While staring intently at Iris Schomaker’s new figurative paintings on paper, an angry altercation I once overheard between lovers came to mind: “All I wanted was to just see you sitting quietly sometimes, perhaps with a book or something. Doing nothing. I mean not being so goddamned constantly busy, busy, busy all of the time, on your computer, on the telephone, checking emails. Why can’t you just be by yourself?” Then, back in the present, the artist’s voice superimposed itself on those ringing in the soundless chamber of memory: “The special thing about a man stroking a cat”, she said, “is that he can’t get up.”

The painting Holding a Cat (2012) perhaps depicts an enviably calm but still intense young man seated with a shapely black cat propped up on his lap. (There is a certain amount of intended androgyny in the design of many of Schomaker’s figures, which allows for cross-gender readings and generally a good deal more openness.) He is rendered half as a shadowy silhouette and half bodily. It is the edges of the composition—some curved, some sharpened by the use of masking tape like hard-edge abstraction—that begin to matter most, as they navigate between the paintings’ moody colour fields in dark subdued tones. Meanwhile the cut-out or flat passages and fields of paint seem to welcome being seen as such and not more, despite being part of an ostensibly figurative work. Here and there, like the wrought-iron armature of traditional sculpture, a dusty charcoal sketch: the under-drawing reveals itself, exposing the moments of intense mark-making and how they underwrite what comes afterwards. The compositional use of visible preparatory sketches—multiple vectors of converging and crossing and corrected lines—evidence the artist’s processual search for just the right contour and the heightened state of mind that comes with that search.

Zooming out, you might notice that the ‘male’ figure in the painting is rendered slightly larger than life, in terms of scale. This begets a sense of import and pictorial authority of a kind that makes sense in terms of fixing the attention of most viewers in a physical enough way. The figure’s pose and compositional schema both have the weight of many histories behind them—think of captured thoughtful and thought-provoking sitters from Bronzino to Bonnard to Balthus. (The latter also liked cats.)

But who is this particular he with a feline? That question can’t be definitively answered because he and Schomaker’s other painted figures (and there are many of them that have emerged from her Berlin studio in the last decade), are actually nearly all made up—creatures of pictorial fiction. Next to forays into other painting genres, for example, some forest landscapes, the only exceptions to the artist’s approach of letting ‘figures emerge’ on paper are just a few amongst many dozens of works painted ‘after photographs’—a procedure that the artist subsequently promptly discontinued. So although one might consider most of her works to be portraits of some kind, they are in fact portraits of no one. They depict figures who never lived, but rather might exist purely as notions, phantoms or ideas brought to the fore in the artist’s and her viewers’ heads. In the past, she has referred to her cast of phantoms as her own kind of ‘icons’ in the sense that they have an iconographic, i.e. a readable quality, but not a religious one, though they can be seen as enigmatic, strangely familiar and evoke a time span beyond that allotted to mortals.

What is clear is that her fictitious cast of models must also have a diffuse, vapour-like pre-existence in the artist’s imagination. Their character and presence only materialize in the process of drawing and painting. Perhaps that’s not quite right: what I want to express is that these figures are already partly there, or echo, in a shared before, but are articulated by the artist only in the process of painting—control and abandon, past and an uncertain future built there upon. So the artist’s blank pages aren’t so much blank as pre-imbued or surrounded, and the charcoal drawing and painting that follow are a matter of manifesting what was on some level already known or half known, invisible but in need of visibility, however partial. Comparable or analogous to this process of realization might be when a novelist speaks of a book somehow miraculously writing itself—always a winking half-truth.

Maybe it is best then to think of Schomaker’s figures as apparitions. It seems important that these made-up figures are not given fake biographies or
placed in narratives, and that many, many basic anatomical and socio-political details are pointedly left out. Perhaps the right question to ask of Schomaker’s
figures is not who they are, but rather, where did they come from? While at the same time knowing that it is both impossible and undesirable to pin one of
her figures down.

