At first glance Charlie Stein’s paintings hail from the context of Selfie Culture,the
staging of the individual in social networks.
»To live is also to pose« (1) is how Susan Sontag described the urge for self-
expression which Isabelle Graw exposed as the »pressure to perform oneself« (2)
by pointing to the traces of everything that was not supposed to be immediately visible:
»What remains hidden is their fears: the fear of losing one’s social position, the fear of
not succeeding, the fear of an unpredictable, insecure future and the fear that someone
might discover that we are not competent after all« (3).
The viewer’s somewhat shameful wariness when looking at the almost thirty portraits
executed for the exhibition »Study for a Museum Display« also hails from their striking
immediacy, since all of them originated from digitally edited collages of self-portraits of
the artist herself, which are now posing in the traditional medium of oil painting, in the
safe zone of a salon setting.
A salon that is mined by Stein’s filigree sculptural interventions »Trap« and »Booby
Trap«. And is it not a war that is happening amidst the red and blue painted walls,
alongside the self-designed wallpaper of an abstracted explosion of the femininity?
Isn’t it exactly this idea of femininity, which refuses us an ostentative contemplation
of portraits of young women? »Booby« of course also refers to the female breast —
and indeed the brass rods of »Booby Trap« are monumentally bent into the shape of
a female breast.
The lascivious poses of classical painting are only vaguely suggested in Stein’s
paintings, rendering absurd any attempt to reduce them to the aforementioned content.
The eye finds no peace; the portraits refuse any sensual elevation. The vulnerability of
the sitter becomes the vulnerability of the viewer in light of the act of self-denudation of
the depicted countenances, which often evoke in their overpaintings, distortions and
recesses the tattered faces in Ernst Friedrich’s book »Krieg dem Kriege« (War Against
Most of Stein’s portraits look at the viewer, returning their gaze as if aware of their own
futile attempts at self-presentation in digital media. In line with Sontag’s view of Goya’s
»Los Desastres de la Guerra« (The Disasters of War), one could argue that Stein’s
paintings as artworks actually render visible something more than photographs and films
are able to represent (4). Stein’s portraits, unlike their immediate references, thus
become unsparingportraits of invalids. Left alone in their most intimate moments of
anger, fear, doubt, vulnerability, doomed attempts of self-exaltation and their awakening
knowledge of their own transience.
As an effortless side effect, the paintings of Stein’s »Study for a Museum Display«
restitute the raison d’etre for figurative painting. Snapchat’s fleeting imagery has
nothing to do with what oil on canvas has to offer.
Stein herself once described her paintings as »an army that no longer requires any
banners« (5)—paintings that have liberated themselves from art-historical coordinates,
to which they only subtly recur, coordinates which are no longer necessarily needed for
The giants, on whose shoulders she stands as a painter, battling for her own existence,
don’t allow for any sort of hesitation or devout paralysis. Recognition yes, admiration no.
There lies something pure and immersive, something humble in this approach, which
does not attempt to compete with one’s predecessors but is instead asserted via the
appreciation of the same mastery and knowledge as a part of one’s responsibility to
one’s own work.
After all, it is precisely these same ancestors which live on through one’s own work and
actions, only thereby gaining the visibility without which they would be rendered
ineffective—such as Goya, Bacon and Bourgeois. Or the multiple overlaps from
Picabia’s »Transparences« series of paintings.
From two of the heads of Stein’s »Triptych (red)« protrude the ears of Picasso and
Proust. And it is not by chance that the large-scale »Portrait (with Faun Ears and
Purple Haze)« has the same measurements as Gustave Moreau’s monumental
painting »Tyrtée chantant pendant le combat« (Tyrtaeus Singing While Fighting) (1860)
—the Symbolist’s painting of the poet endowed with divine powers. It was Moreau who
bequeathed to France his Parisian studio as a museum, where today the artist’s vision
continues to fully unfold according to his very own will.
The ideal place for the encounter and experience of Stein’s art is also the museum —
as a home, a house, and a nesting place. The artist’s vision in »Study for a Museum
Display«, which takes cues from the Tate’s Rothko Room as well as the light-flooded
Gothic palace chapel of Sainte Chapelle, leaves nothing to chance, despite all adverse
conditions typical for such endeavors.
When painting, Stein is only making use of one facet of her practice. Just as she
herself— as a globally engaged artist—is hard to track down geographically she is
active in numerous other genres which never fail to fully define her broad fields of
interest: sculpture, performance, architecture, drawing, film, media art, photography,
curatorial work as well as numerous collaborative projects.
What forges ahead in all of Charlie Stein’s works is less Kunstwollen than the
inevitability of an ambition that seeks to manifest itself exclusively in the context of art —
especially because her works negotiate questions of identity and femininity, and often
times invite a critique about consumerism and society—politically motivated as they
seem to be on the basis of sociological reflection.
An insight of sorts towards the concept the self-understanding of Stein’s oeuvre may
be an observation from Proust’s »À la recherche du temps perdu« (In Search of Lost
Time) (1913—1922) which the artist selected for a reading at the close of her exhibition
at Villa Merkel in Esslingen in November 2017:
»That book of unknown signs within me […] for its reading consists in
an act of creation […] And how many turn away from writing it, how many tasks will one
not assume make to avoid that one ! Every event […] furnished excuses to writers for
not deciphering that book […] they had no time to think of literature. But those were
only excuses […] For it is instinct which dictates duty and intelligence which offers
pretexts for avoiding it. But excuses do not exist in art, intentions do not count there,
the artist must at all times follow his instinct, which makes art the most real thing,
the most austere school in life and the true last judgment.« (6)
Stein’s works are testimonies to this idea, they confront the innermost and release it
into expression and form.
Here, out of the deep, knowledge is salvaged and not mere information—equal to
»a diver sounding«, (7) as Proust writes. Here the dichotomy of abstract concept and
its figurative salvation dissolves. Aware of the reproach of a narcissism that solely
revolves around itself, yet nonetheless is constantly anticipating one’s own failure.
Only thus, with utmost sincerity, a gain in knowledge is also possible for the onlooker.
One knows about one’s own wound, not merely exposes it.What is important is the act
of creation feeding from it.
(1) Susan Sontag, “The Photographs Are Us“, in: The New York Times Magazine,May 23, 2004 (Section 6), pp. 24—29, 42, 42. (2) Isabelle Graw, in: Thomas Girst und Magnus Resch (eds.), 100 Secrets of the Art World, p. 51. (3) Ibid., p. 52. (4) Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, New York: Penguin, 2003, p. 42. (5) Charlie Stein, in conversation with the author, New York, 5 May 2017. (6) Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time: Time Regained, Adelaide: eBooks@Adelaide, 2014, https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/p/ proust/marcel/p96t/chapter3.html, accessed January 10th, 2018. (7) Ibid.