Manuel Stehli: Untitled

Art Verge, 11 May 2020

"Can you tell us about the process of making your work?

It’s probably more chaotic than one might expect looking at my paintings. I usually start with a rather vague idea that serves as a basis, but mostly gets lost or transmuted later in the process. This idea can either be focused on content matter (such as a specific gesture, posture or a certain kind of interaction between people) or on more abstract aspects (such as the way objects are spread across the canvas or a certain set of colours). I have been collecting countless images of postures, gestures and situations that I source my paintings from. These images are mostly photographic, sometimes computer-generated and barely ever of any personal relation to me. Lately I have been particularly interested in stock imagery, with its strange mix of randomness and functionality, the way it forces a universal readability upon people and things. In the painting process I use fragments of these images, reassembling and alienating them in a way that may defy the readability of the source material. There is a lot of shifting, rejecting and readjusting going on in the painting process – to an extent that often makes me lose control over the painting and lose track of my ideas. That is where the process usually becomes interesting. Gradually, and often accidentally, a sense of delicacy and personality or integrity may emerge and contrast with the interchangeability of the fragments. It is a certain kind of limbo or tension between those poles I look for as a result.


How would you define your work in a few words (ideally in 3 words)?

Still, plain, ambiguous.


Would you use another three different words to describe the ‘Untitled’ painting?

Not quite so still maybe.


How did you come up with this painting idea? Is there any story behind this painting?

This painting was originally intended to show three figures, but somewhere in the process the third figure disappeared. My starting point was a photograph showing a group of men at a festival or a demonstration, waiting for a barrier to be opened. What interested me about this motif was the particular body language of the men, conveying a sense of power and insecurity at the same time. As a reaction to the slightly degrading and discomforting situation of having to wait, the men seemed to have taken on more cliché masculine postures and moved closer together. The latter undoubtedly lends the group a more threatening appearance, but also makes the individuals look somewhat clumsy and childlike.


While the finished painting barely has anything to do with the source photograph it still revolves around those observations. It’s about the notion of waiting, or having to wait, and thus both feeling entitled to and being at the mercy of something. And then there’s the relation of masculinity and intimacy. These things have been on my mind for a while now and come together in this painting."