By reinterpretation meaning and content of the media image world, the painter reaches new statements that reformed the meaning of the original image into its opposite.


Tilman Treusch, Art Historian, Berlin

Tilman Treusch: Break what breaks you  – Image interference by Stefan Heizinger

Violence, power, and sex – these are the three terms around which the work of Stefan Heizinger (born in Linz, Austria in 1975) revolves. The motifs for his acrylic paintings and his works on paper are aquired through the infinit image pool of the World Wide Web, where the artist, sometimes randomly and sometimes purposefully, bumps into depictions, which he finds worth painting. Heizinger does not simply take these images and transfers them into another medium. The painting, according to the artist, detaches itself “in the painting process […] from the template […]: it becomes independent and moves between reality and imagination.”

According to the painter, one goal of his art is to “visualize emotions.” To accomplish this he reproduces the images that he found on the net and attempts to display their cues. The basic motive of the original image remains recognizable as a subtext. The partially considerable interventions by the artist almost always lead to a change in the image statement. Painterly collages that know how to artistically utilize the concept of “image interference,” are created. The beautiful glow of the too perfect advertisement world, in which the flawlessness of things and people embody an ideal of the perfect life, receive rifts and, also the seductive power of the medially placed image world, the stagings of politicians, representatives of the economy and the church, or the images of the sex and porno industry, get unmasked as empty promises.

Due to the vast variety of different painterly mediums and modes, Heizinger’s works, which are steadily representational, deny a simple characterization. His paintings – drawn, aquarelle, or lithographed images – are simultaneously painterly and graphic, colored and monochromatic, figurative and abstract, detailed and expressive. The associations and imagination of the viewer  is offered a multitude of different and often contradictory links and a new, often enlightening, view on the trusted and well known.

“Intimate Policy” – Shift of Context

Not only because of the ambitious format is the triptych “Intimate Policy” (2009) a key piece of Heizinger. The motif of the rectangular middle panel and the narrow, vertical format of the right panel is a train of demonstrators, which move towards the viewer. The left panel shows a light, vertical line on a dark background, above an equally light spot: an enormous exclamation mark is created.
The source image for his multi-panel painting was a press photograph. It shows a train of demonstrating students, protesting the murder of the student Benno Ohnesorg in Berlin on June 5th 1967 and laying down a wreath for him at the monument commemorating the victims of National Socialism in Munich. When, in 2009, it was found out that chief inspector Karl-Heinz Kurras was a member of the Stasi, who fired the lethal shots at Benno Ohnesorg, the press photo was published on the web.

Heizinger’s triptych is, like the original photograph, kept in black and white, and carries over not just the motif but also the composition of the original. The spatial situation as well as the arrangement of the protesters and their physiognomies is closely orientated after the source image. Even the banner, which reads “BENNO OHNESORG POLITICAL MURDER,” is represented, although it does now say: “WITHOUT POLITICS SEX.”

Through these modifications Heizinger creates a conceptual reinterpretation. The path of the demonstrating students, which leads from playful anarchistic protest culture to the radicalization of the terror of the RAF and subsequently to the German Autumn of 1977, is virtually not present. His painting is, as the banner already states, primarily “WITHOUT POLITICS.”

Simultaneously the inscription on the ribbon of the mourning wreath is able to point out this aspect to the initiated – those who know the photograph from which the painting stems. The text originally read: “BENNO OHNESORG THE VICTIM OF THE POLICE TERROR.” The words in the original photograph of 1967 are already partially difficult to decipher. By reducing the legibility even farther, and concentrating on the words “TERROR” and “VICTIM” Heizinger takes a specific conceptual position. The two terms become buzz words that trigger diverse associations with the viewers. Some of the “Spirit of 68” remains in his piece: the radical sexualization of our society, which had its outlet in the alternative life style of the 60’s, sounds under the childish graffiti-styled emphasis on the actual primary and secondary sexual characteristics that are hidden under the clothing. In that way the breasts of the central female figure are accentuated with a thin white line and a male banner holder receives a roughly outlined penis. In addition a drawn phallus that is surrounded by a jagged aura replaces the street lamp, which hovers above the scene in the photograph. One could suggest that the political dimension of the protest yielded to a private one. The instinct-driven sexuality supersedes reflexive social action. 

Photo Images – Painting from Photographs

By using photographic references, which he transforms into the medium of painting, Heizinger puts himself into a tradition that, in the United States took its beginning in Pop Art, and in Europe with Gerhald Richter, Sigmar Polke, and Konrad Lueg: photographs that were published in the mass media served the aforementioned artists as reference.

