Perceive Me at Cal State LA
Ronald H. Silverman Fine Arts Gallery
through February 22
Written by Betty Ann Brown
“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” ~Marcel Proust
On the day I began thinking about this essay, I read an article about the ongoing excavations of Catalhoyuk, a Neolithic site in southern Turkey. Archaeologists recently uncovered a female figure in crystalized limestone that had been created 8,000 years ago. The figure is round and full. She looks monumental, even if she’s actually only a little over six inches tall. We don’t know exactly who/what she represents, but the artist wouldn’t have spent so much time and care sculpting her if she hadn’t been a powerful and important entity. Some scholars want to label her a goddess, specifically a fertility goddess, but that’s more a projection from our modern times than an interpretation based on contemporaneous information from the site.
We have numerous images of women from ancient prehistory, and they all have bulky bodies. The best known is the Woman of Willendorf (often called the “Venus” of Willendorf) from Paleolithic Austria. She predates the Neolithic Turkish woman by something like 20,000 years. But she is also carved from limestone and is also small enough to hold in an open hand. And she has similar full proportions, which is to say a body that would be labeled “obese” in our skinny-obsessed culture.
The reason I bring up these two sculpted figures is because they look so much like Los Angeles artist Kristine Schomaker. If Schomaker had lived way back in prehistory, she would no doubt have been considered powerful and desirable, which is to say, beautiful. But today, our mass media, most especially our advertising industries, tell us “a woman can never be too rich or too thin,” (paraphrasing a quotation attributed to American heiress Wallis Simpson.) Leaving aside capitalism’s hysterical scramble for wealth for a moment, I want to focus here on the “never be too thin” part of Simpson’s famous statement.
Our society has a rigid definition of female beauty, and it is based on thin women. For decades, in spite of occasional plus-sized pushback, fashion models have been extremely skinny. There was even, in the mid 1990s, a trend known as “heroin chic,” characterized by emaciated bodies, pale skin, and dark circles under the eyes. Sadly, many models today develop unhealthy practices–virtual starvation, bulimia, anorexia–to maintain their unnatural weights.
Many people don’t realize that Western culture’s craze for skinny is neither universal nor absolute, but–like so many ideas–limited by history and geography. (Those Stone Age Venuses are not alone: In the seventeenth century, Peter Paul Rubens painted fleshy goddesses as his ideal of feminine beauty; in the early twentieth century, Columbian artist Fernando Botero painted and sculpted dozens of beautiful fat women; in France, Pablo Picasso honored heavy women in his Two Nudes from 1906.) And yet, if you are a little girl who’s not skinny, you are likely to be teased and bullied mercilessly. And if you’re a heterosexual man, you may feel that “fat girls” are so unattractive they don’t deserve your kindness or attention. (Do you remember the trucker bumper stickers that read “No Fat Chicks”? They are still on sale.)
It is not easy being fat in America. Lots of women suffer horribly if they see themselves as overweight. By the time they are in fourth grade, most little girls in this country hate their bodies and feel they have to diet. Fourth grade.
Kristine Schomaker grew up being called “fat.” Like so many girls, she was shunned and shamed for the body she as born with. Rather than sink into victimhood, she has courageously confronted the anti-fat bias that dominates our twenty-first century visual field. Schomaker grappled with body image in earlier artwork, especially in her “Second Life” avatar, a slender and large breasted Barbie Doll-like figure. Other works address beauty products, mirrors, and the pricey paraphernalia of constructed femininity.
Her most recent project, Perceive Me, is a performance of sorts: Schomaker invited a group of artists to create nude depictions of her. Stripping down and participating as the model–the object of the artistic gaze–she began to see herself as they saw her. She found the resultant conversations to be moving, sometimes healing, and always insightful. Eventually, she collected the work and installed it at the Cal State Los Angeles Art Gallery.
The list of artists is impressive: Amanda Mears, Anna Kostanian, Anna Stump, Ashley Bravin, Austin Young, Baha Danesh, Betzi Stein, Bibi Davidson, Bradford J Salamon, Caron G Rand, Carson Grubaugh, Catherine Ruane, Chris Blevins-Morrison, Christina Ramos, Cynda Valle, Daena Title, Daggi Wallace, Dani Dodge, Debbie Korbel, Debby/Larry Kline, Debe Arlook, Diane Cockerill, Donna Bates, Elizabeth Tobias, Ellen Friedlander, Emily Wiseman, Geneva Costa, Holly Boruck, J Michael Walker, Jane Szabo, Janet Milhomme, Jeffrey Sklan, Jesse Standlea, John Waiblinger, Jorin Bossen, K Ryan Henisey, Karen Hochman Brown, Kate Kelton, Kate Savage, Kerri Sabine-Wolf, Kim Kimbro, L Aviva Diamond, Leslie Lanxinger, Mara Zaslove, Marjorie Salvaterra, Martin Cox, Monica Sandoval, Nancy Kay Turner, Nurit Avesar, Phung Huynh, Rakeem Cunningham, Serena Potter, Sheli Silverio, Susan Amorde, Susan T. Kurland, Sydney Walters, Tanya Ragir, Tony Pinto, and Vicki Walsh.
