Gifts of the Body, New Work by Kristine Schomaker
through March 18th
Ark Arts, Altadena
“Fat-bashing in all its varied forms–criticism, exclusion, shaming, fat talk, self-deprecation, jokes, gossip, bullying–is one of the last acceptable forms of prejudice. From a very young age, before they can walk away or defend themselves, women are taught that they are how they look, not what they do or what they know.” ~Robyn Silverman, “Good Girls Don’t Get Fat: How Weight Obsession is Messing Up Our Girls & How We Can Help Them Thrive Despite It.”
by Betty Ann Brown
Kristine Schomaker’s “Plus” series is a group of photographs of the artist standing behind a frosted glass-and-wood door. She appears to be nude, but that’s not immediately obvious, since she is obscured by the bronze translucence of the glass and opacity of the horizontal planks of black wood. The dark stripes cut across her body, covering her breasts and genitals, but revealing hazy silhouettes of her “Plus” body. Some of the portraits are printed on paper, others on large transparencies, so that viewers seem to be walking into and through the life-size images.
In one transparency, Schomaker extends her left hand above her head, dropping her right one down to hip level. It is almost as if she is imprisoned by the door, pressing against the glass constraints in an attempt to escape. I stood behind it and copied the artist’s pose, as if to submerge myself in the art. As I did, I thought of Fredric Jameson’s The Prison-House of Language and how we are all locked in the prison-house of language about our bodies. We speak about our bodies in terms of cultural concepts: This body is “attractive,” that body is not. And we allow that language to extend to our entire self-opinion: I am “attractive,” I am not.
Walking through exhibition propelled me into conflicting thoughts about my own body. I realized I have spent years hating my body. I have felt trapped in the mind/body binary, favoring thinking over feeling (probably because I could exert–or imagined I could exert–more control over my thoughts than my emotions.) After all, my body continually betrayed me: It got sick, it hurt, it didn’t perform as I wanted it to, and sometimes it downright disgusted me. I could go anywhere in my mind, and still can, but my body keeps me mired in the physical.
Women receive painfully conflicting messages about our bodies: We are told we have the ultimate seductive power in/as our bodies–but we are maligned as bitches and whores if we use it. We are told that if we want to be acceptable or attractive, we should strive for an impossibly artificial appearance: dyed hair with ridiculously long extensions, thick make-up, capped teeth, breast implants, and punishingly thin bodies. And we feel inadequate when we can’t attain it. We become vulnerable to negative thoughts about our bodies, and to negative comments from men. In my twenties, I weighed a full thirty pounds less than I do now, largely because I was bulimic. I dated guys who called me fat and told me my butt was too big. In other words, I allowed them to hate my body with me. (God help me, was I really complicit in it?)
Yet what those guys thought was attractive was neither universal nor absolute. On the contrary, it was completely culturally constructed. And such social determinations have changed radically over time. Thousands of years ago, the voluptuous Venus of Willendorf was the paragon of female beauty and power. In the seventeenth century, Peter Paul Rubens depicted his standard of female appeal as pale and heavy, with dimpled, fleshy limbs. The thin ideal didn’t emerge until the 20th century. It has become so pervasive (and destructive) that most–MOST–young, American girls believe they are too “fat” to be acceptable. They don’t realize that our concept of “fat” is precisely that–a concept–and that it is specific to temporal and geographic limits.
In another large transparency from the “Plus” series, Schomaker stands back from the door, allowing only her hands to approach–and be seen through–the glass panels. The rest of her body hovers behind a foggy veil. The artist seems to be making an offering, presenting an invisible gift in aching, shrouded silence. A gift of the body, from the body. As with all of the “Plus” photographs, it is beautiful and poignant, calling us to contemplation of the way we see our bodies.
Can we see our bodies outside the prison-house of language? Can we see beyond the thin/fat, beautiful/ugly, young/old binaries that determine what we think about bodies? Kristine Schomaker’s stunning “Plus” photographs are so seductive and evocative that they transcend historic constructs, existing outside the thin/fat opposition. Doing so, they function as aesthetic gifts for the re-thinking of our bodies, our selves.
2599 Fair Oaks Ave, Altadena, CA