The painting of objects. The theater of bottles and bags.

Comments on Sabine Christmann´s paintings. Hans-Joachim Müller, 2011

Bottles, bags, cans, fabric, carrier bags, small bags. The work remains loyal to its object categories. The handful of motifs it has chosen seem reason enough. And always a new reason to examine things item for item, carefully measure their distances, cultivate the space that separates and unites them. The fact that they generally appear as a group does not contradict this. Group is only another word for the subtlest coordination of individuals. At any rate the items do not occur as clusters, and sheer abundance is most definitely not Sabine Christmann’s aim in her paintings.


Nor do the objects seek to communicate or report. It is not easy to find a rhyme to the narrow inventory. And even if you are familiar with the arrangement of things, know the rules and deviations, you will not be able to say that you have understood the world better from the vantage point of bottles, bags, cans, fabric, carrier bags, small bags. On the other hand these things have apparently not entered the picture arbitrarily. The plastic water bottle emblazoned with the lettering “Black Forest” may have happened to find its way into the store of plastic water bottles. But there are justifiable decisions as to why it was chosen for the painting and occupies a prominent spot. Nobody sorts plastic water bottles, beer cans and liquor flasks according to size, color and design, arranges them on the studio table like ingeniously distributed chess figures and paints them so scrupulously as if a horde of demanding models were positioned in front of the easel if the artist’s curiosity were only for the painting per se and were not also directed towards the objects. It has always been a clueless construction, if from the perspective of the allegedly enlightened abstract art the old mimesis is to be salvaged with the remark that representational art is no longer concerned with objects themselves but only with its creative occurrence.


That said, in this oeuvre the objects do exert a strong seduction. And the manner in which they are painted, in meticulous detail so as to be recognizable and aiming for an exact likeness, would hardly suggest their concrete sensuality had no intrinsic meaning or were just a pretense for the sensuality of painting. And nowhere is there evidence fuelling the suspicion that in actual fact the artist wished to distract us from the subjects, merely used them to demonstrate her painterly skills, and did not seriously intend what she painted. The fact that she presents her curious groups neither like stars nor like delinquents does not mean she distanced herself from them - and certainly does not mean that the bottles, bags, cans, fabric, carrier bags, small bags were exchangeable, and that you could substitute red, green or yellow fruits instead.


But we do not have red, green or yellow fruit on the table, no traditional props from the store handed down from the history of still life painting. Obstinately they keep to themselves, the Christmann bottles and bags. Now and then a new one joins them, but even with those that already made an appearance you can do an awful lot. There is not much variation or alternation. You repeatedly look into a familiar bottle face, read a name you have previously read on another painting. And the fact that you can read names and seemingly look into faces makes it perfectly clear that this representational art embraces its objects, that it does not need these objects as something to paint over as Giorgio Morandi did, to render them unrecognizable and have them dissolve into random blobs of color that barely recall their earthly origins.


Yet this embracing of objects is not such that it could be misunderstood as praise of brands and labels. This work is far removed from the “Brillo” boxes of one Andy Warhol, and “Two cans of Ballantine Ale” by Jasper Johns. Pop Art made headlines by edifying the banal, but Sabine Christmann’s carefully combined objects are infused with an inborn dignity which they do not first attain in the painting. What takes place here is a subtle game with the fascinating objects of our consumer world in which even the small mineral water bottle is accorded a distinction as if only now – emptied and top screwed on again – it had found itself and were finally prepared to render the artist a valuable service. The same holds true for the shopping bag, which is by no means an ordinary shopping bag. As a painted bag it still retains the striking commercial nature it always had. And all the more so on the visual stage, where the brands and labels parade as if on the runway, the bag spectacle seems considerably attractive.


You are free to give yourself up to this spectacle. And if the bags remind you of special consumer experiences, everyday errands or capricious shopping trips, if you bashfully remember how you once christened the flat bag with the handwritten Eichendorff face by buying salad, if you think you can sense how the shopping bags hung from your hands or over your shoulder, how the oval handle grooves cut into your hands, the paintings allow this to happen, have no objections to being put to this practical use.


Admittedly, this is not to say we have said everything there is to be said, or seen everything there is to be seen. Occasionally attempts have been made to discover the “world behind the objects” or the “world in the objects”. Some metaphysical horizon was supposed to open up beyond the folded papers, the crumpled lengths of plastic and fluted glasses. Precisely when the objects were not afterbirths of urban folklore, there had to be a threshold, somewhere you would have to cross, an entrance to open. And then you would be inside the realm of symbols, where the world of painted objects seems far superior to the world of real things. But the search never proved successful.


