Sibylle Springer (born 1975 in Münster, Federal Republic of Germany) is a painter. For her large-format works, she usually uses acrylic paint on canvas. She initially gained renown with her New York series, which depicted rainy street scenes and graffiti in subway tunnels. On the canvas, she allowed her motifs to implode. After first painting the scene, she then applied layer upon layer of translucent acrylic paint. The recognizable representations fade into glistening, seemingly impressionistic shimmers. Springer thus managed to portray the visual effect of the rain or the speed of the subway trains. After-images are all that remain – mementos to an external reality. From the almost abstract arrangement of luminous marks the viewer can make rudimentary reconstructions of the scenery. And so, here and there, one recognizes sidewalks, traffic lights, cars, and pedestrians, elements which might come together to form a complete street scene.
When in 2011 Sibylle Springer started to deal with depictions of violence and moments of shock, she initially worked in a similar way. Both old and contemporary artworks could serve as the groundwork for her paintings, which engaged with the portrayal of gruesome subject matter. She used photographs by contemporary artists like Cindy Sherman as well as images from modernism, such as works by Max Ernst. However, she mostly referenced Baroque paintings. In her process, Springer would first transfer the images in their original formats to her canvases, then she repeatedly covered them with new layers of paint. She applied acrylic paint in dots and ink in streaks. Consequently, the original contents of the images were covered and defamiliarized.
Springer’s current work still primarily deals with scenes of torture and murder, which she finds in paintings from the Renaissance, Baroque, or Rococo periods. Additionally, the ambivalent relations between sexuality, lust, and violence also feature more and more. One repeatedly finds shifts in the images that are based on tools from filmmaking, such as pan and zoom. Thus the French Rococo painter François Boucher’s dark, intimate small-format depiction of the love or rape scene of Leda and the Swan is rendered by Springer as a giant colourfully orgasmic painting.
Springer’s latest images comprise only two colours, the tones strictly coordinated, producing an almost monochrome effect. As if the motifs have been woven into the canvas, one sees but a very fine drawing.
Sibylle Springer studied under Katharina Grosse and Karin Kneffel at Bremen’s University of the Arts. In 2008 she was a recipient of the Karl Schmidt-Rottluff fellowship. Her works are included in the collections of Kunsthalle Bremen and Kunsthalle Bremerhaven, among others. She lives and works in Bremen and Berlin.
The Lies of Painting
Frank Schmidt, 2020
It is easy to assume that Sibylle Springer is very skeptical about the general ability of pictures to have an impact and to convey meaning. As a painter, she is always looking for new ways to obscure the references of her pictures or to make them unrecognizable altogether – for example, by applying varnish that only allows us to see the subject when the lighting is just right and when looking at it from the proper angle. Does she perhaps not trust the references she has chosen?
That pictures can lie, and do, has become a commonplace in art criticism. Springer’s art is no different, and she continues to serve us up new lies, as we can infer from the title of her exhibition Neue Lügen (new lies) shown earlier this year in Bremen. Despite the little white lies we tell every day that make it possible to live with each other in a civilized manner, lying generally has a negative connotation. That painting lies points to the essential fact that even what can seem like the most realistic and realest of pictures cannot be trusted. A picture is always only a representation of reality, after all, and never reality itself. As René Magritte once said, we cannot eat a painted apple, no matter how masterfully it has been rendered. Who wants to disagree with that?
Appearances are deceiving, as the saying goes. We are all exposed to the dangers of fake news and fake pictures, even as we try to filter through the jungle of the millions of pictures available to us to find the truth, or at least a truth. It is no accident that some of Springer’s pictures resemble such jungles, occasionally hiding objects, little scenes, and figures in their undergrowth. For it is especially these seemingly chaotic, impenetrable “jungle pictures,” like the eponymous work Pharma Phlora, that reveal the core of Springer’s approach to painting. Not only do they combine abstraction and figuration, they demonstrate the artist’s joy of exploring painting’s possibilities. They are multilayered in form and content, and they never let their superficial beauty and aesthetics appear positivistic without a deeper level of meaning that sometimes contradicts our first impression. What these pictures therefore aim to reveal is the ambivalence inherent in the world, and in art.
