Painter, author and critic Mira Schor’s current show at Marvelli Gallery delves into the world of language. The works on linen and paper chart a world where the individual appears in a form of stasis, holding a book or laptop, looking at things — windows, paintings, screens — and generating rectangles (and the occasional oval) which seem to speak, label, think and even dream.
All the works are rather small — the drawings are often larger than the paintings — and they appear to meditate on the state of the artist and intellectual, both labels that fittingly describe Schor.
The show is titled Voice and Speech, but there’s an erie silence to these works. The artist’s hand is alway present and the paint is often treated like ink, flowing with a dark contrast across washes of paint, defining space and and giving each rectangle it’s own character.
What fascinated me about the show was her drive to collide language with imagery to create something new. Her cursive text tells a story but so do her characters. It’s a word of solitary contemplation, with words, with pictures, all coming together and making something new.
I had some questions for Schor about this body of work.
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Hrag Vartanian: Screens, speech bubbles, book pages and canvases all have a rectangular character in your current show. What is it about the rectangle that intrigues you?
Mira Schor: Your question goes right to the heart of painting and the terms of your question answer it. The originary matrixes for text and images that have mattered to me since childhood have been rectangles: my parents Ilya and Resia Schor were both artists who painted, and close family friends were painters, I saw paintings all around me, paintings in museums, most often rectangles, whether horizontal or vertical; movie screens were rectangles with pictures and language on them; the TV screen was a rounded rectangle (the shape of a thought balloon); since early childhood I read books and I drew in sketch books, each page was a rectangle and the page spread formed a rectangle. The single page and the page spread of the book are very important—in the mid-70s I did a work called Book of Pages whose dimensions and meaning still influences or underlies most of what I do, the shape of the canvases I chose, and as it happens the images in the current paintings.
The rectangle is a dynamic visual space, it is a dynamic compositional space, it is architectural, you have room to put something in and then something else in. I often work on a 12”x16” canvas, and some of the paintings in the show are a more exaggerated rectangle, 18”x30”, that I think allows for narrativity, which is also very important to me. Each painting is a short story, and the paintings together suggest a narrative though not necessarily an obvious one, but at the same time, the rectangle is an interesting abstract object. That being said I’ve done a very few square paintings that worked, and the Occupy quartet in the show, The Dreams of All of Us series, are rectangles just off the square, 24”x28”, but that four inch deviation liberates the space.
HV: And how about your figures? They fascinate me since most appear to float in space, like fetuses in a womb, in a state of pre-language. They look safe and comforted in the way they’re drawn. Yet they don’t directly engage the viewer, particularly since they have no eyes. There’s something medieval about them in that they resemble figures in a manuscript illumination. Are they all “self-portraits” or perhaps allegories?
MS: The figure is me, I think of it as an avatar of self, rather than a self-portrait. So although it’s true that the figures have no eyes — they also have no nose, no mouth, no hair, no features as such — they all have eyeglasses so they see, they received vision, they project vision, to and from the world, to and from the books they often hold. In some recent ones I just turn the whole head into a projector and receptacle of rays of vision and thought.
It’s interesting that you see them as medieval: in my earliest work, I placed more recognizable self-portraits in landscape or the city, often alone or in relation to a few other figures, the style of my self-portraiture and autobiographical narrative painting was similar to Florine Stettheimer in a way, though I didn’t learn of her until I had already started working in that way, but the work I loved in those days included Medieval illuminations, as well as Gothic architectural figures, Flemish painting, both with elongated deeply serious figures, Rajput painting, early Renaissance painting, Surrealist painting, any kind of figuration and space except the mainstream lineage from High Renaissance to 19th century. It’s not that I didn’t love many of those representations, but as an artist I related more to the space of the other work, and with the engagement with the world of the figures in them.
Another thing that you may notice that is that the figure’s head is also usually a rectangle, a floating page if you like, with eyeglasses on, and the eyeglasses become other pages and rectangles!
HV: In your Afterword to Wet you mentioned that you felt the necessity to write for your parents. Why? Was it an attempt to bridge? Translate? Paraphrase?
