Karoline Schreiber draws...
Karoline Schreiber draws. She draws what she cannot draw and until she can draw no more; she draws simultaneously, with blindfolded eyes, and when it is dark. She draws what experts talk about; draws while her husband reads the most important news to her from the newspaper and takes care of the children at home.1 The following reflections on the work of the Zurich-based artist deal with the act of drawing (even prior to the actual drawing)—starting from the claim that the act of drawing drives all her artistic activity, no matter whether the result is presented as a painting, object, performance, or drawing, whether large- or small-format, abstract-gestural or figurative-hyperrealistic.
Drawing as a State of Mind
People have drawn since time immemorial. Neolithic cave drawings are associated with the beginning of the history of human culture, which is why a “mythic status” is attributed to drawings as the “earliest and most immediate form of image making.”2 In the Renaissance, the drawing as a medium of design obtained an artistic status that was still concomitant but nevertheless independent. In sketchbooks, a fleeting idea is captured, picture studies are practiced, and surroundings recorded. While the drawing works with line and stroke, painting develops its motif from the surface. In modernism, precisely this dichotomy was largely dissolved, color finally found its way into drawings, and the line forfeited its primacy. The drawing experienced a temporary highpoint in the late 1960s and 1970s, when young artists in particular turned to it. Free of pathos and close to artistic thinking, the medium was suitable for both the emerging conceptual art and for that new “inwardness” that was in great demand in the positions presented as “individual mythologies” at the documenta 5 under the influence of Harald Szeemann. The demarcations of boundaries between mediums already seem to have blurred at this point in time, and the drawing represented a form for rebelling against the hierarchies in the classical writing of history. The increased turning toward figuration is also striking. In Switzerland in 1976, Jean-Christoph Ammann organized the trailblazing exhibition Mentalität: Zeichnung (Mentality: Drawing) at the Kunstmuseum Luzern; with it as well as other projects, he made a significant contribution to promoting the genre here in Switzerland. Drawing became a state of mind.
The drawing has a Janus-faced nature. It is regarded as a per se intimate medium, direct, sensitive, emotional, intuitive, somewhat strange, and generally quite solitary—but this picture alone falls short. The drawing also involves the other side, the rational and the intellectual. It is a means for homing in on ideas, for organizing and forming them, as the term “disegno” coined in the Renaissance implies. It means not only the manual design technique, but also the “causal, intellectual activity of describing, planning, imagining, and designing.”3 While this twofold meaning provided the Renaissance artists with the necessary conceptual and scientific basis to defend drawing against other branches of art, “disegno” stands today for the antipodal system in which the medium is active—from the objective to the autobiographical, from the intellect to intuition, from concept to feeling, from science to poetry.
The Extended Concept of Drawing
The history of the drawing and its various forms is central to understanding Karoline Schreiber’s practice. She juggles different drawing positions, explores their essence, and extends the concept in all possible directions—to comic art, caricature, the scientific illustration, and abstraction—or puts them in synthesis with performance, painting, and installation. Conversely, from nearly every work, it is possible to follow a trace back to drawing as an initial trigger, be it in the sense of disegno as a concept and state of mind, or, in terms of motif, as a result of an already mapped out idea for a picture. In particular the works of recent years attest to the significance of the medium. While she was previously associated above all with hyperrealistic paintings, in 2015 Schreiber published excerpts from her huge collection of drawings worked on daily in sketchbooks.4 At the same time, the artist also began to “present” the act of drawing in the form of public performances. The process is predefined in each case and generally anticipated ironically in the title. Schreiber either draws at a table while a camera simultaneously projects the creation of the motif on the wall, or she works in a larger scale directly on a wall or on paper. While certain performances target drawing under difficult circumstances—Schreiber draws with her left hand or with her eyes blindfolded—in others the script envisions a translation from language or music into a drawing. She makes her own drawing practice, which invokes the subconscious, the subject when she receives “clients,” in a setting faithful to Freud, who tell her their dreams, which she then interprets in drawings. The ongoing series Drawing Account and Zeichnugnen draw on the wealth of motifs in the sketchbooks. The first are medium- to large-format works on paper, executed in pencil, oil pen, and colored pencil with the precision