The new series of works shown in Springer’s exhibition revolves around poisonous and deadly plants that can also act as cures when administered in small doses. Like other phenomena, these plants have always had more than one side to them; sometimes they conceal their negative and dangerous essence beneath a charming and enchantingly beautiful surface. They share this in common with painting, which has always preferred to cover the most terrible situations and events beneath beautiful and seductive surfaces. When marveling at the Last Judgement so beautifully painted by Michelangelo or Rubens, we are only too glad to look past the gruesome scenes of torture playing out before our very eyes. It is no accident then that Springer has often drawn ideas from the rich reservoir of classical art – for example, from Titian, Bernini, or Hans Baldung Grien. The universally acknowledged value and beauty of these works, combined with their historical distance that removes them from the zeitgeist and hence current personal,
sometimes all too banal and human associations, makes them the ideal surface for all manner of projections regarding reuse and reevaluation.
In Cocktail, for example, Springer plays with the two figures from Death and the Maiden (c. 1518) by Hans Baldung Grien. Here, living life to the fullest, personified by a woman with a sensuous body, and death, who devours all, are entwined in an embrace. While Baldung Grien relishes emphasizing the contrast between death and the maiden, Springer lets them merge together into an almost black silhouette. The role of the decaying nemesis is thus assumed by the plants – jasmine, henbane, larkspur, ragwort, and ergot kernels –, which result in a toxic cocktail when mixed together. In the end, the resulting new picture only vaguely refers to the old master’s original work.
The wordplay of the exhibition title Pharma Phlora is also ambiguous. An otherwise innocent and “natural” nature acquires a negative connotation when flora and fauna become a pharmacy and cabinet of poisons for humans and animals alike. As a way of highlighting this ambivalence, several historical vials are also presented in the exhibition, leaving viewers to wonder whether they are filled with poison. However, this question is soon forgotten as we admire the elegant bell jars in which they are bedded on black velvet.
As already mentioned, Springer’s pictorial surfaces undergo a delicate, experimental treatment. In addition to the aspect of veiling and hiding, the surface also has a certain component of alchemy, as can be seen, for example, in her use of metals. In Isn’ It?, a twig that has been applied in silver leaf will oxidize over time and change color. This means that the artwork can no longer be understood as a static, unchangeable product, but more as a mutating organism, parts of which are not under the artist’s control. This idea of a mutability generated within the picture itself is also prevalent in a series of portraits in which the heads are overlaid with thin patches of paint that appear to have evolved by chance (if seen only in a single work, this would seem more like a painting accident). While these disturbances do not in any way distort the almost perfect face of the young woman in thinking circles, they lend her pensive expression a certain depth by repeating the form of her circular earrings. They thus encourage the beholder to try to fathom the woman’s thoughts, her sadness. This almost creates the impression that Springer’s pictures develop a life of their own, as if they are eating their way successively through the paint to liberate themselves from the painter’s creative intentions.
In Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue?, three bubbles of primary colors seem to drift, as if by chance, across a portrait of a young man by Botticelli. This sets the stage for a stimulating art historical and philosophical discourse, even if the association with Barnett Newman’s famous painting appeared in the title after the fact. Newman wrote in his essay “The Sublime is Now” in 1948 that the sublime is a timeless quality of art. Like Newman, Springer effortlessly spans many centuries by referring to the Renaissance picture; unlike Newman, she draws on references – namely, from European art history. The young man’s beauty, which is only temporary in life and is made timeless through painting, is disturbed by Springer’s painterly alterations and minimal but decisive deviations from the original. She lets the characteristic elements of the time, like
the hat and shirt, disappear into the dark background, while the young man also no longer looks directly at us, which emphasizes his absentminded expression. In this way, she succeeds in bringing him closer to the present, enabling beholders to empathize with him on another pictorial level through the “thought bubbles.”
