I just attended an interview of Mira Schor by Stuart Horodner as part of the CAA Annual Distinguished Artists’ Interviews. After an appropriately mixed up day – sick child so no school or daycare, babysitter unavailable, husband helped out but not in time for 2.30 start time, blah, blah, blah – I arrived late and was very happy to 1) get there and 2) locate a chair to sit in.

I’d like to summarize the content I heard as a series of segments – all thoughtful (on part of both interviewee and interviewer), interesting to me and to issues for tART, and all too short in the best sense that they left me wanting more expansion on any one topic.

Resonance Verses Influence

Horodner was asking Schor about Louise Bourgeois’s influence over some of her drawings as they seem to be related to some of Bourgeois’s earlier drawings. In fact, Schor had not been familiar with the drawings of Louise until the early 70s, but this was an opportunity to distinguish the idea of resonance from influence: that like ideas can resonate with different artists in overlapping times or at different times without either necessarily influencing or deriving from the other.

M/E/A/N/I/N/G

Issues of privacy surely factor into Schor’s work as she is at once modest in her size and material use yet bold and unyielding in her exposing subjects that are routinely private, taboo, hushed, uncool. Schor had been working on a book about the representation of women in David Salle’s works which she frustratingly could not find a publisher for when she knew she needed a forum for language, ideas, symposiums, community, dialogue. As she said, “if what you were doing did not relate to the main discourse, you had to create you own” space or place for it. This reality prompted her, in collaboration with friend and colleague Susan Bee, to begin M/E/A/N/I/N/G as just such a forum. They began with $500, did all of the work, and walked the issues to the post office. Thus began a 25-year collaborative endeavor.

For Schor this collaboration was a life changer. She has always been a private person and worked alone in the space in her head. Following the community of graduate school, she found her world was shrinking and the magazine and collaboration really opened that world back up. As she was speaking this, I thought how totally familiar and right on this sounded; this too was the genesis of tART – a post graduate school loss of community in a field of largely private work and a need to create commun(ity)/(al) space for sharing of ideas.

About ten years later, Schor presented her Scrabble Paintings, part of Public/Private, at the Horodner Romley Gallery in New York. The Scrabble Paintings are small works that, together, create a larger work. Schor’s works are not large in size for the sake of making something large. The size, of this work, grows (literally) from accumulation – of small square paintings of single letters. Each work is alternatively one letter in scripted handwriting of the word “public” and one letter in natural handwriting of the work “private.” Her works are intimate in size, bodily in scale, and making a giant work for the sake of bigger is better does not make sense to her (nor need it I think), but her works do in this case, and others, feel large because of an encompassing accumulation.

Iconography of Power and Area of Denial

Horodner opened up the introduction to Schor’s works War Frieze and Area of Denial by referencing icons of power. Schor’s works do not shy away from confrontation with icons of power; in fact, they draw from them. Much power is exercised through the news media as it is delivered as bar none fact. Schor planned to create a piece on the Gulf War. Though the war lasted only 15 days, the piece took 3 years to complete. However, during that time, War Frieze also turned into something else/more. She was listening to Ted Koppel on Nightline one night and a phrase he used stuck with her: “area of denial.” He was speaking about a new bomb that operated by depriving gas (oxygen) rather than spreading gas (kind of poisonous gas) thus bringing on suffocation.

For Schor, the body is another area of denial and the work became a flow of phrases from the news into body parts. This piece was taking form over the time of a major abortion ruling in which Sandra Day O’Connor’s opinion included the principle that an abortion cannot be denied if it places “undue burden” on a woman seeking to end a pregnancy. The phrase “undue” can be seen in deep red handwriting stretching from an image of a breast to one of a penis-gun looking object. Another example of size achieved by accumulation, this piece interestingly has never been completely installed – “I have no idea how it would work,” Schor says. She envisions a room it would go in and has installed parts of it, but the entire piece is about 200 running feet and she has not had the opportunity to realize it all in one space at the same time, so the work retains a touch of mystery even for the artist.

