CHRISTIAN SCHOELER: THE MISFIT
Travis Jeppesen, Beijing 2012
The miscreant, the social outcast, the Dostoevskiian idiot, the innocent and the lost – it is the perennial outsiders, those figures that are either ignored or serve as objects of punishment in real life, that appear most at home in the universe of Christian Schoeler (*1978 in Hagen, Germany; lives and works in Düsseldorf, Germany). For Schoeler comes to painting with an acute awareness of the social dynamics of the world, a conscious belief that there is no outside, and thus, no place of refuge for those unable to forge a compromise with the real. Such individuals must thus live in a state of abject isolation, alienated from their own desire – the core of one’s subjectivity – and are thus destined to serve as objects of contemplation by a gaze that is always foreign, other, outside. In Schoeler’s words, “My work is about a sort of love affair – not between me and the model, but between the viewer and the model.”
Typically (though not exclusively) young men, Schoeler’s subjects’ facial expressions and bodily contortions ultimately reflect their profound situation of enforced detachment. There are no smiling faces here, no contrived scenarios, none of the loaded, heavy-handed “irony” that artists of his generation have come to rely on as a sort of automatic reflex. Rather than gimmickry and gags, we are confronted with a seriousness that startles. The sense of belonging that most of us take for granted in our daily lives is noticeably absent in his subjects’ expressions.
Much has been made of the alleged homoerotic motifs in Schoeler’s work. This, I believe, is confined to a very surface reading of the paintings. Upon closer inspection, one readily determines that the subjects Schoeler chooses to depict are rarely conventional beauties. It is rather the painter’s gift that he is able to find the beauty in anomalous beings that would typically escape one’s notice in this burdensome real world. So Schoeler honors them, removes them from that “real world” context, paying homage to self-isolation.
This leads us, however, to another common misperception: that Schoeler’s work is a form of portraiture. Portraiture implies a sort of recording, a transmission from a physicalized state to a memorialized one. There are perhaps some who are comforted by viewing Schoeler’s paintings as quaint vignettes, odes to innocence, the innocuous pleasures of youth. This is hardly the case, however. If anything, this site of interpretation is the battlefield, the witness to a violent war going on between Schoeler’s paintings and traditional portraiture. This battle can be summarized as a conflict between projection and preservation. While traditional portraiture, by and large, aims for the latter, Schoeler’s practice is centered on the impulse to project an internal state of being onto the physical bodies that form the foreground of his paintings.
But what about the backgrounds? For the dramatic depth that Schoeler attains is one of the hallmarks of his work, and the materiality of the painting and the figures in the foreground that form the focus are enriched by the gestural nature of their depicted environs. Those few who have been fortunate enough to witness Schoeler at work have likened his painting to a sort of performance. Though his images are often taken from photographs or live settings, the ultimate goal is to attain a delicate balance of expressing while also obscuring the backgrounds; as such, Schoeler works at the canvas with an expressionistic fervor, often using his forearms and fingers to grind away at the surface, his brush alternately stroking, stabbing and lathering to attain the desired visual effect. (It is owing to the harshness and violence with which he attacks the surface that necessitates the heavy wood he paints on, rather than traditional stretched canvas.) Examined in detail, one’s eye is led to compare these heavily worked surfaces to the details on his subjects’ skin and features. In noting the similarities, one concludes that for Schoeler, the body is a sort of landscape – and vice versa.