In Springer’s picture who put a spell on her?, she heightens Maria Magdalena’s ecstatic expression in Artemisia Gentileschi’s painting by detaching the figure from the Biblical narrative and adding the bubble-shaped discolorations. By creating a distance, these estranging effects integrate another pictorial level and let the figure as well as the beholder enter a different space of reality. What is the woman thinking? What is she feeling? What hallucinogenic substances might be involved?
The disparities and ambivalences as well as the mostly subdued colors of these pictures with their blurring and concealing aside, their vivid presence is astonishing. This presence – in other words, how the pictures captivate beholders – reveals a great trust in painting. We know Springer trusts her paintings because she continues to question them. She stays curious about them, keeps looking at them from different perspectives, and continues to allow the possibilities and contingencies of painting to unfold. After all, the language of painting is a wonderful way to explore the world and to engage with past, present, and future. And as to reality, it is on the canvas.
Central to Sibylle Springer’s work are disturbances and distortions in images and in perception. A moment of shock, an extreme experience, speed or violence: they are all written into the depictions, both in their motifs and use of materials. Fluids often play a part in this. Her large-format views of New York are slashed by rain; blood flows through her adaptations of Renaissance Christian scenes. Perceptual distortions become tangible in the images: ink and water flow into each other and create edges; planes of colour are abraded and thus become brittle.
By comparison, the distortions in her new series of portraits are more subtle. Men’s faces bear tears. They are made of gold and silver leaf applied to the canvases. Bonding agents and solvents, made for sticking the metallic foil and to soften it, alter the paintings’ surface, forming a reflective layer that surrounds and protects the drops, while also eating its way through the acrylic paint.
The history of painting readily offers up only a few crying men, usually Jesus or Heraclitus. Weeping women are of course plentiful. And so the tear catchers, which Sibylle Springer had framed as readymades, were indeed made for women. The artfully crafted glass vials date back to the American Civil War. The women who stayed home used them to prove their love and as an instrument to measure their sorrow – though of course this likely included lies and betrayal.
In another new series of large-format works, Springer hides small obscene scenes in misty jungles: a chained man goes down on a woman sitting in front of him; another woman is being mounted by a donkey; hidden among ferns, a colony of fungi-penises is sprouting from the ground. The artist thus creates the initial impression of a smoky landscape in charming, subdued colours, before the viewer is met with one shock after another.
Bodies in View: The Paintings of Sibylle Springer
In: Sibylle Springer, gift, GAK, Bremen, 2017
As an artist, Sibylle Springer’s fascination is with the human body, or more precisely, with how the body is entangled with the gaze that is directed towards it and addressed to it. Her painting contemplates, unfolds and interprets this tense reciprocal relationship, which is fundamentally a self-relation, always already inscribed with an internal structure of refection, saturated in cultural history. Among other things, this means that despite the often direct and strongly afective impact of body-images, nothing about them is without preconditions and predeterminations. Innocent nakedness is just as much a construction as erotic sophistication. Whether artistic nude, pornography or biological objectivity, ethnologically other or historically estranged, ugly or beautiful, none of them are inherently ‘natural’, ‘obscene’, ‘objective’ or ‘revolting’.
