Avatars, Body Image and Feminism: A Conversation with Kristine Schomaker

On February 28, 2014 by Devora Orantes

On a late Friday afternoon I met up with Los Angeles based artist Kristine Schomaker. We talked about Avatars, body image and feminism over lunch at Barbara’s studio in The Brewery Art Colony, in downtown LA. I’ve known Kris for over five years now and I am excited to sit down and have a conversation about her current project, the painted Avatars.

20130418174109-Snapshot_022I’d like to start off by talking about your current show of painted Avatars at UCLA.

I have a show up at Kerckroff Hall in UCLA from February 17th-28th. It will be up during “I ♥ My Body Week” at UCLA. Which is really cool. The painted Avatars are part of an ongoing project called “A comfortable Skin”. A Comfortable Skin documents how I use Avatars as a vehicle to bring more attention to the obsession society has with physical appearance. It is about learning to be yourself in a world that is trying to turn you into something else.

How did your work with Avatars begin?

My work with Avatars started in second life seven years ago. Second Life is a 3D virtual world where you can create an Avatar and build anything you want. It’s an amazing platform, artists upload their paintings into second life and show them to people all over the world. They also use the platform to create virtual sculptures, virtual performance and photography.

What were your feelings on the Avatar when you first created it?

I didn’t think much about the Avatar when it started. The Avatar I created was my ideal self.  She was tall, thin, had long blonde hair and wore high heels.  I stayed that Avatar for a very long time.  I hadn’t thought much about what my Avatar looked like until I got into the graduate program at Cal State Northridge in 2008 and my advisor Samantha Fields started asking me questions about it. At that time I was also going through a lot in my life, had a lot of anxiety, my first panic attack and I’d just realized I had an eating disorder. I started thinking about body image, women, and the issues surrounding it. I had thought about it before but not in this depth. So that prompted me to really consider my Avatar and that is where my work with Avatars began.

062How did the painted Avatar pieces begin?

As I became more self-confident I realized my Avatar didn’t have to look like my ideal self, she didn’t even have to look like a human. So I changed her, I wanted her to be more my art. What I did is that I took one of my paintings which are very recognizable and I covered the Avatar. I also uploaded the image of the Avatar in a painted skin to Facebook. One day I received a message saying that someone might be interested in buying my mannequin. I responded by saying, I’m sorry it’s digital. But all of a sudden I thought, I have to paint a mannequin to look like my Avatar! It was the next step in mixing realities between the digital and physical. Something I had already been doing with my other work. To this day I have completed 5 painted Avatars. Moving forward I want to find more realistic mannequins, you know, all shapes and body sizes. Even if I have to have molds made of myself and my friends, then I’ll do that too.261412_10151351325518587_846428480_n

What is the relationship between your work on body image and feminism?

As far as body image my new media work relates a lot to feminist art and feminism in general. Dealing with how women are treated, you know, in the media and outside of it. I’m a member of the Women’s Caucus for the Arts. I have taught Feminist Art History at Antelope Valley College. Though we live in the 21st century women are still not equal. That’s why we have to keep going. It is also personal since I’ve dealt with an eating disorder. Going to the grocery stores and seeing the magazines with the airbrushed models and actresses. You know, images of women that are so skinny and thinking that’s what I want to look like. That’s what I want to be. It’s just crazy. And to the credit of the feminist movement so far, there are a lot of enlightened girls. But we still have a long way to go. I want to be part of that movement. I want my story, my art to help continue that dialogue.

I struggle with the idea, and maybe this is something you can help me think about, that I created an ideal Avatar because that’s what I wanted to look like. I wanted to be tall and thin. I wanted to be desirable. To be attractive. In real life I am short and overweight. With the Avatar, it was kind of like creating a test. I wanted to see if it was true. In second life it was. People got to know me first because of my Avatar but then they liked me because of my personality, which was great but it just goes to show that appearance is first. You know, the visual is first. I also struggle with the idea of beauty. Beauty in our contemporary society. What is attractive? What is not? All of that.

It is interesting to hear how much the struggle has affected but driven your practice. I think that it has taken you to places that we all deal with on some level. Especially that of the subconscious ideal. I see that all around me. Even myself, thinking that I have to be thinner. It can lead to a contradiction within self, within perception and within beauty. That is something you are getting into. At first you felt the need to make the work and then you started to question it. And maybe it won’t lead to a place of resolve. Maybe it is more about understanding and opening up a new facet of what the bigger issues are. It isn’t just about your body image, it’s about society’s pressure on females, and for our conversation, that has a lot to do with the Western ideals and perception of beauty too. I look forward to seeing how that dialogue continues to unfold in your work. And I think it is okay to not really know. What is more important, I think, is to acknowledge the contradictions that exist not just within this project but also that are around and within ourselves.

I like that idea of contradiction. Yeah.

KRISTINE SCHOMAKER is a new media and performance artist, painter and art historian living and working at the Brewery artist complex in Los Angeles California. She received her BA in Art History and her MA in Studio Art from California State University at Northridge. For over 14 years, she has been working with various interdisciplinary art forms including online virtual worlds to explore notions of online identity and the hybridization of digital media with the physical world.

www.kristineschomaker.net

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