 

“Flesh,” “Lack,” and “Oops” Paintings

Schor has always investigated the link between text and image and how both are forms of communication. These paintings of single words remind us how poignant a single word can be and how quiet yet bold her work is. “Flesh” is thinly carved out of thick, milky red and orange paint, at once seemingly unobtrusively drawing the viewer in but also violent and makeshift in its technique. The “Oops” paintings, and in fact these works as a whole, triggered some comparisons to Abstract Expressionism and seriality. The works began as Xeroxes of words she wrote, manipulated and resized mechanically, and were multiple repetitions of the same word from painting to painting, certainly serial. The Abstract Expressionism is a more interesting comparison for me because AbEx is so associated with macho guys painting huge. Schor explained the link as she feels and sees it: she had always wanted to make a painting as a planned accident, a lovely link to Abstract Expressionism without being contrary. Her increasing comfort with oil was allowing her to outline a space for an oil paint accident to occur in. Further, these paintings occurred during a positive moment which gave her the feeling of an increased freedom to make these. (The word Oops does have a positive feel to it. Though indicating a mistake, it reads as goofy and self-forgiving.)

Interplay of Language and Art

Schor is invested in both language and art as means of communication. She was working on what would become her book A Decade of Negative Thinking, but growing frustrated with how long it was taking to express all that she wanted. She decided to make a painting as a sort of summarized version or Cliff’s Notes about the book as a means to express what she wanted to say more immediately. She wrote “I’d like to put forward the notion of modest painting” as a crux of her thinking about the book. Painting was autonomous, at the time (and perhaps still I can’t keep track), a bad word. Work was supposed to be collective, cumulatively created, not one grand and sole gesture. However, painting, and large ones at that, were still the major trading commodity in the commercial art world. This work at once challenges the notion that she should be working collectively and the notion that paintings had to be big; her small painting, which she almost dismisses as a painting and chooses to call more drawing than painting, was a deliberate gesture against that – encapsulating much of what she was thinking about and what became A Decade of Negative Thinking.

Words Fail

Schor was growing tired of hearing about how people felt about paintings with text in them. And, following the death of her mother, she found that she had no words. She began to paint at first a black blob as a communication of what she felt. This morphed into a brain- or head-like form and then perhaps a speech bubble which might be saying something like “this is your brain on grief,” a vivid reminder to those who lived through 80s television adds and the Nancy Reagan inspired image of a fried egg that read “this is your brain on drugs.”

Recent Work

Schor cannot pinpoint, as many artists cannot, her exact reason for a shift in work, here a shift back to figuration. Perhaps an admiration for Philip Guston who also returned to the figure in his work. Perhaps an evolution of the speech bubbles that grew out of her wordless paintings. Perhaps a desire to speed up her means of communication; paintings weren’t as nuanced or descriptive as book writing was but they were quicker. Likely some overlap of all of these plus circling other thoughts in her head and in her work from always and a beautiful example of the idea of resonance that I entered the talk on.

Her recent paintings include figurelike shapes, many wearing glasses, as she does more and more and her eyes age, with speech bubbles filled with short but very evocative phrases. One has four bubbles in it that cumulatively read “the dreams of all of us.” She made this thinking about the Occupy movement and all of those people sleeping uncomfortably, crowdedly, dirtily in Zuccoti Park – sleeping and dreaming for all of us – an act Schor considers incredibly generous.

I’ll leave off with one I think is a zinger – humorous but deadly on. The text reads, I may be paraphrasing slightly, “I’m so glad to hear you are keeping busy,” and is taken from an email she received from a student who assumed either she was too old to be functioning any longer or too marginalized or unimportant to be part of any resemblance of a life that would occupy (and overwhelm) her time with her practice.

Thanks to Mira for a refreshing, enjoyable, understandable, open talk that, through her own modesty and honesty, made me, too, feel like I am also a part of things.

 

Katherine Keltner

February 15, 2013

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