A Mixture of Two Disci­plines

On the Paintings and Automatic Drawings of Karoline Schreiber
by Sarah Merten

Karoline Schreiber’s artistic oeuvre spans the media of drawing and painting, whereby the artist comprehends these as autonomous bodies of work and utilizes different strategies and intentions of artistic examination in each of them. She invokes diverging visual languages for her drawings and paintings. In spite of all the superficial divergence, it is still possible to identify points of contact— for instance, with respect to the choice of motifs and themes or with regard to the interest in questions inherent to the media—which make the disciplines, incongruous at first glance, amount to one rich and cohesive body of work.

This publication includes some four hundred so-called Automatic Drawings. Although this is an immense number of pictures, it nonetheless represents only a fraction of the ongoing complex of works, which currently comprises roughly 3,600 drawings. Abstruse creatures, sketch-like arrangements of objects and bodies, or diffuse aggregations of lines and strokes are strung together page by page. Put on paper with a black fineliner pen, the small-format drawings evoke individual picture stories, most of them without a logical storyline. The figures are merely delineated in a classic comic style, with some limbs enlarged in a caricaturing manner and modeled with just a few strokes. Some sheets call to mind drawings made while lost in thought, like those done quite in passing during longer telephone conversations. The immediacy of the graphic gesture can be recognized in all the drawings, as is considered— just like the minimized work materials—characteristic for the medium of drawing: position the pen and then go, with the form-building thought always one stroke ahead. The spontaneity of motif and interest in the layout of the lines also come to the fore.

In contrast to the fleet-footed comic style of the drawings, the paintings manifest as almost old masterly; it is hence difficult to believe that both come from the same hand. When painting, the artist requires a different selfconception than when drawing, since, in her opinion, the legacy of art history weighs more heavily: “In the history of drawing, there is no Black Square on a White Ground [Kazimir Malevich, 1915]. One therefore moves more calmly. A person who paints, in contrast, carries the entire history of painting in his or her baggage.” The bar is high. But Karoline Schreiber does not pursue the aim of further radicalizing painting or inventing it anew. She instead paints exclusively figuratively and realistically in oil, whereby her interest in the painting of the old masters is clearly reflected in the realization. With a clearly visible interest in painterly materiality, the artist models specific surface qualities of skin, flesh, or textiles. In doing so, she seeks to some extent the origin of painting as a moment in which color and form become manifest in a picture and, conversely, through coming together, become detached from reproduction and slide into the abstract. What looks realistic from a distance becomes painterly up close.

The different visual languages of the drawings and paintings are apparently based on different artistic intentions, which each demand their own autonomous process of creation. The Automatic Drawings, for instance, are produced from the wrist. They have no underlying motivic concept and accordingly no consciously controlled, content-related censorship. “At the beginning, I have no idea what I will draw and instead approach each sheet as impartially as possible,” says the artist. For many years, drawings that at times put the richly absurd, the disconcerting, or even the repellent onto the paper surface have been produced every day. “Automatic” hence denotes less what the artist puts on paper in terms of a motif than how she does so. All of the Automatic Drawings are created under the same material and technical conditions: with a black fineliner pen in small books of the same format. Karoline Schreiber therefore stakes out her field of drawing by means of a clear, formal radius of movement, within which there are no boundaries in terms of content. In doing so, she makes strong reference to the literary methods of écriture automatique, which the Surrealists around André Breton adapted to visual art in the nineteen-twenties. Through renouncing intentionality, what thus stands in the foreground—serving as a basis for a new understanding of creativity—is rendering the unconscious, dreamlike, and spontaneous in a manner that is as uncensored as possible. For her paintings, in contrast, Karoline Schreiber makes all the formal and motivic decisions consciously and in advance. The choice of motif is thus strongly guided by her interest in questions inherent to painting, which she then executes in realistic figuration.

The comic-like gesture of the Automatic Drawings and the non-expressive quality of the paintings both lead to aberrations, since Karoline Schreiber does not draw and paint harmless pictures. Depictions of bodies, in particular of women, crystallize as the main motif in the artist’s drawings and paintings. In doing so, she makes reference to the body as a venue for social concepts related to the value of beauty, power, and vitality, in which physical abnormalities are central. Injuries and outgrowths or mutilated and disabled bodies are recurring motifs in the drawings, with which, not least, a lively theme in the Western history of art is also taken up. In the paintings, the evident representation of the ugly recedes in favor of a more intensive, painterly examination of the incarnate, the depiction of skin and flesh.

What leads to discomfort in connection with the paintings are not the representations of the body, but rather the soberness of the impartial look at the pictorial content as well as the, at times, surreal-seeming situations in which the individuals portrayed find themselves.