In this much, Springer’s aesthetic project is at heart always a refection on the gaze: from this standpoint, it goes on to refect on painting, and its styles, visual traditions and subject matters. Consequently, Springer operates from the outset within a feld of representation(s). She does not, thus, create her own
particular portraits or nudes, like an Eric Fischl or a Lucian Freud, each of whom develop(ed) a characteristic gaze on the body. Instead, Springer re-presents her painting: in other words, she consistently refers to existing paintings and visual works. This certainly shares the discursive traits of “Appropriation Art”, in as much as it stands, per se, with one foot outside the contents of the image. It does so in order to turn the gaze towards the constitutive conditions of art in general and of the particular work in question, while absorbing this perspectival position into itself. A refexive move is made here: frst out of the image, then back into the image. Thus, it constructs a gaze on the gaze, achieved within the work itself. This step is also characteristic of Springer’s approach. However, as a restaging, Springer’s way of appropriation goes beyond this: her work appropriates in a thoroughly painterly way. Here, the original work is not merely contextualized and displayed with modifed signifers – as Richard Prince did with the Marlboro cowboy or Elaine Sturtevant with Duchamp’s readymades and Warhol’s paintings. In Springer’s work, an original painting is chosen after long and careful research, and is then transformed through painting. It is not merely ‘repeated’, but newly invented, so to speak, through her distinctive painting process: it is formally dissolved and reconstructed as something quite new.
Typical of this is her painting’s strong focus on surfaces: At times, the real subjects of her images are highly concealed. At frst glance, Springer’s works can often appear to be monochrome informel paintings, usually with pale or shining silver surfaces, but sometimes profoundly dark. For the viewer, the reworked subject matter only slowly coheres into a whole. For the most part, it demands concentrated, conscious viewing to bring the represented subject back ‘into focus’. In this way, Springer deliberately produces a challenge for the eye, both requiring and addressing a certain voyeurism, inherent to the pictorial in general, but also to the aspect of ‘exhibiting’. In terms of the human body, more specifc themes emerge: the erotic, for example, but also the voyeuristic curiosity in cruelty, violence and horror. The painting of Cecily Brown ofers a broadly comparable game, a puzzle-play with the voyeuristic gaze and desire’s concealment on the visual surface of the painting. Brown paints scenes taken from pornographic images: her fesh-coloured, Fauvist gestures simultaneously revealing and concealing the dramatic nude. But while Brown works with gesture in quasi-disruptive fashion, Springer opens up (and hides) her subjects – which also have broader cultural-historical scope – on surfaces made from a homogeneous range of colours.
Play with the voyeuristic gaze is already a feature of almost all the works Springer makes reference to. One direct example is La Gimblette (ou la femme qui pisse) (2016), a large-format adaptation of a
motif from the eponymous pair of works by French Rococo painter Francois Boucher (1703–1770). Two scenes are juxtaposed in Boucher’s small oval paintings of 1742: an innocent, playful scene in which an elegant woman trains a ‘docile dog’ (the painting’s subtitle) with a biscuit, and a second image, coarse and drastic, with the same woman lifting her skirts to urinate into a bowl she holds beneath her. In the background, barely visible, a curious spectator gazes through a window at the events of the image. Springer’s painting focuses on the latter motif. Her La Gimblette is a scene from bawdy salon painting, encompassing its particular thematic play: the tension between showing and hiding, taboo and its overcoming which Springer turns into a quite specifc experience of seeing. First of all she converts the original small scene into a much larger format of 210 Å~ 170 cm, turning Boucher’s fgure from a miniature to a lifesize fgure. Even more decisive is how she almost entirely conceals the representation, dissolving it into a broken monochrome fatness. At frst glance, the picture appears to have been immersed in silver-grey: it is irregular and fickering, but nonetheless presents a fat and coherent pictorial space, streaked in places with cloudy patches of colour, pale pink and dark grey, and more sparingly violet and green. Springer painted the subject so that it almost – but not quite – disappears. So for example, the foral frills of the lavish Rococo dress are not rendered with the original’s clear palette, but in weakly contrasting tones of pale silver grey. At frst, the image seems non representational, an amorphous fickering and glimmering, an efect, incidentally, quite capable of firting with the Rococo elegance of the original. But precisely because it withdraws from the gaze, the subject matter appeals all the more strongly to the curious, searching gaze. Initially confronted with abstraction, this gaze perhaps at frst makes out a foot, then a window frame. It goes on, becoming gradually more precise, to unveil the entire intimate scene, and suddenly fnding oneself in a voyeuristic perspective. Thus, Springer’s painting stages its own seduction of looking.