In his famous piece 129 DIE IN JET (Plane Crash), one of the last hand-drawn pieces of the American Pop Art artist, Andy Warhol draws on a structure of mass media from that time. The cover page of the New York Mirror from July 4th 1962, with its combination of image, logo, and writing, forms, without major changes, the motif for the large-scale painting. Warhol not only reproduces the head and logo of the newspaper page, as well as the title “129 DIE” and “IN JET” above and below the black and white photos, but also the text “(UPI RADIOTELEphoto)” that represents the source of the press photograph. The choice of theme as well as the impersonally smooth painting style makes the painting appear void of any clue to the painting individual.

Similar this is also true with Gerhald Richter’s photo pictures, which appear around the same time – normally black and white oil paintings that are based off of photographs of illustrations or of sections from the media, such as with “ALFA ROMEO” from 1965, which is based off of a combination of picture and text. Besides the change in format as well as the characteristic blurring that was Richter’s style at the time, the artist transfers the found source image almost unchanged into the medium of painting. “The photo renders the objects in a different manner than the painted image because the camera does not realize, but only sees the object,” Richter comments. He consequently figures: “if one, with the help of a projector, traces the outlines, one bypasses this laborious process of perception. One does not recognize anymore, but sees and does (informally), what one did not perceive. And when one does not know what one does, then one does not know what should be changed or deformed.”
Warhol and Richter attempted to negate their emotional involvement through their choice of motifs as well as through their artistic process. In the 60’s Warhol utilized silk-screening to mass-produce the images he obtained from the media. He replaced the individually hand-made image with an artwork that he created with the help of a technical reproduction medium. Richter also transfers the source image into his large-scale paintings with almost no modification. In his case the process of reproducing the found image as well as the waiver of a personal signature can be seen as an abandonment of the traditional act of creating.

A good fifty years later, Stefan Heizinger goes the exact opposite way: contrary to Warhol and Richter he incorporates a definite artistic personality to his work. He cannot deny himself to massively change his sources, and through this, make the image undertake a drastic reinterpretation.
Heizinger also reacts to the media usage of the images and their effect on the viewer. In comparison to Warhol and Richter he also reflects the emotional power of the media images – his works steadily speak of the seduction of the constant increase in images in reality as well as in the virtual world of the World Wide Web. While Warhol found the perfect technique for his work, which was freed of personal signature, in screen-printing, and the photo paintings of Richter found their aesthetic allure in their balance between impersonal, photographically precise rendition of the source image and simultaneous mystification of the painting through his blurring, the haziness in Heizinger’s work is only one stylistic device of many that is at most partially utilized.

This multitude of modes becomes apparent through the four figures that form the front row of demonstrators in the middle panel of the triptych “Intimate Policy”. The faces of the man and the woman in the right half of the image are depicted in an almost photo realistic manner. Their bodies though appear, due to the aforementioned emphasis on the breasts, drawn into the grotesque. The body of the man with the sunglasses appears painted realistically, however from left to right turns into undefined, sketchy. The suit of the man clad in white, in the left half of the image, on the other hand is detailed with fine wash drawn folds, while his head, as well as parts of his upper body are almost entirely removed: he appears like a headless figure, crowned by an abstract form. Finally, the clothing of the woman who is also dressed in white, at the left image boarder, is a drawing rich in detail while being simultaneously flat. Her face, which is painted in fine strokes, only allows a gentile suggestion of three-dimensionality. In comparison to this the face of the man in the right panel is reproduced in an almost photographically exact way. Through blurring, it appears similar to the people and objects in the early photo paintings by Richter.

The opposite of hazily shaped faces and finely drawn heads continues in the other rows of demonstrators. The caricature-like emphasis on male and female sexual characteristics as well as a roughly outlined head between the two light figures and a figuratively-flat hand that seems to grow from the left leg of the darkly clad woman, the usage of written messages, which is far more than just adopting text from the press photo, as well as the figuratively abstract left image half of the triptych, are additional image interferences that specifically utilize the possibilities of painting. While the photographic source remains mainly recognizable, the finished painting does not attempt to be photorealistic, but becomes a painterly fiction. In the hands of Heizinger the medium of “painting” turns into a “handwritten-subjective filter” that massively changes the original image and transforms it into something completely new.

Image Interference: Seeing the World with Different Eyes

Image interference is a phenomenon that is especially known in regards to early analog television. Under bad connection the television image would start to shake and rustle, become distorted or disappear completely. What remains are black and white dots: an abstract and scurry of snow. Digital media also experiences image interference, for example when the digital image starts to stagger, only builds up partially, or when a digital video freezes. What all image interference share is that the original image can be changed beyond recognition.