But a hard wooden surface isn’t the painter’s restricted domain. Those who tend to think of Schoeler as a “pure painter” now have to revise their opinion, as he has proven that his process is flexible enough to shift into alternative domains of media. A new series of works on paper, made during the artist’s 2011 residency at Galerie Urs Meile, Beijing-Lucerne, Beijing, gives us further insight into Schoeler’s overall painterly practice. Made using highly advanced computer software that is capable of replicating, in detailed exactitude, painting with oils or watercolors, the works are printed on handmade paper that captures the color as a sort of stain, making it virtually impossible to determine whether the works are in fact watercolors or digital creations. Given that the surfaces are often – though not always – re-worked with the aid of crayon, the question of the “authenticity” of the medium is further complicated. Schoeler thus refers to his works on paper as “collages”, although it should be noted that painting is always at the core of the artist’s practice. These works, alongside a new large-scale oil painting, comprise the core of Schoeler’s first solo exhibition in China, “Pussy, King of the Pirates”. The exhibition takes its name from the last novel of renegade American author Kathy Acker, whose exploration of extreme states of being through playful and inventive re-writes of classics, such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s pirate story Treasure Island, forms an intriguing parallel to Schoeler’s own project in painting.
And so, like Acker before him, Christian Schoeler emerges on the scene as a very new-old type of artist, a radical traditionalist, conscious of his role and unafraid of heroizing the misfit. His anti-heroes stare back at us – or else turn their backs on us completely to observe the landscape – daring us to find in them projections of our own darkest fears and traces of lost memories. If, as the saying goes, the personal is always political, Schoeler forces us to face uncomfortable truths about the socializing process and those that it excludes.
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CHRISTIAN SCHOELER: SKIN AND SOLIPSISM
Richard Welch (published on eastvillageboys.com, December 2011)
Richard Welch: Your work is frequently framed by a book, a song or some other formal concept. Where does your current exhibition title/concept Pussy, King of the Pirates come from?
Christian Schoeler: It’s the title of the last novel from American experimental novelist Kathy Acker. She was a radical traditionalist—I really like this idea; it's something I really believe in for myself. You know, when she was a kid, the only thing she wanted to become was a pirate. In my opinion, this also means having fun and being wild and free. Like a darkly romantic Peter Pan. Kathy Acker not only pushed and broke literary conventions, she constantly challenged social standards and structures and exposed the abuse of power and the exercise of control at work in modern society.
One of her heroes was Michel Foucault, and one of Foucault's proposals was that we were moving away from a society of discipline to a society of control, and that all hierarchical structures were evolving to resemble Bentham's panopticon—an architectural design where the big-shots could watch the small- fry without the small-fry knowing. Maybe this is the case with the subjects in my paintings. When Karin Dreijer Andersson sings "We had a communist in the family/I had to wear a mask", is she then a communist?
Richard: Did you feel isolated during your residency in Beijing—perhaps because of the language barrier? How did it inform your work?
Christian: Sure, Beijing is probably the only metropolis where it's pretty tough getting by in every situation with just English. So you're always relying on others for help, which they give quite quickly.
But what was actually more interesting than the language barrier was not being able to connect to other people in our daily, non-verbal ways. In China, for various reasons, I thought long and hard about sociopathy and narcissism, and this sneaky snake-like mechanism of isolation and self-isolation, which eventually turns into a crisis, or insanity, or a modus operandi that nobody understands anymore. I was intrigued by this game of reaction/counter-reaction, which grows like weeds, and which you can never explain—but which a narrative or a painting can.
But you know, isolation is also a question of negating, or destroying, which is also one way of trying to go beyond your 'self'. What I mean is, you have your existence, which can be arbitrary and lonely, and which you can balance out by connecting to other people. Learning how to relate to yourself or to other people is a basic need for almost everyone, and if you haven't learned how to be empathic then you can forget happiness. Love is ultimately the only way to really connect to the world without losing your integrity or individuality. When you love someone, you merge with that person while keeping your 'self' and your feeling of being a separate entity. Also, Mr. Big Fat Ego quiets down so much that the other person's needs and wants feel just as important as your own.
But of course you're going to miss the love boat if you're isolated in your own travesty, desperate to transcend, and so you negate and you destroy. The famous American convict George Jackson wrote from prison: "It may be that I am fleeing, but throughout my flight, I am searching for a weapon." So I believe that those condemned souls who can't go beyond themselves opt for the inferior alternative of transcendence, destruction instead of creation, the highway instead of a higher way. You reach happiness through creating, but destroying leads to suffering, primarily for the person destroying.