MS: I think when you are a first generation American, when English is your parents’ second, or, as in the case of my parents, third or fourth major language, and when their situation in their new country is affected by the time and difficulty it took to make a second start in life, you feel a responsibility to speak for them, to step out into the life of the country, in my case the cultural and political life of the country, in a way they could not, to express some of their ideas and views in a way they could not and were not positioned to do. They went to the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts and arrived in New York when they were in their 30s, having escaped Paris ahead of German troops, and having fled to Vichy France, my sister Naomi got her PhD at Yale, I went to grad school at CalArts, we began our life ahead of the game in terms of a basic grounding in this country.
It’s not a question of literally translating or paraphrasing, both my parents spoke English well, though with strong accents, they were even very cultured and literate — my father loved the English language, I still have his copy of Roget’s Thesaurus, which he used to cheat at Scrabble with another refugee friend of his, and at one point he was trying to read Finnegan’s Wake, and finding it hard going, and that summer he befriended Zero Mostel, who was still suffering under the blacklist; Zero came over to read Finnegan’s Wake out loud to him, I was only 9 or 10 so unfortunately I remember that it happened but not what it sounded like! My mother read The New Yorker and the [New York] Times from cover to cover, had an incredible memory and a good vocabulary, but neither of them could really write well in the way that I am able to use writing to promote my ideas.
Both my sister and I became scholars and writers, and I think we both felt we were speaking for them, as I said, meaning that metaphorically. And perhaps our experience of their experience, and our experience of going to a French school in New York while being surrounded by a refugee community, made English more special to me, or more accurately left me with a sense of otherness about my native tongue, which has left its mark in my painting language as image.
HV: We’ve talked about the rectangles in your work (the screens, the books, the canvases … ) but I’m curious if you think language is more similar or different in each space. Does a word on a screen or in a painting change all that much from one printed in a book?
MS: I think language as image operates slightly differently in each space, printed language in a book is different from a single word or letter embedded into the material and visual language of oil paint. But influences cross-pollinate, for instance I worked for a number of years in the mid-2000s on a work called “War Crawl” that translated the language of the speeding TV news crawl into handwritten ink and gouache scrawl on narrow strips of tracing paper in a way that slowed the manic stream of news down and I think activated the sensual presence and the physical movement of the viewer in a different way. Language on screen, language on moving LED signs in Times Square, move at a different speed and probably affect the body of the viewer/reader in a different way than language in a book or than in a painting.
HV: You’ve been a blogger now for a few years, which I think you’ll agree is a different relationship to language and images (because of its speed, ease of publishing, etc.) but I’m particularly curious to ask what the world of blogging may have taught you about text and image. Did anything come as a surprise to you?
MS: One of the things that has been fun about blogging is the ability to put lots of color pictures as illustrations, particularly the fact that I don’t feel I need to get permission for most images: if I were to try to publish the blog as a book, something I’d like to do, I would have to drop many of the images because the cost of reproduction rights would be prohibitive. I find that in my blog posts, which are really occasional short essays, I work the old way and the new way: I still use descriptive writing in the way that Susan Bee and I nurtured in our journal M/E/A/N/I/N/G, in the hard copy version, when at the outset we decided not to publish images because when we started out we couldn’t afford good enough quality paper for nice reproduction. This made it necessary for our writers, including me, to really develop the description of artworks with language if we wanted to anchor and substantiate our critical views. But at the same time in the blog I enjoy using images in a photo essay kind of way, sometimes without comment, or using my own photography to accompany my writing so that both elements are equally important. I felt that particularly with one post from last year, “Orbis Mundi,” in which I described the effects and meaning of a major move and I combined my own photographs of family art and ephemera with writing in a way that I felt was not just text and illustration, but an art work on its own. It’s not so much a surprise, but it is a pleasure!
Mira Schor: Voice and Speech continues at Marvelli Gallery (526 West 26th Street, 2nd Floor, Chelsea, Manhattan) until Saturday, May 12.