This is what Springer’s intensifcation of older paintings is all about: creating ambivalences and then visually navigating within them. The exhibition gift presented a comprehensive collection of images which clearly reveal the extent of her knowledge of pictures – this historical, thematic and generic range is implicitly contained in both her research and her work: a wall installation, untitled since Springer does not regard it as an autonomous work (she speaks of ‘the wall of my studio’) is a lively illustration of the visual space of refection in which her work is created and which serves as its context. In fact, the compilation collected in 2016 and 2017 – the exhibition presented postcards, newspaper clippings, found illustrations, printed pictures, etc. – is a consistent element of her daily working life. It has been transferred to the concluding area of the exhibition space, arranged into a kind of analogue cloud: 500 or more of these small-format images formed a dense structure here, at least 4 meters wide and as high as the ceiling. Springer said that since this working material, so important to her, has been in the exhibition and thus unavailable, a new set of pinboards has grown in her studio. Her painting is clearly based on a lively refection about those images.
The collection exhibited here features famous art-historical subjects, among them Goya’s Nude Maja (1795–1800), Parmigianino’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1523) and the highly erotic subject, so often depicted, of Leda and the Swan, as well as little-known pictures. Advertising photography is also included, as well as traditional Japanese and other erotica, Renaissance portraits, comics, and motifs from the work of Robert Mapplethorpe, all mixed in with abstruse, obscene or magnifcently silly material found online. Conversely, we also see another kind of body-image, unsettling in a diferent way, for example old woodcuts showing torture scenes, carrying strange echoes of images of contemporary S&M practices. All of this is present in reproductions of photographs, paintings and prints. With fascinating variety, the collection encompasses images and stagings of the body, which emerged in diverse media and several centuries. Springer has organized this arrangement associatively, rather than chronologically or by style. In this way, surprising visual bridges often open up among the body-images, crossing epochs and styles, for example when the reproduction of Boucher’s La femme qui pisse is surrounded by extremely heterogeneous urination images. In this way, the entire structure
functions associatively – one jumps from image to image, creating connections. It is possible to genuinely lose oneself in the breadth of the spectrum, and certainly to have fun. Above all, one directly experiences the visual curiosity thematised by Springer’s painting.
The gaze and voyeuristic curiosity also play key roles in the large-format painting Dschungel (Jungle, 2017). The picture at frst seems to be a silver-coloured and (depending on the light) refective surface which seems to bounce of the gaze. Even at this point the picture’s enormous wealth of detail is visible, but at frst glance, its fguration is concealed by its shimmering, homogenous colours and emphatically fat application of paint, insomuch that represented fgures and events can barely be made out. Only gradually does a constellation of fgures emerge from this abstract set of elements: in a forest clearing, we see a woman on a swing, which a man on the right-hand side of the picture keeps in motion with a rope. Less apparent is a man recumbent in the bushes to the left of the picture. This is an adaptation of The Swing (1767–1768), a major work by Jean-Honor. Fragonard (1732–1806), Boucher’s (younger) contemporary and without question a central fgure in Rococo painting. This light, vivacious scene overtly plays with an eroticism of the gaze. It is not simply that the couple who do the swinging seem to have an amorous relationship, or that the natural setting, remote from society, serves as a ‘locus amoenus’, liberating the soul and the senses. In addition to this, the man in the bushes – it is unclear if he is a friend or a hidden observer – is integrated into the structure of gazes. Moreover, he is a voyeur: when he looks at the lady on the swing, who at the apex of her trajectory is even at the point of losing a shoe, he can see directly under her elaborate crinoline skirts.
As well as Fragonard’s light and airy style, especially present in his representations of nature, this art- historically relevant scene is above all of interest to Springer because of its visual architecture of desire. As a painting, Springer’s work adapts this in a particularly ingenious way: directly on the surface of the painting, the complexity, and even the voluptuousness, of the foral motif merges with its disappearance. Concealment and revelation all but converge. In this way, conscious vision is triggered as a literal ‘sharpening’ of the viewer’s gaze, linking the moment of voyeurism to the picture, which also thematises it.