Richard: You mentioned before that your work centers on the pursuit of beauty, and that political or social commentary wasn't something you wished to express through your work. Has your time in China changed that at all?
Christian: No. But it has given me so much food for thought, art and painting. I experienced the in-your-face contrast between collectivism and individualism. No other country in Asia has been shaped by collectivism more than China. You'll find collective consciousness and behavior wherever you find close-knit, dependent ties to certain groups, i.e., family, work, circles of friends. Loyalty is number one and keeps all the other 1,349,570,702 numbers together. I don't even have to mention that this is the complete opposite of our cherished, beloved individualism. But we have all heard the diagnosis that individualism has been the symptom masking the deeper illnesses of dissociation and alienation from society, and we have all seen the golden, ethical ideal of autonomy turn into wooden iron: Find sanity! Fulfill yourself! You must! The sociopathological and dissocial behaviors that sparked off the financial crisis in the Western world aren't so much of a problem in a collective country like China.
Richard: Your exhibition text refers to the lack of an "outside" in your work. What sort of reality do your subjects inhabit?
Christian: A narcissistic reality would be too easy. There is a big difference between care of the self and love of the self. They often get confused in the Greek myth of Narcissus, which is about the 'ego' or 'self'. Why did the goddess Artemis let that beautiful boy drown in his own reflection? Was it because she wanted to punish him for wanking in front of a mirror? No, it was because he rejected any man or woman who loved and wanted him, because he was incapable of connecting to another person. The genuine narcissist—and all the while feeding off of the care and praise from others.
Solipsism is much closer to the truths of my subjects. They are dreamers, without an outside, playing with the potential unreality of the external world as we conceive of it. Because, suddenly, something could go faster than light. But my subjects have bigger metaphysical fish to fry than knowledge. There is a big difference between 'knowing thyself' and 'taking care of the self'. In Foucault's care of the self, the first way to individuate yourself is through love. But the second is to fold the line of the self, to fold the outside with the inside. You can do this sexually, practically, politically, artistically.
So instead of imposing a world-as-it-really-is and a subject that can be located in space and time, I try to conjure and superimpose a parallel universe populated by phantoms and doubles flowing on surfaces which are flowing themselves. And when you're dealing with this kind of stuff, it isn't about true and false anymore, but about the virtual and the actual. I don't cherish the hope that this other possible world will one day be actualized. The ideal does not belong to this world; it must be alien, otherwise it wouldn't have any extra-being, it wouldn't be above reality. My art is inspired by my dreams. It isn't about the image of any kind of reality, or a type of portraiture.
Richard: When we first interviewed you in 2009 you had just finished your MA, and you are now represented by Galerie Urs Meile, who is also known for discovering Ai Weiwei among many other major artists. How has the journey been?
Christian: I met Urs Meile through my German gallerist, and discoverer, Christa Schuebbe. I was lucky, Christa Schuebbe is probably the most experienced gallerist in Germany (which is why we call her BossLady). BossLady introduced me to Swiss gallerist and artist manager Urs Meile in 2010. It was a tough time, and the art market, with its celebrity cult, skyrocketing prices, and fetishisms, has been difficult for me to deal with. Finding a partner like Urs Meile who is proficient in this business, who can oversee all aspects, and who can accompany me on such a journey, has been very important. My work is more than just me. It's too easy and naive to think that you can start on a journey like this all by yourself. I'm hardly ever on my own—it's teamwork.
Richard: Your work has evolved a lot over the last few years to expand beyond realistic portraiture and contexts into something deeper and more complex. What has changed about your approach and agenda?
