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Kristine Schomaker’s Perceive Me
Artwork by Holly BoruckCourtesy of the artist

Why Kristine Schomaker asked 60 other artists to make nude portraits of her

LA-based artist Kristine Schomaker invited 60 other artists to take part in an exercise of perception vs self-perception

We’d all be curious (and possibly horrified) to truly see ourselves through the eyes of others. It’d be like the discomfort of hearing our voices recorded – how different we sound caught on tape to the way we do in our own heads – but multiplied with potentially boundless other emotions, as we try to reconcile our sense of self with the unfamiliar figure we might be presented with. As difficult as it sounds, perhaps it could also be deeply cathartic. 

Multidisciplinary artist Kristine Schomaker’s recent exhibition, Perceive Me, does just this. The LA-based artist bravely surrendered herself to the gaze of 60 artists, posing nude, and inviting them to depict her in any medium they choose. It’s an exercise in perception vs self-perception. “Perceive Me focuses on notions of self-worth, validation, and the idea that we value our identity based on how we imagine others perceive us,” says Schomaker. “This project became a performance about challenging our own confidence, judgment and criticism.”

We spoke with Schomaker about the notion of the muse, ideas of body image, and how it feels to be held in the gaze of so many artists.

Perceive Me focuses on notions of self-worth, validation, and the idea that we value our identity based on how we imagine others perceive us” – Kristine Schomaker

Can you tell us a bit more about the project and how you conceived the idea of this exhibition?

Kristine Schomaker: My work has always been about body image, being plus size, engaging with my eating disorder, challenging society’s standards of beauty, and exploring my own identity and place in the world amongst all of these ideas. I did a series of work where I took self-portraits of my nude plus-size body leaning against a frosted glass door and glass shower enclosure. I never imagined this is where my art would take me. But I knew that since my work was about my body, I had to use it in the same vein of some of my art heroines: Hannah Wilke, Eleanor Antin, Ana MendietaJenny Saville, and Cindy Sherman.

Once this work got out there, other artists started inviting me to be part of their projects. One artist, Amanda Mears invited me to model for her. I posed for three sessions, two hours each in which we had powerful, intense conversations about body image, how we are looked at and seen, self-esteem, and ideas of perception. That is where the idea was born. Personally, I imagined that I had only been asked out on a few dates throughout my life because of my appearance. I felt I wasn’t attractive and so no one else thought I was either. Through the conversations with Amanda, I came up with the idea of literally seeing myself through others' eyes as a way to explore these notions of imagined perception and self-worth. She was officially the first artist for Perceive Me out of 60. I worked with the artists over a year, created a catalogue, and sent out proposals for an exhibition. The goal was to share the message, empower others to see themselves as unique, amazing individuals, and challenge the ideal that is so prevalent in our culture today. The exhibition was recently at Ronald H Silverman Gallery at Cal State LA, but will travel to six other institutions over the next two years.

What did it feel like to be an object in the gaze for so many artists?

Kristine Schomaker: I really enjoyed it. I felt like a supermodel, a celebrity. I felt beautiful and seen. The artists told me I was a great model and we both had a great time through the whole process. I had fun posing and playing with different scenarios. It was nice to be seen for who I am. I will admit, after every photoshoot or drawing and painting session, I had to take Tylenol as my body was sore. My inside perception of being the artist's muse was different than the outside physical pain that my body went through in posing for longer periods of time or getting in positions I hadn’t been used to. Many kudos to artists models who do this on a regular basis.

Did this process alter your sense of self-perception in any way?

Kristine Schomaker: I was asked this question many times throughout the process, and I honestly didn’t feel changed. I saw the photos of me and could still see my fat, the pain in my muscles, my double chin, and cellulite. I saw the ‘heaviness’ of my body, but I also saw the beautiful images that the artists created. The works of art in the curves, and skin tones, and shapes. After the opening reception and hearing how much the exhibition and project had affected so many, I started thinking more about my self-perception in a different way. The project, which I am calling a performance, is not just about posing nude for these 60 artists. It is about the organisation and curation that is involved. It is the support of the artists and audience who have contacted me and told me how much they feel empowered or inspired or renewed to not be afraid to be who they are. It is about my anxiety and fear but still moving forward and going after what I need and want. It is about being recognised as someone who is working to change the status quo and owning that as who I am and what makes me happy. That is where my confidence has now come from, knowing that I am making a difference.

Which are your favourite artworks in Perceive Me?

Kristine Schomaker: Good question. I think that changes every day with how I am feeling at that time. I love the work where I am standing in the ‘power stance/superhero’ position. Strong and powerful and ready to take on the world. But there is also work with my arms held wide in the air as if I am taking in what the world has to offer. I love the works of me smiling and having fun. There was so much of that in the project. The artists perceived me as they saw me and I am grateful they captured different sides of me in the way that they did.

How do you feel about the relationship between the artist and ‘the muse’ and everything it has traditionally entailed? Do you think this dynamic needs disrupting?

Kristine Schomaker: I am also an art historian so I have seen this relationship played out throughout art history. The female model was used as an object for the male gaze. Of course, this continues in our advertising and media-obsessed culture. As a feminist, I am happy to add to and change the conversation and the gaze. The dynamic absolutely needs disrupting. Today in our highly social media-centric culture, we have become our own muse. The number of selfies that are shared encapsulates our ever-growing need to be seen and validated. Our post-postmodern culture is helping us learn and see the varied, diverse array of human bodies and experiences. I am happy to help continue that conversation through my artwork and draw attention to the changing dynamics and culture.

We still live in a culture where, as little girls, being told you’re ‘pretty’ is somehow still the most valuable compliment. How can we shift the conversation away from physical appearance?

Kristine Schomaker: I think artists, writers, musicians, advertisers, parents and teachers have to be at the forefront of this movement going out of their way to draw attention to and practice these ideas that there is much more to life than physical appearance. I have been slowly seeing a shift away from pink kitchens and the princess culture to more science and engineering-based media. Young girls need to know that they can be and do anything they want. If they want to be a princess, that is ok, but they also have the chance to be a firefighter, president, artist or musician too. 

Perceive Me will travel to McNish Gallery in Oxnard City College during January 2021 before making its way to other cities, see here for further information