Adventures in Skin - Notes on the Painting of Judith Sturm
Dr. Phil. Peter Funken | freelance journalist, curator and lecturer - Berlin
The origin and concept of Judith Sturm's painting are inspired and fundamentally mediated by her many years of involvement with fashion and fashion design, for the artist became acquainted with the tailoring trade in her youth, due to her family background. It may therefore hardly come as a surprise that many of her paintings and drawings were influenced by templates from fashion in terms of body representation. But then the similarities between the fashion models and her independent painting already end, because in Sturm's art there are always moments of irritation, even provocation, which undermine and contradict the beautiful appearance of the fashion image. This becomes obvious at the latest when one takes a closer look at the surfaces of her pictures, for the models depicted almost always have strangely reddened, almost inflamed skin, which cannot be reconciled with common ideas of beauty and lifestyle.
In their poses, the bodies of young women and men depicted by Judith Sturm appear seductive, almost erotic, and yet her pictures are at the same time about injury and damage. Not only is their skin reddened, the models are also missing their heads, and because of the compositions and cropping of the images, other parts of their bodies are also not shown. The permanent headlessness is a reduction deliberately staged by the artist, drawing the eye to the bodies - to curved hips, breasts and slender legs - and also to tight-fitting briefs, bikinis and T-shirts, which certainly emphasise an erotic aura. If it were not for the apparently diseased skin, one would hastily assign such forms of body image to the realm of advertising, but hardly to that of art.The flesh-coloured parts of the bodies, however, are not only recognisable as skin surfaces, but in many works they form the lower layer of the painted canvas; only in later working steps does the artist cover them with further colours, but the differentiated pink and salmon underpainting remains translucent. This underpainting is a form of non-representational painting, a treatment of the picture surface with liquefied paint into which salt has been sprinkled, which later suggests the irregular redness in the depictions of the skin surfaces. This gives Sturm's works a special painterly liveliness that contrasts with the linear, outline-like passages in the depictions of the body - and thus a strangeness in the thoroughly familiar. One could say - to speak with Dylan Thomas - that this kind of painting is, among other things, also an "adventure in skin".
Judith Sturm works from photographic models and also with nude models in the production of her art. Nevertheless, the human being and his body are depicted in an anonymous, depersonalised facon, which supposedly exists detached from individual and social characteristics. Thus, in Sturm's painting, a conception of man becomes recognisable in which, due to facelessness and a lack of history, the body moves into the foreground as a pure projection surface. The body thus becomes an object, it does not represent a subjective counterpart, but is the object of speculation about it. One could assume - because there is hardly any unambiguity here - that it is about a body image in which the erotic, even sexualised side is to be brought to the fore. Our looks would then be primarily voyeuristic and consuming looks. But the matter is more complicated, it is ambivalent. We look, but there is no face, no eye to look back. And yet there seems to be a reaction to our gazes - a reaction that is unexpected and unusual, because it is precisely the irritated skin of the sitter that seems to resist our voyeurism and rebel against a one-sided appropriation. In Sturm's painting, the skin, the visible and external bodily organ of the human being, rebels against beautiful appearances, against being handed over as an object of pleasure with a defensive reaction: it is the skin that tells of injury and illness and thus tells its own story and shares its personal experience.
In her new series of paintings "Herbsttag" (Autumn Day), created in 2011, the artist refers to a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, which melancholically refers to the transience of life, and yet also deals with security:
The leaves fall, fall as if from far away,
as if distant gardens were withering in the skies;
they fall with a denying gesture.
And in the nights the heavy earth falls
from all the stars into loneliness.
We all fall. This hand falls.
And look at others: it is in all of them.
And yet there is One who holds this falling
infinitely gently in his hands.
With the reference to Rilke's poetry, a sensitive poetic dimension is conveyed in Judith Sturm's art. One could almost think that this poetic side is a counterpart to the depiction of sensitive skin in the other paintings.
Loss, transience and injury thus belong to the context of a conception of beauty that we always encounter in polarity in Judith Sturm's paintings and drawings - beauty is thus by no means the conventionally attractive alone, but like a necessary complement it always also possesses aspects of transience, suffering or injury. We encounter here a representation of beauty that is not homogenised - in Judith Sturm's sense, beauty also includes injury. In this thought, her painting combines opposites and also contradictions, which are, however, not faded out but presented in a subtle form.
The montage technique of sewing together used by Judith Sturm can also be seen in this context, as can the moments of cutting up and fragmenting that precede the joining together through the sewing process.
In this respect, Judith Sturm combines artistic methods, such as painting and drawing, with processes of tailoring and even with texts of literature. She is not at all concerned with the beautiful appearance of beautiful bodies, but with deep dimensions of sensation, with grasping togetherness and understanding a transient life. These are all major themes of art that are offered to us in her work in an unusually new way and challenge us to recognise and determine our own position.