In these genuine painterly interventions and interpretations, Springer addresses a theme inherent to the reference images she has chosen: the gaze upon the body. The small portrait Der Blick (The Gaze, 2015), to name another example, brings this to bear in a direct and surprisingly efective way. In terms of painting, Springer here takes a diferent approach than in the works described above, allowing the image’s subject to unfold out of the dark, thus binding the viewer’s gaze into the opacity. The work, painted in black with deep-blue nuances, shows a young man – or perhaps a young woman: the - uncertainty begins here – appearing to look at the viewer from out of nothingness. Here, Springer is adapting a portrait by the late-Classical French painter Pierre Paul Prud’hon (1758–1823). Her painterly interpretation reproduces the original in slightly cropped form, zooming in on the face somewhat, thus creating greater and surely more suggestive proximity. But at the same time, the picture is plunged into darkness to such a degree that in looking, the viewer’s gaze has, so to speak, to feel its way through a difuse, view-resisting layer. Having done this, it has the ambivalent sensation that the gaze of the subject, male or female, has been upon them all the time. Looking slightly sidewards, the collar pulled high, the hair combed back from the brow, the dark eyes rest coolly on the viewer. So who is the voyeur here, and who is observing whom? This is a picture which lures its viewer into a simple but artful structure of gazes, entangling him / her there. A picture which creates the sudden strange feeling that one is oneself being observed.
Pharma Phlora, Kaponier Kunstverein, Vechta
hidden, Galerie Anita Beckers, Frankfurt am Main
20 Blicke, Schloss Leuk, Switzerland
L-Train, Künstlerhaus Göttingen
blink, Elektrohaus Hamburg
Eintauchen, Gerhard-Marcks-Haus, Bremen
Kunstsammlung des Deutschen Bundestags
something between us, Kunsthalle Nürnberg
Wo ist Gott? Christliche Ikonografie in der zeitgenössischen Kunst, Kunstverein Worms
Domino 3, Salve, Berlin
happy crisis, Galerie Anita Beckers, Frankfurt am Main
Geheimnis der Dinge - Malstücke, Kunsthalle Recklinghausen
Bildersprachen, Syker Vorwerk
Arte Noah, Kunsthalle Feldbach, Austria
Petersburg, Weserburg - Museum für moderne Kunst, Bremen
Das Geheimnis der Dinge, Beck & Eggeling, Düsseldorf
Die Gegenwart der Kunst, Künstlerhaus Göttingen
Exzess, Galerie K', Bremen
Ein Turm von Unmöglichkeiten, Salon Hansa, Glockenturm der Galerie König, Berlin
Künstlerräume, Weserburg - Museum für moderne Kunst, Bremen
Trading Illusions, Nationalmuseum Kiew, Ukraine
Moonshot, Galerie Jahn, München
im interim, Galerie K', Bremen
Grosser Hans-Purrmann-Preis, Kunstverein Speyer
Ruinen der Gegenwart, Steinbrenner / Dempf & Huber, Wien, Austria
Karin Kneffel und Meisterschüler, Galerie Eichenmüllerhaus, Lemgo
knolling, Galerie für Gegenwartskunst, Bremen
Transition, Ausstellungshalle Frankfurt am Main
Japonism in Contemporary Art, Nippon Gallery, New York
Peanuts of Joy, Kunstraum Dreieich
899 km, Galerie im Traklhaus, Salzburg
the von show, von, New York
déjà-vu?, Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe
Karl-Schmidt-Rottluff Preisträgerausstellung, Kunsthalle Düsseldorf
Leinen los!, Kunstverein Hannover
Die unsichtbare Hand - Zeitgenössische Zeichnung, Städtische Galerie Delmenhorst
Malerei 2008, Westfälischer Kunstverein, Münster