It is exactly this, which not only characterizes the triptych “Intimate Policy” but the entire work of Heizinger. The artist works purposefully with painterly image interference to give his internet-found images a new meaning. Expressive gestures, color fields, or abstraction disrupts parts in which painting describes bodies and objects with an almost photographic accuracy, so that every notion of realistic depiction is overlaid. For additional irritation text segments that do not necessarily reinforce the message of the image, are added.

In this manner things come together, which do not belong together, but often fit together. In “Contact Zone” for example, a pornographic scene is obviously annotated through the eruptive power of an atomic mushroom cloud, while a grotesque Smiley places itself in front of a group of suited men in the painting “Love Experts,” whose fraternal gesture not only counteracts, but also uncovers the true essence of the photographic source image: the forced unity that is only present in the moment of the photographic recording. In “Turning Point A Company of Men” the painting becomes a symbol of physical violence in light of the self-evidence with which the group of men pose: multiple white hand prints, caricaturing tracing or obliteration of the grotesque expressions, and gestural free brush strokes, become a second layer on the photographically exact replica of the men, and thus create an angry commentary on the actions of the alleged woolly academics. In “I Have a Dream Poolparty” even the idyll becomes a battlefield: the left figure in the group of four, posing in T-Shirt und swimwear in a private pool, disappears completely behind angrily applied white paint, her neighbor to the right is partially covered in yellow color bolts. Every now and again Heizinger is even inspired by famous paintings from art history. His painterly paraphrases, i.e. “Turning Point Entombing (after Caravaggio)”, primarily play with the formal events of their sources and so become a very personal conversation with the historic paintings.

All works of Heizinger share the trait of collapsing existing order with the help of painterly image interferences. The traditional medium of painting, in his hands, becomes a proven mean of questioning and breaking the power of the media image world. Heizinger does not capitulate in light of the emotional force from the media images, but instead finds a way, in and through painting, to deal with these images and their clichés, and to utilize them for the creation of his own pictures. By reinterpretation meaning and content of the media image world, the painter reaches new statements that reformed the meaning of the original image into its opposite. The works of Stefan Heizinger break what breaks him – and therefore also us. He picks up the shattered debris and assembles them playfully into different – maybe more truthful – worlds.


 1 „Macht kaputt, was euch kaputt macht“ is a quote : the title of the first Single, released in 1970, of the German political rockband „Ton Steine Scherben.“

 2 This and the following quotes are cited from: Stefan Heizinger. Liebe Machen.

 3 To simplify reading I use the masculine form.

4 See i.e. or

5 Cf. i.e. Robert Storr: „Gerhard Richter. Malerei“, in: ders.: Gerhard Richter. Malerei. Ausst.-Kat. Museum of Modern Art, New York u.a., Ostfildern-Ruit 2002, v.a. S. 24–42. Also see Götz Adriani: „Von der ‘Lust, etwas Schönes zu malen’“, in: Gerhard Richter. Bilder aus privaten Sammlungen, published by Götz Adriani, Ausst.-Kat. Museum Frieder Burda, Baden-Baden u.a., Ostfildern, 2009, v.a. S. 19, 24f. To Andy Warhol cf. i.e. Andy Warhol. Retrospektive, published by Heiner Bastian, Ausst.-Kat. Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin and Tate Modern, London, Köln 2001.

6 Ingrid Misterek-Plagge: Kunst mit Fotografie und die frühen Fotogemälde Gerhard Richters, Münster, Hamburg 1992 (Form und Interesse Bd. 39, zugl. Münster, Univ., Diss. 1990).

7 Gerhard Richter, quoted after Robert Storr: „Gerhard Richter. Malerei“, a.a.O., S. 33.

8 Cf. for this Lothar Romain: Andy Warhol, München 1993, S. 102ff. and Margit Brehm: „Über das Konstituieren visueller Wahrheiten beim Malen“, in: Sammlung Frieder Burda, Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke, Arnulf Rainer, published by Jochen Poetter, Ausst.-Kat. Baden-Baden, Ostfildern, 1996, S. 35f.

9 Stefan Heizinger, 13. September 2010 in an email to the author.

 10 Quoted from:

 11 Cf. Tina Teufel: „Wendepunkt Grablegen (after Caravaggio)“, in: Recorded Painting, Ausst.-Kat. periscope – Initiative für Kunst und Zeitgenossen, Salzburg, Kirchberg 2009, S. 37–39.