Los Angeles based multimedia artist Kristine Schomaker layers streaks of paint over mannequins and other objects associated with vanity and gender to illustrate the ways in which we are influenced by societal pressures, which seek to maintain the status quo definition of beauty and “appropriate” masculine/feminine roles in everyday American culture.
When asked about the themes she is exploring in her work, Schomaker states, “The overall theme in my work revolves around beauty but expands to touch on identity and labels. I have an eating disorder, which among other things is caused by ideas of wanting the perfect body. This struggle helps me navigate the world of the “ideal,” the “perfect,” the “normal” in society, the media, and personally.”
Schomaker’s layers of carefully applied paint are symbolic pollutants of a pure self-image. Schomaker states she makes art “basically because I have to. For me, art is my visual voice. I often don’t know how to say what I mean in words, but it seems to come out more clearly visually.”
Kristine’s visual voice is seen via the use of her bold, willful colors. Her long, deliberate drip of blue paint might represent the comment a mother makes to her six-year-old boy: “Dolls are only for girls!” A streak of pink might be the pressure a woman feels to act feminine despite her desire to develop her androgynous side. Finally, the bright blazes of white paint could be the countless alien-thin mannequins we walk past in the windows of shopping malls, their empty stares mocking us for what their manufactured bodies represent an unnatural, unattainable level of thinness.
Every culture has its own unique definition of beauty. In the 1960 Twilight Zone episode “Eye of the Beholder,” a woman undergoes eleven surgeries in an attempt to become what is deemed to be beautiful by a future race. It is revealed toward the close of the episode that the woman is quite attractive by our standards of beauty, and as the camera sweeps the hospital room set, we see that the staff are hideous-looking from our perspective, with large, thick brows, sunken eyes, twisted lips, and wrinkled, pig-like snouts.
In some cultures, such as one tribe in modern day Uganda, a full figure is considered beautiful, and a plump wife is a status symbol and a source of pride for men. Contrast this with the average modern view of beauty in American culture in which food is convenient, cheap, and readily available – enter “beautiful woman” into Google and you’ll see countless images of models that likely tip the scales at an average of one hundred pounds.
There are however, certain physical human characteristics, which tend to be universally appealing. Facial symmetry, for example, influences judgments of aesthetic traits of physical attractiveness and beauty. For instance, in mate selection, people have been shown to have a preference of symmetry because it is seen as an indicator of health and genetic fitness. Studies also show some people are drawn to mates that appeal to their survival and procreation instincts. Men may be biologically (and often subconsciously) attracted to women who possess reproductive qualities such as large breasts and wider hips and, additionally, some women may be attracted to men with large muscles, as strength does in fact come in handy when one is protecting their offspring from hungry beasts.
In addition to beauty, Schomaker also explores the topic of gender. When asked about a favorite artwork she has created, Schomaker brought up her Corvette.
“It is one of my favorites not only because my dad loved Corvettes, but because of how I came across it. I was at a thrift store and I spotted this pink Corvette from across the room. It is bigger and seats two kids. It is battery operated so they can drive it around. I was trying to figure out how it fits into my concept for my work when a little boy ran up to it. He was so excited. He was saying excitedly to his mom, “A car, a car!” His mom then said, “No you can’t have that, it’s for girls.” I knew right then that I had to buy it. I hate labels. Why is pink only for girls? Who made that stupid rule? So I did buy it and painted it in my signature drip and color scheme and titled it, “Pink is for girls.”
In the past, individuals straying from traditional gender roles were not well tolerated but beginning in 2014, some psychologists have begun to suggest that gender neutrality – in which people are not distinguished by their gender – should be encouraged and it is believed that this will lead children to be more comfortable with themselves and their feelings. We are moving more toward awareness and acceptance and artwork like Kristine Schomaker’s is helping to propel that momentum.
A number of performers such as American singer-songwriter Neko Case are also helping to normalize non-traditional gender roles with songs that blur the boundaries between masculinity and femininity. In her alt rock song titled “Man,” Case sings: “I’m a man, that’s what you raised me to be; I’m not your identity crisis; this was planned; I’m a man; you’ll have to deal with me; my proxy is mine; you’ll deal with me directly.”
Case stated in 2013 interview, “…the feminine choice was never the one that was cool. It was never the one I would choose. If they did it in sort of a prince and princess way, would you want to grow up to be the king or would you rather be the dress-wearing courtier? I would rather be the king, thank you. I can do more than wear dresses, there’s a little more choice there. And you know, this is my personal take on it.”
To understand properly how environment influences gender identity, imagine this experiment: identical female twins are separated at birth, and one is raised in a supportive, gender-neutral household where she is somewhat sheltered from media influences. The other girl twin is raised by parents who raise their daughter in dresses and bows, and do their best to keep her away from anything “tomboyish.” As the girl grows up, she watches TV and browses fashion magazines, taking in the impossible beauty of the airbrushed models and buying into the sexy advertisements. Will the two girls end up with a similar self-image? Which one might be more likely to develop an eating disorder or max out a credit card paying for plastic surgery?
Schomaker’s paints represent confetti of criticism, which creates a schism between a healthy, robust sense of personal integrity and a shattered, media-infused false perception of the self. The path from our eyes to the reflection we see in the mirror is clouded by the false messages that are fed to us, and therefore many of us are no longer able to view our “true” reflections. The gap between face and mirrored image has become a battlefield of good versus evil: the good little voices in our heads that say we are pretty, smart, and able to attract a suitable mate are dueling with the media’s hypercritical voice that begs to differ.
When asked about memorable responses she has had to her work, Kristine states, “I have had people come to me in tears, telling me they get it, they go through the same body image issues and identity crises.” Schomaker’s work creates a heightened awareness of the detrimental effects of social influences – such as eating disorders and depression – on self-esteem.
Those who understand Schomaker’s intention can almost hear her painted mannequins screaming for freedom from beneath their applied skins. The empathic “human to avatar” compassion is profound: a viewer standing before a painted figure may suddenly experience a revelation in the form of a wash of relief or a psychological breakthrough resulting in a cathartic rage upon realizing her personal battle with self image is literally standing in front of her.
I can envision an interactive, therapeutic Schomaker exhibit in which guests are invited to peel the layers of paint off of her mannequins, working together to slowly, meditatively, free the figures from their self judgement and the societal expectations placed upon them. In doing so, participants would shed their own personal burdens to reveal their untarnished, whole selves within.
Two years ago, Kristine started a business, ShoeboxPR, as an artist manager and marketing specialist, helping emerging artists move forward with their work. “I love being able to give them an opportunity to show their work, to be seen and heard. It brings me fulfillment and happiness watching my artists succeed. While I Know it is their talent and perseverance, I know in some small way, I was behind it too.”
Professionally, Schomaker’s goal is to create a non-profit company where she can help artists who may not be able to afford it move forward in their art and the art world. She said she’d like to create a work only art studio complex with a gallery. “I want to get more into social practice and conceptual art, or at least understand it better,” she said. “I would also like to write about art, have more salon type events and cultivate community and opportunity.”
Kristine Schomaker curates art shows, judges, writes, and goes to gallery openings, talks, workshops and events frequently. “I am always searching for the various dialogues that are taking place in our city, state, national and international art world” she said. “The art world is so diverse, there are so many levels, it is an education figuring out my artist’s place in it.”
Photographs by Baha Danesh and Kristine Schomaker