Christian: There's a shared misconception that my work is still about portraiture, however in the catalog text to the exhibition this is described this as a superficial reading. And I think it's right. Portraiture is supposed to represent a person through his individual properties, and it kind of works like a memorial to that person. But what I'm interested in is the surface of the models. This thin, incorporeal mist which emanates from their bodies, and the film which envelops them. I'm trying to isolate the models' bodies in these undifferentiated recesses, in these excessive palpitations in which they're trapped, and I believe that these recesses and palpitations get to work only when they've been enveloped in surfaces. Paul Valéry hit the philosophical nail on the head when he said, "It is the skin that is the deepest".
I want to draw the person out and away from their properties. And then just maybe the painting can become the incorporeal double or the phantom of the model. All of this can happen when the hand guides the brush and brings form and light and masses of color into balance, as well as sense and nonsense, creating a singular event—an echo made from fortuitous swabs and lines.
Richard: Your work isn't overly sexual or erotic, but somehow it's often both.
Christian: I would like to know if eroticism has lost its etymology and been orphaned from Eros. In the Western world it's difficult to mix love with raw sexuality, or to reduce love down to pure sensuality. Like Warhol, sex has become too abstract for me! But is it possible to separate Eros from sensuality, corporeality and sexuality at all—artistically speaking? I don't think you can, since art and eroticism are always coupled together. There are double movements at work here which you have to suss out. The aesthetic always smacks of the erotic, and vice versa, the erotic always smacks of the spirit of art. Even an art that has vetoed any and every representation of sexuality reeks of something erotic, and vice versa, sex will always be groping towards form and aesthetics. Erotic cravings crave aesthetics, and aesthetic rapture before a work of art can spiral into intense passions and therefore into the erotic.
Richard: Your work has always focused on that quality that many artists (and art collectors) trivialize, undervalue, and generally dismiss: BEAUTY. What's your point-of-view about the marginalization of one of the most visible attributes of your work?
Christian: I've always heard that the audience views my work as beads on the string of transient intimacy and the search for fragile beauty. You could say that these are characteristics of late 19th century art, you know, Rimbaud, Baudelaire—and then you can oppose the idealized notion of beauty to Baudelaire's ennui and existential boredom, as in his poetry in Spleen et Idéal. Beauty versus boredom—it's an interior and unclear conflict, like 'good' versus 'evil'. But beauty does get dumped in the same bag as kitsch and deceptive illusory idylls faster than you can say out-of-my-art-face. Especially in Germany.
Tackling concepts like beauty and imagination is one of the most radical things you can do as an artist these days. And you also have to walk the tightrope between taste and beauty. This tightrope has been stretched out thanks to the access to art production through free and international art markets. Beauty is two cents worth in that world. If you're committed to beauty, you come across as uncool or politically incorrect at best. To add insult to injury, idealized notions of beauty and imagination in art get heavily sidelined to museum and art-dealer product ranges. But then ugliness, roughness, true kitsch, idiosyncrasy, and even pedagogy widen the product range—and there's an almost endless supply of all that in countless studios for curators and gallerists to uncover.
Art has always had dealings with beauty. The autonomy of a work of art, its uselessness—this is beauty. When someone conceives a work of art, something new is brought forth into the world. The essence of beauty isn't just found in its illusion, but also in its existence. If this wasn't the case, then rummage tables with floral underwear in supermarkets would be more beautiful than secret, wild gardens, blossoming profusely somewhere, unseen by human eyes.
Richard: What was the best movie you watched this year?
Christian: Well, when you have to go to three different countries in six months to actively work and live, you don't really have the time or need to passively sit on your bottom and watch a movie. But speaking of sitting on bottoms, I did watch something really thought-provoking by Bel Ami. Actually, at one point they tried very hard to contract me to act in one of their films, but as I was contracted by Louis Vuitton at the time it really wasn't possible to do both simultaneously—unfortunately.
Richard: What are your plans for 2012?
Christian: I'm currently showing some work at Art Basel Miami and Pulse, and I'm really looking forward to my first solo show at Mendes/Wood in São Paolo, Brazil. At the moment I'm working on a new body of work for this exhibition. I'm calling it “All Hail Curly Kale With Me Above the Clouds”.
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