Morphing objects and uncomfortable gazes: By playfully subverting cinematic tropes, Melanie Ebenhoch likes to toy with the viewers of her paintings.
Although known for her meticulous, almost dulcet painting style, designating Melanie Ebenhoch as just a painter seems like an understatement. In fact, in her multi-faceted practice, she often creates stage-like scenes and turns the tables on the viewer by drawing on cinematic archetypes. In conversation with Kathrin Heinrich, she explains why suspense is a basic need for her and what fascinates her about old horror movies. Accompanied by photos by Marie Häfner.
Your most recent works »Sweet Dreams and Satan in Skirts 1952« combine central aspects of your multi-media practice: the large circular painting, the appropriated film poster, the spatial arrangement. Originally, you studied painting. How did your practice evolve from there?
After a couple of years of studying at Angewandte, where I only painted on canvas, I went to the Netherlands to study Dutch painting. But I ended up not even touching a paintbrush for five years. All the workshops were open for experimentation, there was glassblowing, all kinds of things. At Sandberg Instituut, I read a lot and wrote, made videos, dabbled in interior design and worked very conceptually. In my time there, I had almost forgotten that my main practice is based around painting.
So, what made you remember?
Back in Vienna, I worked on frescoes on three-dimensional supports with Titania Seidl and right after that I started making reliefs. As I was contemplating to print on the surface, my boyfriend at the time reminded me: You can paint, right? And I was like—Oh yeah, right!
»Satan in Skirts 1952« riffs on the B-movie aesthetics of the eponymous 1950s picture. Have you always had a penchant for the cinematic?
I remember being bored with the books I had to read as a child. That really changed when I discovered Stephen King at age 10. Many of his novels have been adapted into cult films. Now, it’s fun to pick up these classic film tropes that everybody knows and relates to, like going to ›get cigarettes‹. In my gallery show at Martin Janda last year, I placed the phrase on a poster in a film noir kind of setting. I took a picture in bright daylight in a park in Vienna, when I was out on a walk with a friend and edited the image in a film technique called »Day for Night«, so the atmosphere would resemble moonlight. I like how the resulting image pretends to be this grim scene, while it really isn’t.
What other filmic references do you draw on?
All my favorite films have a connection to old myths, folklore, and fairytales, as I’ve come to realize. Many of them are actually versions of the Bluebeard tale, a motif that was also called »women in peril«—the various iterations span from cheap B-movies like the Hammer Films to glossy Hollywood productions and many great directors had hand in them. The scene depicted in »Paulina« for example, a painting in one of the chimneys, is straight from »Horror of Dracula«. Aesthetically, I draw on the color schemes and light situations that I see in technicolor films and the melodramas of Douglas Sirk for instance.
I’m also reminded of Hitchcock and his heroines.
Viewers draw the connection to Hitchcock films a lot, especially his characteristic point of view shots. Motives closely related to the domestic become essential to the visual narrative—doorknobs, windows, hallways—so their meaning is always shifting. Similarly, in my works, objects morph to the best of their efforts: a hat, an eye, a nipple? The viewer thus becomes part of the concept, of this suspense that just leaves you hanging in the air. There’s also this strong identification with the main character through the importance of the gaze.
Many of the iconic movie directors of the 20th century have come under criticism for their treatment of female actors and the employment of sexist stereotypes, especially Alfred Hitchcock. Does this play a role for you in referencing them?
I’m more interested in the role that the images created by directors like him play in an image culture at large, rather than making direct references. The images that these directors created long ago still have cultural relevance and that’s why it’s fun to draw on them, question them. As with many female artists, female directors have been edited out of history. The images of women as well as of men that were shaped by these movies is so dominating, so I take up their archetypes. They linger in our collective consciousness and it’s up to us to define whether they are still relevant or not.
Like exploitation cinema that draws upon certain genres to subvert them?
Yes, but not as direct. The poster I am working on right now is based on the cover of a romantic pulp novel. This type of image, a woman in 1950s dress running through the dungeon of a medieval castle, discovering a secret door, was common for novels aimed at a female readership up until the 1960s. So, I took this ridiculous selfie and inserted myself into this typical cover. Similar to »Satan in Skirts«, I use my own picture to show that these images are not about specific women but a generalized female protagonist.
The hands holding the flashlight were especially fun to paint. They refer to the sexual hypersignification as used by many directors —a woman grabbing a door handle, that kind of thing—and to what is dismissively called ›doorknob‹ cinema as a concept that relies on doors and windows as narrative devices.
When art is fun, it immediately becomes suspicious—how critical can something so enjoyable be? But, of course, the question of humor is also inherently political.
What we find to be funny says a lot about who we are as a society. In this regard, I am just barely scratching the surface, in a very mild and tender way.
You seem to approach new techniques and materials with ease. What is your work process like?
It’s nice that it appears this way! I put a lot of thought into the surfaces and materials I use. In the end, a finished piece has to successfully combine material and image. But I can say that everything starts with a color mood. I give the object or image a color and then see what happens, like a double exposure. This mood defines how the work will develop, and this will greatly influence the depicted motif. Figuring this out can sometimes be very fast, sometimes it takes forever.
When I depict mimetic scenes, I paint as beautifully and exerted as possible, so there is always this twee moment. It’s really almost like applying makeup. The finer the brushwork, the better. Other elements in the paintings are, in contrast, very graphic, and big swooshes I can do for fun. When painting the large chimneys, for example, I go on a rampage.
Some of your paintings seem like empty stages—an ominous scenery, where one would imagine a particular disastrous event taking place. Sometimes they deliberately exhibit their constructedness, giving the viewer a glimpse ›behind-the-scenes‹ by—in theater terms—breaking the fourth wall, like your chimneys.
This stage-like effect allows the viewer to be part of the mise-en-scène. A painting is always a window, and I want to reverse that and toy with the expectations of the viewer. It’s what I like about old horror movies that play on the invisible and uncertain. The look of dread on the face of a protagonist… There’s also an empowering moment in placing my figures in such a scene. In the paintings where they do appear, they almost become part of their surroundings, the architecture, and the decor. They become sovereigns of these scenes, which are ambiguous and let the viewers anticipate the narrative. The characters often look back at the viewer, reflecting their gaze, which has something uncomfortable about it.