New York

Stefan Sehler

Parker's Box

At first glance, Berlin-based artist Stefan Sehler’s lush, intricate images appear to be photographic. They depict fragments of nature— branches and leaves, pine needles, vines, and ferns—often lushly entangled and seen close-up, as though they were specimens for scientific study or the subjects of a contemplative gaze. A second look suggests that the images are printed on their Plexiglas supports; we seem to be looking both through and into the picturesque scene. The works draw us into a seemingly endless space; as we catch glimpses of the distant empty sky, we find ourselves immersed ever deeper in the claustrophobic tangle of an overgrown forest, memorizing incidental sights as insurance against getting lost. The “camera” cuts trail after trail, but each seems to lead to a blind alley, and the trails close behind us. The feeling of being trapped, balanced by the experience of nature in all its extraordinary vitality, freshness, and diversity, is the paradoxical substance of Sehler’s art.

But on closer inspection, we realize that we have been deceived, not by Sehler’s romanticization of nature but by his unusual technique. The four untitled works that were on display here are not photographs but paintings, full of exquisite painterly flourishes that double as “descriptive” devices but do so with an intensity that lifts them out of the scene and belies their representational function. The fact that these “photographs” are out of focus—subtly blurred into abstraction, with no serious loss of representational value—only makes them truer to nature. Indeed, the blurring gives one a more accurate impression of trees and plants moving with the breeze and appearing different as the light alters.

This blurred accuracy is one of the contradictions that give Sehler’s works their uncanny beauty. The other has to do with the fact that they are painted—with a matrix of oil, enamel, and acrylic, making for a complex, sensual surface—on the underside of the Plexiglas, turning that which might ordinarily protect a painting into an inseparable aesthetic component thereof. Perhaps Sehler is alluding here to the Bavarian glass painting that influenced Wassily Kandinsky’s apocalyptic abstractions, but Sehler’s pictures seem more concerned with the restoration of nature than its ultimate destruction. Strangely, the painterly surface seems neither behind nor on the Plexiglas, but rather suspended within it, and intensified by the light it seems to contain. These captivating paintings demonstrate that modernist painting is not necessarily dead—it still has some tricks up its sleeve—and show that a quasi-photorealistic picture can have a message every bit as striking as the dazzling technique it employs.

Donald Kuspit