Indicative of all this is one of the most striking visual motifs in Schomaker’s painterly, compositional toolbox: namely, her use of blank, unrendered,
unfinished faces. In portraiture, the face is usually way more than half the battle, the definitive site, the portal, the tell-all. To leave this key visual
site blank is something of a provocation to those who have grown up in, cultures in which face and eye contact are privileged and even expected. Isn’t
it the case that when something important is missing, we tend to read something into the painful absence? To a large extent perception entails, as
we know but don’t wish to accept, not just what we sense but what we add, embellish and mix into what we think is objective experience. Schomaker’s
half-painted faces push this point—I imagine every different viewer who spends time with her works completing (understanding, empathizing with) the
pictures in different ways, and perhaps differently upon every new encounter with them. Thus one of their strengths lies in their allowance of a myriad of
ever-changing subjective receptions.

This is not to deny that the blank face, the expressionless face, the defiled face and the mask also have both powerful and iconoclastic cultural histories. It is just that Schomaker’s non-portrait portraits don’t look like they want to be framed conclusively by one or another of them. As I try to fill the absence of her faces, a crazy, trip-like, trans-historic, cross-cultural fluttering occurs that takes me from the unearthed busts of empresses hued or brushed by anonymous hands, to works like Bust of a Veiled Woman, Puritas by Antonio Corradini, (1668-1752), to Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) to Francis Bacon’s Study after Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1953). But then also to graphic novels, Japanese woodcuts, vintage photographic heads, shots of the pre-Second World War European avant-garde, and closer to the present, to the stark fashion faces of a late 1960s Dior campaign, not to mention all the images in the now, inspired by that kind of calculated image looking blankly out at us while we eagerly project everything back.

Not coincidentally, in Schomaker’s studio there are (like in Bacon’s fabled studio) boxes of crumpled images collected from different kinds of printed matter—art history books, magazines and newspapers. And while, as previously noted, these images aren’t used directly as models, their influence can be felt. Feeling coy or respectful about my privileged access to the artist’s working space (easily one of the perks of writing about art) I didn’t want to dig into them like a wannabe spy or a cheap detective or an amateur archaeologist—but I wonder if any, or all, or other images entirely to the aforementioned might be found there.

One companion image collected by the artist sticks in my mind because it was on her pin-board, namely, an article in Die Zeit magazine written by fashion designer Jil Sander about August Sander’s photograph Frau eines Malers (Painter’s Wife [Helene Abelen], c. 1926)—which oozes the confidence of a new type of modern woman in her prime; she is no shrinking muse of male artistic fantasy. It is time to admit that I have been a little unfair in this text until now, by way of an experiment, with respect to art historical references, by only mentioning men by name, to see if it would be noticed. A real alternative lineage might be to think from 1970s US figurative painters like Joan Semmel and Sylvia Sleigh onwards. And from there to move on to the painting emerging in Berlin in the late 1990s around the same time as Schomaker, for instance, to painters like Antje Majewski (whose text back then on Sleigh and company first introduced me to them), Monika Baer and Katharina Wulff. Considering them suggests a rather different trajectory and sense of the social, and possibilities for the contemporary figure in paint, than for instance, the ones suggested by cold-war modernist dichotomies, such as abstraction versus figuration, or through ideological divides expressed in choice of style and subjects.

Seen in this context, Schomaker’s painting is to my mind also implicitly feminist. By this I don’t mean the attribution of so-called ‘feminine’ traits, but rather that her work reflects how feminist discourse allowed for a critique of normative roles and emancipatory notions of the self and the social for women and men alike. This kind of reading of the artist’s work accounts for two things: the disquieting appearance of her figures—a certain sense of struggle and turmoil—counter-balanced by the search for the solace of contemplation and reflection, a kind of personal-as-political tête-à-tête.

With this in mind one might turn to another of Schomaker’s recent works Untitled (reclining). The painting depicts a woman slightly reclining in a modernist chair, like someone giving an audience or an interview. Her hands are crossed in a relaxed way behind her head exposing her armpits—she might be a novelist or an off-duty starlet, or for that matter not the painter’s wife but a painter herself—certainly she too has all the confidence in the world. If she is erotic, it is her own. Below and behind her a grey and black chequered floor delineates an abstract space or the corner of an undefined room, in any case it is windowless and stages an inescapable frontal encounter. The eye walks into this pictorial room and comes face to face with the artist’s idea of a free subject with a mind of her own.

—Dominic Eichler