You are more successful if you watch the artist once again very carefully as she goes about her quiet work. It is precision work. Everything spontaneous, accidental is categorically excluded from the outset. Everything is considered, pondered, step for step. When Sabine Christmann enters the archives of bags and bottles she does so as a director. Effectively, she looks for the actors for her new drama. Get through the casting process and you are allowed on the stage, on the glass table against the wall on which the light falls from the window at the side and reflects the objects. The spatial situation with the deep-lying line between wall and table only varies minimally. What alters from time to time are the arrangement and position of the objects. The production plan always aims at both: isolation and connection. The first thing to strike you are the distances, above all, the striking gaps in the bottle sets. In contrast to still life featuring fruit, the bottles and glasses are kept at a distance. Overlapping does occur, but tends to be the exception. What shapes the paintings are the spaces, which the protagonists claim for themselves and each conspicuously occupies for itself.


And then you become aware of the spatial connections – the way some stand closer and others somewhat apart, one towers over them all, and others crouch down, some jostle forward and others hide, the one holds a major speech and the other seems to have forgotten his cue. And you realize it is by no means the case that they have arranged themselves neatly in rows, and without laboring metaphysics you can tell which are accorded the leading roles and which are only bit players. It is never dry litany, never simply succession. A different rhythm prevails from painting to painting. The cast is altered from painting to painting. A different complex of relationships is played out from painting to painting. And it is not only owing to the shape of the bottles that the arrangements recall figure ensembles. Looking at the plastic water bottles, beer cans and liquor flasks it does not take much imagination to think of couples and passers-by, the casual distribution of people found on squares or in foyers. As such, in truth the work is more devoted to figurative rather than representational painting.


Once everyone on the stage knows where they have to stand they stand there inalterably, and are not accorded even a millimeter of freedom. The situations are effectively frozen and endure for the entire, lengthy genesis of the painting. It is a delicate balance the artist has composed. And if a fly were to settle between the glasses and not make a move to leave the canvas it would be a minor catastrophe for the painting. For weeks Sabine Christmann sits in front of the fragile arrangement, has marked the position of her chair on the floor so that she always encounters the fragile arrangement from the same distance and perspective and then she transposes, detail for detail, her subtle bottle stories of isolation and connection into the painting.


The bag stories are no less subtle, and they likewise tell how the bags are each for themselves and also all together. Admittedly, they do sprawl out on the production table, stand closer together, and the one may be pushed behind the other in the cramped space obliging them to huddle closer, overlap. But likewise their drama features proud protagonists and bit-parts, more striking and insignificant appearances, delicate and clumsy, ample and meager, transparent and opaque, those that perch on their corners as if on high heels, and others looking somewhat flat footed. They all have their character, their peculiarity, their costume. And the costumes are carefully coordinated with one another, colors and lettering combined to create a layout. Unlike with the bottles, however, the shape of the bags is not a given. Especially as with the plastic bags the physical expansion is neither natural nor automatic. It has to be contrived if the plastic bags are not to cave in and lose their shape and position. Whereas position is of prime importance in the bottle ensembles, draping is the crucial aspect in the bag arrangements.


And here at the latest you are struck by a property that all or almost all the items in this oeuvre share: they are empty. All the bottles, bags, cans, carrier bags, small bags. The few transparent ones, which have retained their contents on account of being painted, are simply the exceptions that prove the rule. Evidently, the focus of interest is on the shell, the packaging, the empty space styled into a design item. There must be a reason for this enduring concentration on containers, which do not contain anything, remnants, parts of an interior-exterior context that is no longer. You could argue that Sabine Christmann deprives things of their weight and consequently achieves the lightness and airiness characteristic of her paintings. The items have a set place on the stage, and their reflections are an indication of existence and continuance. Yet the overall impression is of a dematerialized recreation of emptiness.


And indeed emptiness features prominently in this work. Empty bags, empty bottles, plumped up fabrics without a body to drape themselves around, emptiness between the items, emptiness around the items. The table on which they stand has no limitation in the painting; it is not possible to say how far the (only intimated) wall extends. The only thing that seems certain is that the undefined stage space – open to the right and left, and on all sides – leaves the actors fairly alone so that it does not really protect them, overtaxes them with too much emptiness.


Emptiness is a vortex. Emptiness wants to fill itself up. Emptiness is the artful formulation of the secret stories the paintings narrate. The artist cultivates this emptiness, cultivates the holes, the gaps like carefully guarded entry points. She never experiences her work other than as a constant charging. In every new moment she paints the painting conditions alter. For all that the table with the arranged subjects still stands untouched, the painting chair stands in precisely the same position as yesterday, the painter’s hand might want to continue faithfully as if there had been no interruption – yet it is different each time. The light of the new day alters the colors, the situations, artificial light competes with natural light, the mood of the new day reveals new associations, and even though Sabine Christmann might be convinced that she knows her painted work exactly, nonetheless it continues to sprawl in ever new variations, continually fills itself, is composed of an infinite number of perceptive moments and artistic experiences. As such, the lined-up emptiness of the bottle show, the lined-up emptiness of the bag spectacle is nothing but a place for the realization of a visual poem that tells equally of its objects, the painting of the objects and the experience of the painted objects.