The artistic results are stunning. Many of the artworks, which range from paintings to ceramics to photographs, are truly astonishing. But perhaps even more important is the cumulative impact. Viewers cannot spend time in this remarkable exhibition without having their concepts of female beauty challenged and, hopefully, changed. Beautiful portrayals of people who are not usually considered attractive can compel viewers to alter their perceptions. “Perceive Me” provides the “new eyes” Proust wrote about.
Oh would some Power the gift give us
To see ourselves as others see us!
~Robert Burns, Scottish poet
The beautifully rendered portraits in “Perceive Me” affect not only the viewers, but also the artist herself. In spite of living in a culture that generally mirrors her as “fat” and therefore “unattractive,” Schomaker can walk through the exhibition and see herself as her friends and colleagues see her, which is to say, as a beautiful and powerful woman. Seeing herself as others see her allows Schomaker to “see” and accept her own body in profoundly new ways.
No essay can discuss all the works created by all the sixty artists in “Perceive Me.” Instead, this essay will describe a few of the highlights and underscore the expansive variety of materials, styles, and perspectives.
Entering the gallery at Cal State LA, viewers confront Tony Pinto’s larger-than-life-size painted portrait of Schomaker. She stands nude, her fists on her hips, looking deliberately over her right shoulder. The painting is finely rendered, with the bodily silhouette cut out of birch plywood. Installed slightly away from the gallery wall, the large fierce figure makes a powerful statement about presence and acceptance.
Bibi Davidson’s portrait, on the other hand, is whimsically surreal. Schomaker wears red glasses, as well as black bowler hat, necktie, and gloves. Flesh-colored tattoos undulate over her thick thighs. A blue-eyed black bird zooms in from the right. The encounter of human and bird animates this droll composition.
Around the corner from Davidson’s portrait is one by Bradford J. Salamon. A naked Schomaker sits in a wooden chair, blithely smoking a cigarette with one hand and holding up a hot fudge sundae with the other. She wears a funky black top hat with a red-orange satin band. I am reminded that Rembrandt also kept hats and costumes in his studio for dressing up his sitters. But the lush, energetic style of Salamon’s painting is not like Rembrandt’s. Instead, it resembles American Abstract Expressionism gracefully married to the portrait styles of Lucian Freud or Francis Bacon.
Another stellar work is Catherine Ruane’s Kristine in Wonderland, a graphite and charcoal drawing of the artist embraced by the leaves and branches of the sycamore tree from Schomaker’s childhood home. She is not the mythic Daphne, turning into a laurel tree in order to flee from Apollo’s unwanted attentions. Instead, she merges peacefully with the sycamore, reminding us all that we, too, are one with nature.
Several of the artists did works based on historical masterpieces. Jane Szabo’s photographic portrait positions Schomaker like Michelangelo’s David (1501-1504). Both J. Michael Walker and Cynda Valle refer to J.A.D. Ingres’ Grande Odalisque (1814), Walker in a photograph and Valle in an enamel-on-canvas painting. Vicki Walsh’s The Lamentation of Kristine echoes the severely foreshortened body in Andrea Mantegna’s Dead Christ from c. 1490. None of these artists copies the past works subserviently. Instead, they allow the historical precedents to give compositional structure to their innovative interpretations.
Elizabeth Tobias created a video in which Schomaker dances nude while holding a length of white muslin. The loose weave of the muslin allows the artist’s nude body to been revealed, then veiled, as she moves in front of the camera. The flowing movements of flesh and fabric create a poetic synthesis that is both peaceful and hypnotic.
One of the sculptural standouts is Tanya Ragir’s ceramic portrayal. A nude Schomaker sits cross-legged, on top of a much larger depiction of her torso. Ragir calls the work Divine Inner Being and portrays the artist’s inner self in a moment of quiet contemplation. Something about the sculpture itself, as well as the undeniable context of multiple bodily images, implies that Schomaker might be contemplating her body and the layers of media-generated tropes about such bodies. As I stood there, lingering over this profound double portrait, I hoped that the exhibition in general and Ragir’s work specifically, would shield Schomaker from the destructive stereotypes that our mass media have perpetrated about large women.
For the purposes of full disclosure, I should tell you that I was one of Kristine Schomaker’s teachers at Cal State Northridge. I have known and admired her for decades. I had to convince her that this essay about “Perceive Me” would be appropriate for her “Art & Cake” publication. I hope it illuminates the overwhelming effect of the “Perceive Me” exhibition as it challenges media-driven stereotypes about what constitutes an attractive and acceptable woman’s body.