Studio Visit: Kristine Schomaker, The Contours of Identity
“If you do not like something change it. If you cannot change it, change your attitude.” Maya Angelou
By Gary Brewer
Identity, Self, Image – how do we present ourselves to the world? What mixture of emotional strengths and vulnerabilities, family genetics, and environmental conditioning co-mingle to create the personality that we project. It is a nebulous affair at best. We are in the realm of Proteus, shape shifting and adapting, learning to navigate the world and ourselves. Kristine Schomaker is an artist who explores the contours of her physical body and the psychic space of her self-image and does so embracing the ambiguity that such an endeavor involves.
In her 30’s because of life circumstances, Kristine was suffocating, uncomfortable in the world and insecure about her body image and identity. Her aunt and uncle told her about Second Life, an online virtual world that has millions of participants. They had read about Second Life in Spin Magazine. A musician played a concert to people around the world from his home studio. Her aunt and uncle also met an artist who would show his work to a worldwide audience through the venue he created in this virtual world. Kristine became captivated by the idea and created an Avatar, a simulacrum of herself but with a body type and look that Kristine felt was her ideal self. She created the identity of a successful artist, had exhibits, sold work, curated and organized events all virtually in Second Life.
After a few years as an active participant and while working on her master’s degree, Kristine learned that Stanford University was doing research about the effects of Second Life, postulating that the virtual positive self-image had a positive effect on the person in real life. Kristine wrote her thesis on this idea and created several Avatars, one as herself in her body, one in transition to her ideal self and the ideal self fully realized. Interested in blurring the line between the virtual and the physical world, and examining the effects of the Stanford study, Kristine also transformed into her Avatar in the real world. She was using technology and ideas of the simulacrum as a method of self-discovery and to explore the contours of identity.
While working on her thesis, Kristine saw a performance piece involving two people and a projection of Second Life. The couple was kissing and in the virtual world of Second Life their Avatars were kissing. They had microphones and ECG machines attached to their bodies sending the sound of their heartbeats into Second Life. One could hear the heartbeat and see the graphic of antenna that indicated the sound. As they kissed and became more excited their heart rate increased, this was simultaneously playing out with the avatars in Second Life. This interface of the real and the virtual worlds as well as their bravery was an epiphany to Kristine.
She began creating more ambitious projects with Second Life and sheathed her avatars in the paintings she was creating to make her identity as an artist more of a forceful statement. Kristine’s paintings at that time were abstractions, rich in detail, an amalgam of drips and splatters in strong colors that were then carefully articulated by outlining each discrete element. Recent exhibits of Yayoi Kusama and Sam Francis had impacted her, and she was pouring, dripping and patterning away. The sheathing of her avatar and the continuing work in blurring the lines between the virtual and the real inspired Kristine to bring her avatars sheathed in her paintings into the real world and see where this would lead. Kristine said of this work and of her time engaging with Second Life. “I became aware of the space between the screen and oneself, a space where one projected their identity. It became tangible, to be free to make any version of oneself and of the environment they occupied in Second Life, made this psychic space palpable. I wanted to manipulate it as a means to explore myself. I did not know what I was doing, what my goals were, it was just a way to explore the contours of identity.”
Kristine began a project where she painted several mannequins in her signature style and took them to various locations around Los Angeles and photographed them. Because her work is also about body image and the continuing examination of her eating disorder, she was always thinking about ideas of beauty in our contemporary society. She photographed the ‘ideal’ Avatar in front of beauty counters, ‘skin’ shops and advertisements. She continued creating art works that interfaced with the virtual world and extended her paintings onto various objects having to do with identity. Creating installations where paintings, objects and monitors playing dancing avatars were playfully interacting; the boundaries blurred in a rich amalgam of the methods and means of engagement.
Kristine created several new works over the last two years that marked a transition toward her most recent work. In Kristine’s work titled “Losing Weight” she collected all of her ‘skinny’ photos and eventually photos of her growing up to the present. In an act of ritual transformation, she destroyed them, shredding the photographs (and negatives) in a shredder and putting the collected paper shreds in jars that she placed on shelves. She said of this, “There was a time when I could not stand to have my photograph taken. My self-esteem was so low that I hated seeing myself in photos. I would turn away or put up my hands to block myself. This piece was a way to destroy that, to let go of a painful memory and move forward, to accept myself.”
Self-acceptance can be a difficult thing; we are conditioned to see the world through a lens not of our making. The values that create the contours of these perceptions alternate capriciously through time. Each generation, era, society and civilization come to different norms that constitute an ideal.
Kristine’s current self-portraits are powerful personal works. She is taking on the voices and self-perceptions of doubt and negation within her and confronting them with humor, wit, and mystery.
While staying at a hotel promoting an art festival, inspiration struck. The hotel room had a door to the bathroom with frosted glass panels and horizontal wood dividers. She casually thought that it might be interesting to photograph herself through the frosted glass. Using her cell phone camera’s timer and burst function, she set to work, taking dozens of photographs. By moving closer to the glass, coming into contact with it and playfully dancing into different poses she captured an arresting suite of images. The horizontal orientation of the wood supports created a striking compositional feature, a Muybridge-like quality of frozen moments captured in a grid of sorts that formalizes the images and creates a powerful counterpoint to the dreamy quality that the frosted glass imparts to the figure. There is a romanticism and aesthetic effect that both obscures and transforms her body. The images impart playfulness and express a theater of dreams where Kristine can let go of doubt to embody herself with wit and confidence.
She said of this suite of photographs and other current work dealing with her body. “I am of two minds about these works. I want to own my body and to love myself as I am, but at the same time I struggle with finding clothes that fit and feeling stuck in small chairs. I have created work that deals specifically with my eating disorder, of my struggle with my body image and with how others perceive me. But at the same time I am who I am, so these works contain both of these realities. I do not fully understand what I am doing, but I try to create work that engages with my self-perception, identity and all of the complexities that these ideas contain.”
Aside from her work that can be formally identified as Art, Kristine Schomaker considers herself a cultural producer and is engaged in managing artists careers, creating and publishing an online art magazine, and she has a project space where artists create work in short term residencies. All of these enterprises are a part of her work as an artist. It is a form of social practice where to engage with others in the pursuit of creating imaginative ways to share and exhibit art, to promote it through reviews and PR, all of these constitute a larger identity; a form of life as Art.
We are all imperfect beings, our body’s change through time. People come in all shapes and sizes, we search for the ideal but it is an illusion created for the purposes of culture. It is always a mirage. What we know is that to live deeply, to engage and care; We have to dive deep for the riches of experience of the spiritual journey that a curious mind and spirit can unearth. To express the dreams of our imagination and to explore the ambiguous terrain of self is to enlarge one’s identity, to contain multitudes and in so doing to bring beauty into the world.
Wednesday, April 25th, 7:30-9:30pm
Keystone Art Space. Sunday May 13th, 2-5pm
USC Keck, Wednesday May 2nd, 5-8pm