Adrienne Braun, 2007

In Christian iconography the color blue denotes the Virgin Mary. White stands for innocence, for parthenogenesis. Is it coincidence that Sabine Christmann chooses blue and white of all colors to paint her bags? Wonderful bags that might contain precious treasures or holy relics. The official definition of bag is a “flexible container for carrying small, loose items”. Many of the bags Sabine Christmann paints are intended for books, in other words are intellectual statements or for small art items from the museum shop – ideas that have taken shape.

Paul Klee claimed that art does not depict what is visible but instead renders visible. Sabine Christmann presents plastic bags as still-lives; this effectively immobilizes them and deprives them of their primary task so that the ideal function becomes visible. After all, bags have long since ceased to be merely “flexible containers for carrying objects”, but represent the promises of the consumer industry. They symbolize the promise of personal satisfaction. Admittedly, the writing is also meant for advertising purposes but primarily it defines the carrier as part of a specific cultural collective. Not the content but the bag itself is the trophy, which is presented as proof that you participate in consumption, that you are a successful member of a social unit.

According to Friedrich Nietzsche art raises its head where religions decline. Religious communities derive their meaning from belief, while the modern consumer society takes it from consumption. Sabine Christmann declares the insignia of this consumer society to be worthy of portrayal. The bags which she largely selects according to purely aesthetic criteria are ambassadors of individual brands, which stand for a certain attitude. In the same way that a cross demonstrates belonging to Christianity a bag communicates an individual’s place in society or the one he lets himself be assigned. Regardless of whether it came from a discount store or the museum book store each bag connotes something and the carrier of the bag uses this connotation to help create his identity: Anyone who displays a bag from the Guggenheim Museum wants to be recognized as a polyglot cultural citizen while the bag from the bookstore signalizes education, spending power and reflective ability. Bags are explicit status symbols.

As such bags become doubles of their owners and protagonists of the modern world. Which is why in the paintings by Sabine Christmann they not only have the brilliance of an aura but also appear to function as figures that display themselves to the observer as if on a catwalk, present themselves, jostle one another, hide or sometimes even crouch wearily on their knees. You might suppose that the bags have ousted people, replace them, since their identity is anyhow only defined by what they buy.

Sabine Christmann’s painting reflects this display of material potency and makes the surface impact a topic of the painting itself. But she is not so concerned with producing a photographic image. Rather the still-lives are visibly staged on a shining surface, which functions as a mirror and via this second level refers to the beautiful illusion, the auratic power of the profane objects. In this manner Christmann moves on from mimesis to an abstract conceptual space: Her art not only makes the visible fully visible, but also plays on the game with appearance, with reflecting yourself, and illusion.

Simultaneously, Sabine Christmann is also concerned with painting itself. She consciously places herself in an artistic tradition: on the one hand she commits herself to fine painting, which provokes highly detailed and enjoyable stimuli for the eye. At the same time she rigorously elaborates the light impact of the subjects and like an impressionist sculptor includes every fraction of light on the surface of the objects no matter how complex the folds and creases might be. It is these very folds that move her painting close to the Gothic: Sabine Christmann applies herself to them with the same passion that colleagues from earlier ages did the folds of their Madonna paintings. Every crease of an aging bag is skillfully modeled by Christmann, as if it were a valuable cloth, brocade, gold, she transforms every trace of use into a sensual performance in which tactile and acoustic impressions are evoked.

Likewise, the cloths twisted into each other in white and blue-white stripes are perceptible in their volumes, their substance, as the focus is so clearly on the precision and sculptural qualities of the material. Once again Nietzsche can be cited: The folds of the Gothic attempt to cement religion; painting, which no longer addresses religion as its topic effectively finds itself – becomes a purely aesthetic experience.

Sabine Christmann produces tension by employing traditional art categories but updating the topics. Ultimately, what we see painted on the milk cartons are animals, but here once again the mirroring provides a pointer: The portrayal of the cow – and thus our present-day perception – is not immediate but is usually second-hand information. An “imago” is inserted in-between, an image that combines information with emotion for commercial purposes. Christmann demonstrates that what is perceived in modern society as reality is actually media or commercial reflection of the same.

The glass bottles that Sabine Christmann portrays reflect the vanitas symbols so popular in Baroque still-lifes. Glass breaks and is transient. However, while the Baroque man about town amused himself at lavishly decked tables, drinking heavy wines from artistically decorated glasses and ate solid meals before death grabbed hold of everything Sabine Christmann’s still-lives tend to recall the lust of forgoing. The health apostle of the 21st century practices self-castigation, pure, clear mineral water is synonymous for health and fitness – and though it may not promise to ward off death it might delay it. Simultaneously, in her bottle portraits Sabine Christmann preserves a piece of disappearing everyday culture – glass bottles with an individual design are increasingly being replaced by standardized plastic ones - in her works Christmann preserves them for posterity.

However, in addition to her exploration of the everyday and consumption, appearance and display there is always also a poetic element in Sabine Christmann’s painting and a delicate beauty separated from practicality and functionalization. She reveals the aesthetic content of the profane, renders it visible, shows that apart from having a functional use the materialistic world of things also possesses a sensual quality that is worth discovering. Reduced to a minimum of colors and forms she develops a maximum of painterly sensations.

Sabine Christmann does not so much document as disguise the traces of her experiments. The subjects come across as remote objects removed from time and space, as silent heroes of a mysterious world beyond our reality – as if it were the world that is behind the mirror, a second, fairy-tale like reality.