of the old masters. Her fantastical, dreamlike picture contents are taken to an extreme by means of painstaking illusionism. The Zeichnugnen are created with India ink and fineliners and bring together, as the misspelling in the title suggests, illogical, crude pictorial inventions. Since 2016, the artist has also been working on the series Karoline Schreiber muss schneller werden (Karoline Schreiber Must Speed up). While the creation of most of Schreiber’s drawings is clearly time-intensive, here she reverses the conditions—not least as a commentary on tempo, the art world, life, and day-to-day activities. Speed is created through the use of spray paint, which she concentrates on large-format, semi-transparent sheets of paper to create masterful conglomerations of whirls. In addition to the ongoing series, there are also closed, conceptually strictly framed groups of drawings, for instance, the thirty-part series Decent Shit (2015–16), in which the artist documents her own excrement in drawings, or the, literally speaking, similar Quelques trous du cul (2016), which is dedicated to this less attractive bodily orifice with the precision of scientific illustrations. This quite abbreviated tour d’horizon through Schreiber’s drawing prac- tice makes one thing above all clear: the distinct heterogeneity of the work. In her work, Schreiber, if one follows Christian Rattemeyer’s stocktaking of drawing today, combines several tendencies in the graphic art of the past decades at the same time: on the one hand, abstraction as an ironic, postmodern citation of the unassailable Abstract Expressionists, on the other, figuration in the form of so- called “radical figuration,” which makes the unforeseeable and the mythical the topic of the picture, as well as a reference back to the academic-historical traditions of botanical or anatomical drawings. 5 Nevertheless, an invisible bracket seems to hold the various skeins in Schreiber’s work together, a primal drawing, if you will. To penetrate it, an in-depth look at the daily drawing practice in the sketchbooks is worthwhile.
The Automatic Drawing
We all draw at some point in time. In day-to-day life, drawing is one of those activities that frequently go unnoticed—telephone doodles when lost in thought, to-do lists, and sketches of routes. Children’s drawings hang in bedrooms or on refrigerator doors, and are exemplary for how the drawing produces meaning based on pure non-intentionality. As an elongated arm of our thoughts and feelings, Helmut Federle described them “as a spiral toward the inside.”6 I can envision how Karoline Schreiber’s drawings are peeled away from inner layers of consciousness toward the outside on opposite paths along this spiral. Schreiber has meanwhile filled 53 sketchbooks with drawings, each day at least one drawing, altogether several thousand, put on paper with fineliner, each of them a small, separate world. The pictures almost always contain figures and bodies, misshapen, disabled, full of caricaturing elements that regularly make our laughter stick in our throats. The beautiful and the ugly shake hands in the absurd. The drawings “happen” to her, the artist says, they come to her, incidentally, at random, and simultaneously befall her, occur to her, as if she could not do otherwise than put them on paper. In reference to the Surrealist technique of “écriture automatique,” Schreiber calls them Automatische Zeichnungen (Automatic Drawings). “Écriture automatique” is a literary practice that André Breton, its inventor, describes as a “dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason.” It is supposed to work well particularly in the early morning hours, when sitting still half asleep at one’s desk and writing down everything that goes through one’s head, regardless of whether it makes sense or not.7 Schreiber does not simply translate “écriture automatique” into a “dessin automatique,” which was also by all means practiced by the Surrealists, for instance, by André Masson. For this, the individual motifs then seem too readable and intentional, as if the planning disegno wanted to make itself felt. Instead, Schreiber borrows from another Surrealist imaging technique, the “cadavre exquis,” in which a picture (or text) is created by means of additions by various participants, while what already exists on the paper is concealed from the next person drawing by folding the paper. Schreiber plays the game to a certain extent with herself. Who and what is encountered in her drawings—person, animal, mythical creature, plants, objects, and text fragments—seem so alien, their coming together so surprising that it definitely seems plausible that the one knew nothing about the others. Schreiber thus combines the Surrealist method of “écriture automatique” for activating her subconscious with the practical artistic magical formula of “de-contextualization,” but without relinquishing the critically observing distance to her actions that is associated with our era in the process, as the further handling of the motifs in new drawings or performances shows. The essence of her drawing thus does not consist of turning the inside outward in an unfiltered way, but instead of searchingly exploring the process in which a thought becomes a picture.