Stefan Thiel


The term excess is a fitting one for the artistic praxis of Stefan Thiel. But this excess is also always expressed paradoxically—as a state that can hardly be communicated, let alone attained by an observer. For instance, Thiel, born in 1965, once translated hard-core pornographic stories into Braille and sealed them under glass, so that the surface of the paper was visible but its contents inaccessible, even to the blind. All debauchery remained hidden in the abstract scoring on its surface. Thiel subsequently used this embossing method to render the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom in Braille; there were twenty- five volumes in all.

After spending four years on the Sade project, it became clear to Thiel that this hermeticism had to take a different visual form. Since then, he has worked with silhouettes, which, as in this exhibition, titled “Grünau,” can be up to six and a half feet tall, forming a scenario uninhabited by humans, focusing on urban spaces, architecture, and everyday locations. There is a trellis where scraggly grapevines grow; there are minutely detailed rhododendron bushes, as well as treetops and mistletoe with a “nest” that peeks out between the layers of intertwined branches. Every nuance of the tree’s wild growth is represented in Thiel’s large-format silhouette pages—but no animate life.

There is a fundamental tension here between the formal opulence of the objects and their nearly ascetic representation. Thiel extracts images from the chaos of nature and exactingly cuts them out of black paper with a fine blade, having previously marked outlines with white pencil using a slide projector. The kaleidoscopic tangle of plants, light, and shadow ends in a strict reduction to black and white. This process of encoding seems to be a continuation of Thiel’s early work on transposition from one writing system to another. Unlike Kara Walker, he is not interested in contrasting the traditional use of silhouettes (a popular medium of the Romantic and Biedermeier periods) with contemporary themes. He is more interested in formal retranslation, from photographic original to silhouette. Some very modern effects become visible through this otherwise quaint-seeming practice: Despite the purely two-dimensional treatment of the surface, the images have an uncanny sense of depth that conveys a physical reality.

What appears at first glance like intricate ornamental background turns out to be a carefully constructed system of connections, which keep the silhouettes from falling into separate bits. What Thiel cuts apart he must be sure to knot together again; the paper must remain materially intact. In this sense, his method of retranslation is also a test of the visual code: How much information needs to be given so that a tree appears as a tree—without collapsing into a pile of chaotic, finely snipped fragments? And the physical integrity of the image is not just a question of the cutting technique but also of artistic calculation. In the selection and reduction of visual information, Thiel shows that the concept of nature and the concept of art are related. What appears in nature as an excessive variety of forms becomes, for Thiel, an excessive kind of order. And so his silhouettes are indeed at once overabundant and uneventful.

Harald Fricke

Translated from German by Sara Ogger.