Ecstasy and loss. Adolescence and Vulnerability. Beauty and decadence. That is how 30 year-old Christian Schoeler has described his work. Devastatingly beautiful, intimate watercolor or oil paintings that share as much with contemporary fashion photography as they do with pre-photography portraiture. A “style” and approach that is perhaps unfashionable relative to the contemporary art ’scene’, but arguably timelessly fashionable. He even eschews the über-scene of Berlin for his hometown of Düsseldorf.
Seen up close, the rich rendering of the surfaces of his models skin is second only to the rich surfaces of the paintings themselves. It’s hard not to get lost in what he describes as the boundary between what is on the inside and what is on the outside.
All of the oil paintings reproduced here have just been completed for this interview, and have never been published or shown anywhere.
Weston Bingham: Tell us a little about your life, where did you grow up?
Christian Schoeler: I grew up in a rural area outside of Düsseldorf. I was skinny and androgynous and up until I was 17 I kind of looked like a girl. At some point I decided to shave my head and play soccer, but to be honest, it didn’t really work. Growing up in a German village at the end of the 90s was neither easy nor funny.
WB: Describe yourself in five words
CS: I am a bird now.
WB: OK, on to your artwork. How do you find your models?
CS: Some portraits are based on photos that I find somewhere along the way, but I definitely prefer portraying people that I know on a personal level, and I would say that meeting them is pretty much a regular process. I usually know them for quite some time before I actually paint them.
WB: What are you looking for in them?
CS: I need to see something unsure or disquieting about them, maybe in the way they move, for example. It could also be a peculiar way their face reacts to light or I might find myself observing a certain situation, which I then try to capture. Taking photos helps a lot in those situations. The people I portray are often in the process of finding out who they are and what they want to do. I can’t say that I look for something particular - It’s more of a feeling thing.
WB: Do you usually paint from photographs or a formal ’sitting’?
CS: Painting from photos isn’t bad at all, but ideally I try to combine the two.
WB: Many painters might find the term “beautiful” insulting , limiting, superficial or even condescending if applied to their work. How do you react to that critique of your work?
CS: Keep smiling!
WB: On the other hand, “beauty” is often considered a key attribute in photography. Do you feel an affinity with photography?
CS: Yes, sure. My work enters into a pretty direct dialogue with photography. For the Volta show I experimented with silkcreen as a medium. It’s one of the few methods that combines aspects of both photography and painting. While the form follows photography, the way of applying the colors is connected to the process of painting.
WB: Since photography was “invented”, painted portraits have suffered a quick decline. What are you bringing back to portraiture that photography has perhaps forgotten?
CS: In the time of absolute rulers, the portrait of a monarch was intended as an object of worship. The portrayal as such would therefore not necessarily depict a realistic image of the model but an idealized image of a person worthy of worship. In a way I also idealize the models in my paintings - I am referring to what used to be called the Antlitz. The difference, however, lies in my treatment of the original object. I don’t really focus on the actual appearance, but try to capture my own impression of it. The process of idealization inherent in my work is therefore not governed by conventions, but is a manifestation of my individual point of view. I guess you could say that I infuse the portrait with a part of myself.
CS: The reality of my paintings connects my personal experiences with utopian longings and my quest for self-assertion. I guess I have developed a very pronounced awareness of my own vulnerability and the transience of my body due to my experiences in the past.
WB: Are you pursuing perfection?
CS: Yes, that’s what painting is all about to my mind. Simply because perfection is unattainable, the ideas surrounding it are the most interesting. It may be inevitable to fail in the name of perfection, but I guess you fail successfully.
WB: Are you re-presenting the perfection of the models, or is it your paintings that are attempting to perfect them?
CS: I paint the boys as I perceive them. Ideally I interact with them and the portrait stands like a mirror between the model and my emotions. If in the end I have to ask myself whether I am looking at the painting or the painting, indeed, is looking at me, I guess I did a good job.
WB: Beyond the formal concepts of beauty and idealization, what other ideas are you exploring?
CS: I don’t think of beauty in terms of ideals communicated by the media or by physical appearance. These concepts simply don’t interest me very much when painting. After all, it’s about beautiful paintings and not about beautiful boys. In the end I could even paint beautiful paintings of cars or trees. The subject you decide on is closely connected to your approach to painting.
The boys all have this craving desire - a longing for corporal integrity that manifests itself in very specific ideas of fragile beauty. They are aware of the glances they get and openly join the game in the way they move, the way they seek closeness to their own body, however, to my mind it’s more of a sign of their longing for physical integrity and a sound soul rather than expression and seduction. If I could I would have them as miniatures for an alternative reality.
WB: Aside from the sheer beauty of your paintings, and the intimacy of the renderings, is there anything particularly “gay” about your work?
