Sabine Dehnel is German, originally from Ludwigshafen and now lives and works in Berlin with her husband and twin children. Her work draws from memories and experiences of being on vacation, when you have the feeling of the wind in your hair and sand in your toes, being with family, the feeling of youth. The work exudes a kind of freedom when we are one with nature. Dehnel makes paintings with a figure in the landscape, and her photographs take the experience into the studio as well as on location. She blurs the lines of reality by painting directly on the skin of the model, inspired by the surroundings and old fabrics, thereby melding realities, identities and capturing memories in an image.
In her series of Vases Dehnel presents her models seated from behind in vintage bathing suits from the 1970s. The model’s skin provides a canvas to extend the floral bathing suit patterns in paint, fusing the two together. By connecting past and present, painting and photography, reality and illusion, the artist nudges the viewer, drawing them further into the picture. These are playful portraits and send a nod to Man Ray’s famous Le Violon d’Ingres, the Surrealist masterpiece photo of a woman’s nude back painted with f-holes to suggest a violin. Both artists use the natural “hourglass” silhouette of the female form to quite literally “objectify” their subjects. Here Dehnel beautifully subverts the objectification of the traditional art-historical male gaze with a more feminine approach to image making.
In her series Atem der Vogel (The Breath of Birds) Dehnel presents a young girl (the artist’s daughter) with her skin painted a deep vibrant red, her hair dyed a similar color, all to match the scarf she wears around her neck, a pattern dotted with black birds in flight. This series is from a recent artist residency where she took her family along with her. The images show a change in position, rather than drawing from her own memories, she is seeing these same experiences through the eyes of a mother.
In Hannah 1, the model is posed on a beach during the “blue hour” a similar but less known phenomenon than the “golden hour” in photography, when scattered and reflected blue light in the atmosphere lights the subject matter. Ahead of the model Dehnel has placed a yellow stripe in the environment reinserting a golden sun-like glow to the environment, and making the image feel bright and more stereotypically “beachy”. The model’s skin is painted to reflect the colors of the landscape, both real and artificial, moreover evoking the experience of the senses at the beach.
The four paintings exhibit the artist’s interest in presenting the model, seen from behind, in a landscape. The figures come from her personal archive of family photographs and her own experiences, yet because we don’t have a face, the viewer is invited to follow the figure or even place themselves in the scene. In Zauberland (Magic Land) two figures appear in a fall forest, the young girl in the foreground is solid, but the larger adult figure beyond her hovers between solid and immaterial, somewhat ghostly as if dissolving into the landscape. It evokes those moments in childhood when a parent disappears from sight while on a walk or hike. In Angel’s fly the figure seems to be caught mid-movement while wearing a patterned coat, she appears on an athletic court that fades into abstraction in the background. Nur Getraumt (Just a Dream) and Million Miles are smaller paintings that feature a young boy and a young girl retrospectively, the figures heading into an unidentified landscape, which much like our memories, dissolves into an unrecognizable past.
Sabine Dehnel, born in 1971, moved to Los Angeles after receiving her master’s degree from the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz and continued her studies at the Otis College of Fine Art and Design. In 2002, she received the SCA Art Prize for Young Art, after which she received several European studio and scholarship grants for her work. In 2005, Dehnel moved to Berlin and established her studio in a former barracks. In 2012, she co-founded LSD Gallery on Potsdamer Strasse with several artists and was one of its lead directors for more than two years. Her work has been featured in numerous institutions, including the Frieder Burda Museum and the Columbus Art Foundation in Ravensburg, and belongs to esteemed collections such as the DZ Bank and The National Gallery of Denmark. She was an artist in residence at the Museum Kunst de Wesküste, Föhr in 2018. In 2021 she was featured in a joint exhibition at Hilbertraum called La Magia with artist Ellen De Laine.