Stephanie Reisch paints with a nod to prehistory. Indistinct animal forms resonate through her abstract painterly compositions, which reach into a realm of higher consciousness, instinct and the past. Hidden within the painted surfaces can be the animals themselves – a piece of bone or tooth or claw, ground into the paint, carrying the potency of its own history.
YOUR PRACTICE IS DESCRIBED AS SHAMANISTIC ...
My work is certainly influenced by shamanic precepts and some of my conceptual enquiry is informed by that ecology of ideas, but I would not call it shamanistic in and of itself. My practice does seem to share a lot of common ground with shamanism and it’s helped give my work context, direction and clarity. Shamans gain insight from the knowledge embedded in nature, so it is not too dissimilar to what I do when working with animal-derived materials.
What importance do animals have in your practice?
The animal operates in a world of instinct and on a plane of pure sensation; humans operate within a less holistic realm, which is saturated with the mental noise that accompanies higher-level consciousness. My work attempts to speak to the deeper part of our awareness and to elicit responses from our animal selves. I regularly go back to animals in my practice to help invoke sensibilities that bypass the consciousness of the observer.
How does the physicality of animal materials inform the twodimensional composition of your paintings?
The paintings always retain some reference to the animal subject, however the process is less about image-making and more focused on activating the surface through the layering and interaction of symbolic materials. I often let the natural motility of the paint guide me around
the canvas and this leads to interesting compositional tensions as formal elements converge with gestural mark-making.
How is the act of grinding animal bones significant to the works?
My fascination for bone and dead animal tissue plays an important role in my practice. Deriving pigments from nature for the purpose of painting has always involved grinding down the material to some extent so that it can be carried by the medium. I’ve never thought of paint as a purely technical substance but rather as having its own significance and potency, so when I work with an animal fragment, whether it is a piece of bone, a tooth or a claw, I’m working more with the history contained within it as opposed to the object itself. That idea in itself, working with the unseen, appeals to me a lot.
How does this connect you to the works?
I’m always trying to interpret those subtle exchanges between materiality and life. When an animal ceases to operate as an object or a condition, it can be experienced as a type of intensity, which is then recorded in the paint. Through these connections and observations I’m exploring an alternative way of seeing that doesn’t necessarily occur through the eyes.
What are the lessons you derive from the creative processes of the first, prehistoric artists, who painted on cave walls?
Their intentions were very different. I imagine them travelling down long, dark and dangerous tunnels to mark walls by firelight. They’d use earth pigments, blood, saliva and animal fat to bring these human and animal forms into the physical world. The images would be guided by the morphology of the cave surface and accompanied by an animal tooth or claw embedded alongside. The interplay of light and shadow from the torches would have given the images dimension, resulting in that magical, floating quality I aspire to create in my own work. The possibility that these artists worked in complete darkness is even more intriguing as it rejects the idea that art should be looked at. My work at times feels like an extension of what these early image-makers were trying to do, by internalising some of those ideas. I like to weave meaning from things that did exist, do exist and will exist.
How do you balance control with freedom in your painting?
It is mostly an intuitive process but there is a consistent methodology at play too. I begin by laying down gestural marks with oil sticks and dry brushwork and then build dimensionality over time. After that I work between forming and unforming the visual elements, so there are a lot of layers of history being recorded, something which isn’t always obvious in the final piece. It’s a continual process of drawing out shapes and pushing them back through a type of creative entropy. I occasionally think of my process as reverse archaeology.
What challenges do you find painting large-scale works?
An important part of my process involves rotating the canvas every so often in order to dislodge the visual elements, which helps keep them in motion and within the bounds of the frame. This becomes more difficult the larger I work, as the scale influences the length of each interval between turns. I also find the longer I wait between rotations the more static the work becomes so it’s important I don’t linger too long. The square format seems to work best for me, as the rotations remain relatively balanced, so breaking away from that has been particularly challenging. There is also the challenge of getting lost in single moments on the canvas and losing hours.
I will be showing again with my gallery, Linton & Kay, later next year. I also have a research project, Water & Stone, opening at Heathcote Museum & Gallery (in Melville, WA) in March that explores the sibylline navigations of the jellyfish in relation to the Swan River. It’s an experiment with new materials and ideas through expanded drawing and touches on themes that include myth, ritual and unchartered worlds.