Very soon into sitting and speaking with Stefanie Heinze, the artist invites me into her mind, as she hopscotches between thoughts, revealing the changeable nature of her creative process. Known for conjuring up surreal, playful, and brightly coloured works that teeter between figuration and abstraction, she often begins her process by drawing on paper before translating this to canvas, going on to create huge, vivid artworks that beguile with their surrealist landscapes.
FRAIL JUICE, her show which debuted last November at Petzel Gallery in New York, amalgamates references to frail bodies, reproduction, power dynamics and systems, resulting in a burst of intense colours and cheesiness. “Her exhibition Stories of the Imaginary (self-portrait of two lemons), on display recently at Pippy Houldsworth Gallery in London”, draws on her recent experience of restricted movement and social interaction, turning to the canvas as a substitute for closeness. Heinze maintains that she is not so concerned with defining her style or being so linear – “I just took the pen that felt the smoothest in my hand, and chose the paint that felt the most problematic and weird.”
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR WORK TO SOMEONE THAT HAS NEVER ENCOUNTERED IT BEFORE?
SH It’s simple: I’m a painter and a drawer. I create quite huge works mostly which start with me drawing, and then I translate this to a painting. They incorporate a lot of colour and often come with a lot of humour, verging between figuration and abstraction. I compose elegantly, very engaged into the process until whimsical arrangements refute normative modes of existence.
CAN YOU GIVE ME AN OVERVIEW OF YOUR ARTISTIC UPBRINGIN?
SH I first became inspired to paint and draw when I was quite young, probably around four years old. I saw my father painting an Easter egg and I thought, “I want to do that too”. I guess I always was a very visual person, I like to do things that let my imagination roam wild, and drawing is an easy outlet. Growing up I just drew things and figures from magazines, self-portraits and whatever crossed my mind, I played around with watercolours when I was in my teens in high school.
My environment wasn’t very artistic at all, my dad mainly was a police officer in GDR times & lost his job after the wall went down. He disappeared soon after and I never heard from him again. My motivations throughout my life have been because I often stop and think “Why am I doing this? What do I want to give?”, and this curiosity has led me to where I am today.
HOW HAS THIS BIZARRE AND ABNORMAL YEAR IMPACTED YOUR WORK AT ALL?
SH It’s been an intense year and I’ve tried to be super careful, often keeping to myself socially. I’ve spent a lot of time alone and had plenty of time to paint; I was preparing for my show in New York and setting up my new studio, which was great, but I often felt like I was living in a weird bubble.
The time and slowness of things found substitute in my dreams. They became even more intense which for sure impacted my work.
I found it hard to comprehend the reality we found ourselves in. But that actually is nothing new. [laughs]
CAN YOU TELL ME ABOUT FRAIL JUICE?
SH Frail Juice actually had a lot of names before I settled on it, usually the title comes last. I thought about calling it Detachable Tails, The Unmansplainable, Powerless Nap, High Potency Brood… I’m a very bad poet; if I try to write poetry it doesn’t come out great. But, poetry making isn’t so linear and it has a more graceful approach that is pointing into a direction but not literal.
I love the literal but in this case, I was like okay, if you go with the name Detachable Tails or The Unmansplainable – you just run the risk of ending up in a weird maybe liberal feminist corner, like that’s not just it. I want the frail bodies in there and I want some kind of reference to reproduction, but also liquidity. Or just to finger point to heteronormative cheesiness, but it’s also just like the intensity of colours that is juicy as fuck.
Going back to the theme, I guess I explored power dynamics – something I’m greatly interested in – as well as the dissolution of historical norms and the paradoxes that arise when investigating power structures. I’m generally interested in systems, like political systems but also nervous systems, and that’s all in there. It’s humorous, but it should also be very gentle in some ways.
IS THERE AN OVERARCHING THEME OR A MESSAGE THAT RUNS THROUGH ALL OF YOUR WORK?
SH It differs a little bit from collection to collection. Some themes shape with time, so if I prepare a show, I have a selection of drawings that might only hold a few similarities at first, but then start to gain a bit more direction and cohesion. I’m fascinated by this actually, the fact that things can all of a sudden go hand-in-hand automatically.
DO YOU EVER FIND YOURSELF HAVING TO DESCRIBE YOUR SIGNATURE STYLE?
SH I do get asked about my signature style a lot, but I always try to be careful when I talk about styles. I understand the need for people to see a style in order to recognise things, and perhaps people might comment on how artists change their styles so often, but I personally am against it, because if you study the process it comes rather naturally. Style existed before Instagram and before the art market, but I find it important to differentiate between styles and motivation.
The way I ended up doing what I’m doing now is because I just took the pen that felt the most smooth in my hand and took the paint that felt the most difficult to work with. I like working with colours and ultimately I just create something that looks like something I haven’t seen before.
IS THERE A SPECIFIC EMOTIONAL PROCESS YOU GO THROUGH WHILST WORKING?
SH Not necessarily, I think the medium itself brings pretty simple issues to the surface. Working on one painting is like working on a person; you have a new encounter with a different person each time. For example, If I put some neon yellow onto an artwork – which is something I did today – it felt like I was yelling at someone – it’s really extreme and quite funny! I mean, the paintings don’t literally talk to me, but it’s a very intuitive thing and it changes with every painting.
“FINALLY, I WANTED TO GO BACK TO WHAT YOU MENTIONED EARLIER ABOUT CONTEMPLATING WHAT YOU WANT TO GIVE BACK – HAVE YOU FOUND THE ANSWER TO THIS QUESTION?
SH As an adult, that question is always on the plate. Before I grew up, I was just trying to create an island where I could space out from an environment that didn’t always work for me.
A lot of things in my childhood and my upbringing weren’t very pleasant, so drawing and painting were a good outlet to just forget about everything. It is a great tool for surviving, but there’s also a pleasant aspect to it, for sure.It’s a way for me to work against oppression and outdated forms of power dynamics and I generate something that maybe isn’t just showing the obvious.