“Catalytic Approach“

Claus Friede: At our first meeting in Salzau, we thought that instead of writing a piece on your work, it might be appropriate to hold an conversation between artists. To start off our conversation, there’s a whole series of concepts and issues that we can work along. On the one hand there is the concept of reduction, condensation that we should go into more deeply. Leading up to this conversation, you spoke about an approach that I would compare to a catalyst. And you mentioned artistic references, examples from art history, Japanese and Chinese landscape painting, or the color field painting of Barnett Newman.
We should first touch on reduction: what does it mean for you, and what filter instruments do you require for it? You seem to proceed quite associatively at certain points, you move from certain terms to other terms, I’d call them simplified signs. In a sense, you break down the content until you reach a certain core.

Iris Schomaker: I’m really interested in that very core. Many of my works are clearly figurative, and yet also have strong abstract qualities. While there is a color in my work, on first glance many seem to be done in black and white, and by way of the placement of surfaces and reduction of forms and the direct and sometimes raw way of working, I am able to achieve a focus on something abstract.

But the horse in the picture is intended as a horse, it’s not a surrogate or a symbol that just indicates something outside itself?
Yes and no. At issue in the picture is not a particular horse standing in the water, but the idea of a horse standing in the water, and about what happens with the beholder and the space where the picture is hung.

Do I understand you correctly if I say you insert layers between the image and beholder?
Yes, one looks at the picture and sees that it’s a horse. When the beholder then starts to look more closely, the question soon becomes: is that even a horse? Anatomically speaking, my motifs are often not precise. And nonetheless it all fits together.

It seems to me as if the details were once there but as if you erased them, took them away. The main motif remains alone in the world, is reduced to its essentials, and there’s an aspect of taking pause on top of it as well. The individual figures in the space, in empty space seem alone, individually and sometimes lonely, for you never draw or paint groups of people.
Yes, and it is about a clear being-with-oneself and about a different world that is disturbing in its peacefulness and intensity.

What is the term abstraction for you? I ask because I think that a certain degree of abstraction is achieved through this deceleration of the act of beholding and the reduction of motives.
Absolutely, that is an important aspect in my work. I am not interested in „real“ representation. In that sense, I am only interested in fiction and abstraction.

All the same, I would like to remain focused on the concrete motives for a moment. In your works, the color white plays an important role, as well as empty, untreated surfaces, that implies an association of winter, the Nordic, and there are indications of this when it comes to the way the figures in the pictures are dressed, with winter caps and sweaters.
The caps are also a form of reduction, just like the snow, that covers all the details of a landscape.

That sounds to me as if your works an in a kind of permanent winter hibernation. All functions are reduced and the image form bridges time, frozen in a standstill, which also is transferred to the beholder.
No. For me, it’s about a single, brief moment, not a frozen, enduring situation. Even if you might think, „Last year I was happy,“ then you just mean certain brief moments, or even just a single moment that outshines the rest of the year and persists.

Speaking of the issue of happiness, in the facial expressions of your figures, something like melancholy comes to mind.
I wouldn’t say that my work is melancholic. I associate with that term something sad, vague, and depressive. Maybe that impression results from the fact that the works are quite unspectacular and clearly set themselves apart from the actual colorful and loud world.

I’ve often read in writing about your work that your figures are androgynous. I’d have to admit, I don’t see the represented figures that way. How do you define your figures?
I also call them androgynous. They have a clear gender, but due to the reduced, rather young, almost ageless bodies and faces, there is often both something male as well as something female about them.

Exactly! They are all young: what is the reason for that? Are you not perhaps serving a social convention here? To think that between twenty and thirty is the only possible ideal age?
I don’t consider it a social convention. Ultimately, it’s true that people form their self-image in the years between 20 and 30. The image that we have of ourselves is often independent of our actual age. And it’s also a special age: we are independent, everything is open, anything seems possible. The age is quite well suited as a surface of projection, and I use that in my work.

What subjects are important to you in your work?
Alongside the figures there are mountains, trees, lakes, snow, rain, indeed water in all its forms.

And the landscape representations also then trigger emotions different from those caused by the representations of figures in your works?
Yes, and they also trigger emotions in a different way. More sublimely, because they aren’t as concrete as the figures.

And exactly that is one of the reasons why I am so fond of the combination of landscape and figures in your work—the play that emerges there.
Yes, I have long kept the motifs separate, and only recently have I begun combining them. That opens up very new possibilities for me, and am I relieved that they function together.

I see that as a good artistic decision. Another good decision for me is your choice of format. On the one hand, large format works of 3 meters—what’s missing is a mid-sized format, but doesn’t seem to be a lack—and then the small formats, often DIN A4. So on the one hand, there is the diary like DIN A4 format and then the body-related large format, since I believe that it is very decisive what distance the beholder takes to the image. Or rather, how close he or she chooses to be to the image, and how much he or she is fascinated by the image. Why these two formats for your works?
That’s really the point, fascination. Through the form of composition and the cut of the figures, visual space in the picture and the space of the beholder overlap in the large formats. Due to their size, it is difficult to escape from the pictures physically. And for me that’s an important aspect.
There are also middle formats: the head portraits, which in that format become quite intense and have the same impact as a large work in space. The small formats are simply unmistakably small. I feel freer to try things out in the small formats.

In a sense, that brings us back to an artist I mentioned at the start of our conversation: Barnett Newman and color field painting. In his large format works, it was also important for him that the exhibition visitors walk closely by the work in question without enough distance, without getting enough space to see the image as a whole. One can also move and spend time before your images in that way. I don’t mean in the sense of being magically attracted, but one integrates oneself in the image. But let us talk about your way of working, about what we don’t necessarily see in your images. Do you use models, photographs, perhaps texts, your own and others?
Anything is allowed. I go through the world with my eyes open, take a lot of photographs, and collect all sorts of impressions. I then gather the photographs and the other material and keep it all more or less organized in boxes. I turn to them frequently, looking through them over and over. That is my source of material, which is constantly expanding.

What decision mechanisms have to operate to allow something new to come about?
Something new usually comes about when I have been working for an extended period of time with a certain work group, and my mind is relatively empty, but then I’m open for new things. That is a moment of getting stuck that is productive. In that kind of situation, I look at a lot of things, go to exhibitions, read a lot, listen intensely to music.

The creative process thus runs through text and language
Yes, there is always literature and music that provide direct input for my work.

Significant for me is also that you don’t describe any sites, but spaces. It is never a defined, nameable landscape, a mountain, a tree, or a person, and so the thing or person represented takes on a general validity.
Here the notion of a collective store of ideas resurfaces. The mountain in itself is a strong image that triggers many associations, and takes on a symbolic character. I am not interested in whether the mountain might be the Zugspitze or not. For me at issue is the idea of the mountain, a kind of primal image.

In conclusion, let us briefly touch on Chinese and Japanese art. How did you come to that?
There have been many, many references to classical Asian art across generations of fine artists, architects, and performing artists in the last century. I also have a personal affinity to the subject: important for me is art that is intense and yet uses simple means. This includes the art of the Middle Ages and certain artists of the Italian Renaissance, as well as the art of the 1960s and 1970s.

Claus Friede in conversation with Iris Schomaker, Berlin, January 27, 2009