Stefanie Heinze: Ruler

Amarta, 1 October 2019

I recently saw RULER at LC Queisser, Tbilisi. This was my first encounter with your work. I tried to look at the works with a fresh eye, but was unprepared for what I saw. The first impression I had was that it bore some links to the German painting traditions, especially to the Neue Wilder of the 1980s and German Expressionism of the early 20th century.

These movements aggressively questioned the status quo of the times. Their manly approach almost did not leave room for vulnerability, failure and fragility.


In contrast, I see a lot of these features in your work. Do you see your practice as a continuation of the movements, which fills in art historical gaps?

I don’t really look at things while painting. I try not to fill gaps in art historical movements. I am too afraid to interfere with other people’s work and art historical references. Instead, continuation comes naturally: I draw from what’s immediate, profane or emerges from my unconscious. My decision to draw or paint is almost as old as I am; I started as a little child with huge fascination for the simplicity of what you call creation, like the evolution of a pen moving on a sheet of paper. And yes, thinking about it now, I’ve always had a fascination with the way in which drawing creates room, like you say, for vulnerability, failure and fragility, which has always given me huge support in fucked-up times. Questioning the status quo of whatever time you live in is important and, often, the source of art-making I guess. The personal as well as the political is intrinsic to my practice. Themes such as psychology, social class, gender, sexuality, the nature and procurement of food, everyday weather and digestion have a major impact on my work. In this context, I long for anti-achievement and impossibility. Yet, instead of portraying failure with reference to a concrete figure or a specific marginalized group, I let literal flaccid penises or carrots fly through my pictures.


There is a double meaning in the title ‘RULER’. What is being measured and can it be measured at all? What is being ruled? What or who rules? Details such as a grotesque woman’s shoe, a white horse’s neck, your ‘Goddesses’ which critique petty vanities, rather un-rule. Can you speak about the character of the Goddess in your work?

I think I give the paintings a direction through the title of an exhibition or work. I think both the themes of dominion and measurement bring up questions of relation, between the individual and the collective, the powerful and the powerless. You can measure a tiny intimate drawing in relation to a large-scale canvas, for example. You can count dicks or compare their length. You can cut out the ‘i’ of the penis to transform them to pens. You can give the powerless a place to nap in a warm colourful environment. I’m making space for sheep, hustlers or food, for elegance, grotesque women’s shoes and also for the white horse neck that I don’t even see myself. I am the one that rules and measures too.

There’s that one painting in the show called ‘Goddess’. There is a bird-like yellow figure which appears in a dark space. This figure is less a character (because it doesn’t have a face) than a ghostlike uncanny presence. But it definitely has a psychological effect…like imagine what would happen is she ruled?!


The exhibition is doubled not only in the meaning of its title, but physically. Occupying the two floors of the gallery, the exhibition is divided into two parts. There is an interesting contrast between the white space of the gallery on the first floor and the space on the ground floor which used to be a one-bedroom apartment that seems not to have had any interior renovation since the USSR. The works on the ground floor seem to sit organically in the environment. Would you say that has to do with your upbringing in the former Eastern bloc?

Yes, totally. I like to see paintings in different spaces. The Eastern bloc wasn’t so much of an arty experience or an artistic surrounding – it’s unpolished and rough, but it has a beauty of its own. I mean it seems almost scary to me how well these two paintings sit in there. But the same counts for the upper gallery space. I think about class differences a lot and how it shaped my identity and way of thinking.


We face doubles one more time in the exhibition, where small works on paper are presented as objects, showing both sides of the paper. The compositions on each side are different to one another. What is your relationship with the issues of the double.

The double is something that occurs in this show. Now that you mention it, I can see it too. Whereas my last show, ‘Odd Glove’, depicted the issue of the single more. The small works on paper I mostly start while I’m traveling or while I’m not in the studio. I have these books with me that I use for drawing. I use all sides of the sheets in them, cut them out at some point or maybe even collage them. I like the exposure of the intimacy of drawing, and the roughness of cutting them out. Both sides of the paper work equally well – the front AND back. Through the cutting, layering of the paper and the ink sucking through to both sides, these double-sided drawings tease each other in a gentle way. Hence there is no double but just a relation. The drawings are the starting point and the base of the paintings. During the transfer to larger-sized canvases, translation errors occur and are even welcomed. Colours and lines consistently end up speaking different languages and thus create new meanings. As a result, failure is not only always an option, but forms an integral part of my paintings.


There is an interesting passage about the practice of hiding in an article by Colin Lang in Texte Zur Kunst (Lang, Colin, “Fail Better: Colin Lang on Stefanie Heinze at Capitain Petzel, Berlin, Issue 14, June 2019, The Sea). The author points at the details in the composition of the painting which are hiding the wholeness of the work. He claims, in fact, that hiding is characteristic of some artists of your generation. I would agree – the surface of your painting works as a camouflage for meaning. I find this indirect action a feminist practice. What is there to be hiding from and why do we need it?

It’s impossible to hide in a painting. I don’t know how to hide the wholeness of the work too since you have the whole work in front of you. My paintings are propositions to take a break from playing with possibility and allow the edges of the familiar to split and expand. Accordingly, I have invented the term ‘newsense’, a kind of pseudo-optimistic invention of my own making, as a retort to nonsense. The experience of failure achieves its own logic, complexity and aesthetic in my paintings. I look for the unexpected and subversive, into which I want to integrate the perverse. My work oscillates between high and low culture, the exoteric and esoteric, embracing failure as a necessity and a better way of being.