With his unique mix of folk art, Pop Art and Street Art, Stefan Strumbel (b. 1979) has firmly established himself on the international art market. The Offenburg-based artist, whose roots lie in the graffiti scene, took the programmatic question ‘What the fuck is „Heimat“?’ as his starting point to create a highly distinctive body of work that addresses the loaded subject of ‘Heimat’ – i.e. home and homeland – and its associated symbols of time-honoured traditions, ideals and values. Having grown up on the edge of the Black Forest, where the concept of ‘Heimat’ plays an important role not only in fostering a sense of identity but also in the region’s economy, the artist found the subject wellnigh inescapable. Black Forest gateaux, Black Forest girls in traditional costume and Bambi-like fawns dominated his canon of motifs for a long time. As, indeed, did that ultimate icon of Black Forest traditionalism, the cuckoo clock, which he treated to a provocatively brash makeover of garish neon colours, challenging texts and carved decorations with a distinctly morbid twist.
In 2015, Stefan Strumbel have his work a new direction, not least because his take on the subject of ‘Heimat’ had become a much-copied cliché. Strumbel wanted to get away from the ephemeral and transient and create objects with a sense of permanence. His works became more abstract, their visual language more universal. Strumbel’s engagement with the concept of ‘Heimat’ remains palpable but is expressed with greater subtlety. The works presented at Museum Art.Plus illustrate this fundamental change of direction.
Reminiscent of commercial neon signs and part of a series the artist has been working on for years, the neon work “This is for all the lonely people“ is deeply rooted in Strumbel’s earlier Pop Art vocabulary. With these works, which recall fun fair gingerbread hearts, Strumbel addresses the viewer directly – often in a salty language. Here, however, he strikes a gentler tone. Inevitably, the viewer is reminded of Eleanor Rigby and the eponymous Beatles song. The work touches on loneliness and fragility, on memories of a rosier yesterday that make today more bearable, but also on hope.
The idea of fragility is also central to Strumbel’s ceramic, which the artist perceives as having a corporal dimension. They are figures, human likeness, vessels filled with everything that makes us human and vulnerable.
The wall objects made of faceted mirrors deconstruct their surroundings and the viewer and make it impossible for viewers to situate themselves in the gallery space. By disrupting our viewing habits, Strumbel encourages us to think: Where am I in this world? Who am I, and am I what I want to be? This playful discourse permeates the artist’s entire oeuvre. He looks behind the masks and facades of the external material world and brings to light things we did not know or were unaware of.
This also applies to his current work which centres on bubble wrap. This ubiquitous material symbolises the human desire to protect and safeguard things in transit or storage, be that values, content, convictions or emotions. Things that are carefully and conscientiously wrapped are automatically invested with an aura of preciousness and importance – as well as fragility. Strumbel envelops everyday objects and cultural artifacts that are redolent of the idea of ‘Heimat’ in the protective plastic material. Among these objects are canvases, crucifixes, Madonna statues and his own cuckoo clocks which have long since acquired cult status. The diligently tied and taped packages, which provide no more than an inkling of their content, are cast in aluminium or bronze. In the process, the content loses its object character – Strumbel speaks of ‘non-objective works’ – and the packaging itself becomes a work of art. The artist transforms the everyday material, which usually buffers objects of value against knocks and bumps, into something timeless and valuable. The object deemed worthy of such careful protection – space, the body, an idea, an emotion or a thought – finds its formal match in the indestructability of the material.
Usually untitled, the works take on the character of guessing games and have enormous tactile appeal. They fire the imagination and make us think. Stefan Strumbel does not offer a pat narrative. Pondering the question what the protective wrapping might conceal almost inevitably leads us to consider our own values and valuables which we want to safeguard in these fast-paced globalised times. At a time in which the idea of ‘Heimat’ is hijacked by right-wing populists with alarmingly simplistic jingoist views, it is more important than ever to ask ourselves what ‘Heimat’ means to us, what is worthy of protection and preservation and, above all, why.
Text: Sebastian Steinhäußer, Museum Art.Plus