CS: Yes, I think there is something like a ‘gay’ perspective. The homosexual body is particularly sensualized and carries different connotations than the heterosexual body. Also, I’m quite positive that my view on the male body is different from heterosexual perspectives - after all it’s queer, isn’t it?
WB: You don’t seem to be concerned with social or political commentary or subject-matter, as many contemporary artists are. where do you place yourself in the contemporary art “scene”?
CS: All I am interested in is realizing my ideas of beautiful, maybe even innocent paintings. I don’t want to provoke or hurt people with what I do. That would mean questioning my own innocence and leading to a concept of art that I don’t share. I’m not a ‘modern’ artist and I don’t want to position myself within a specific scene. I guess my paintings are more of a private obsession than a statement on our society.
I know and love the works of Collier Schorr, Hernan Bas, Andrew Mania, Nick Mauss and Elizabeth Peyton and if I had to associate myself with a specific scene, I would surely choose theirs. I don’t have contacts in that direction, but I don’t think that this is due to where I live. Whether it’s Düsseldorf, Berlin or any other city is of minor importance to me because I also don’t feel connected to any scene in terms of location.
WB: Speaking of Berlin, artists and musicians are constantly making pilgrimages to Berlin to find inspiration. You continue to live and work in Düsseldorf. What is it that keeps you there?
CS: Berlin? I am too weak for that city…
WB: Your work actually seems to have a lot in common with late 19th Century American painters. Any particular reason for this, or is this just a superficial observation?
CS: No, in fact this is a very accurate observation. I am very much interested in the forms of abstraction and the color tones that are found in those paintings. Every element of my work passes through the filter of those somewhat detached yet soulful times, but I don’t really see this as a regressive element in my work. I understand it as an effort to identify the contemporary as a rewording of that which has always been there, though I’m running the risk of sounding sentimental and pompous.
WB: Do you see your work as timeless?
CS: I can’t really use that tag for my own work. Only time will tell what is timeless and what is not. Time, as such, plays a different role in the arts. Lucien Freud for example is timeless but simultaneously a relatively young painter. I’m a nobody.
WB: Your first solo exhibition was in Munich just a short while ago in 2008. What has developed in your work between that first exhibit and your show at Volta in New York two weeks ago?
Most of all the presence of the male single figures has changed. To me they seem more self-sufficient and encapsulated than before. Also, my narrative style has changed. My own self-perception has also gained significance in terms of entering the painting as a kind of third person that blends with the first person perspective - the paintings have grown more and more subjective and narcissistic.
WB: I don’t mean this as a negative, but do you you think your work is self-indulgent?
CS: I simply don’t try to be ironic or funny when painting and maybe a lot of us aren’t used to plain sincerity anymore. So, I guess yes, my work might seem self-indulgent to some.
WB: Your watercolors are much lighter in color and mood than your oils. Is it simply a function of the medium or is is a choice driven by a larger idea?
CS: It’s a mixture of both. On the one hand, this is due to the qualities of the materials, and on the other it’s the result of the process of painting itself. A watercolor needs only minutes to complete, whereas an oil painting needs days, maybe even weeks. Also, with watercolors the light comes from the paper as I progress from lighter tones into dark colors. When painting with oil, however, I have to apply the light afterwards and I kind of work from darkness into the light. These are two very different approaches to painting. Working with watercolors is fast, comparable to breathing, and sometimes I manage up to 30 paintings in a day. An oil painting requires excessive planning and is more of a conscious process.
While I personally don’t like using materials against their specific qualities, Elizabeth Peyton is very good at it. Her oils have the lightness of watercolors, however, I prefer highlighting the formal qualities of the materials I use.
WB: Your work is so focused on the surface of the models, their skin, and the surface of the paper. Is it important that we see your subjects below the skin?
CS: I spend a great deal of my time looking at pictures in the widest sense - it doesn’t make a difference whether I am looking at a painting by Velázquez or at a fashion magazine. The surface of a picture to me is never empty or dead, rather, I understand it as sensitive and even reactive. It answers according to how you treat it. However, I don’t think that my understanding of the ‘surface’ keeps me from questioning things or looking for something deeper.
The depth I am looking for is not metaphysical and it doesn’t ultimately lead to a ‘last truth’ or something like that. Rather, it is the depth of a body that is of interest to me. I want to explore what happens between the eye and the brain before an object is designated and consequently judged. Surfaces are boundaries and at the same time areas of contact between what is on the inside and what is on the outside. There is a difference between a surface and something superficial.
WB: Is it important that we see you below the skin? Is it important that your viewers understand anything about you personally?
CS: I think that would be asking too much, but generally I don’t have any presuppositions about that.