Mira Schor once described her use of handwriting as something that “would allow me to paint paint.” In “Paintings from the Nineties to Now,” a small survey that ranged from her signature word and punctuation pieces to recent cartoonish narratives, Schor revealed what “painting paint” involves. In her 2009 book A Decade of Negative Thinking, Schor—a writer as well as a painter—prescribed a “modest painting” that emerges not from supersized career goals or a desire for mastery but from the sheer enjoyment of the medium, with its attendant rigors and ambitions. Her own practice aspires to the small, intimate and personal.
Schor’s word paintings are characterized by linguistic playfulness and elasticity. A complex synergy arises from the conjunction of language and abstract gesture. Allusions to variously hued skin, voluptuous folds and juicy orifices merge with the words and punctuation marks—loaded, humorous and poetic by turn. War Frieze IX (1992), a multipart, 10-foot-long section from a 200-foot-long work concerning the Gulf War, demonstrates Schor’s early fusion of words and paint, as well as the importance to her of feminism, which has informed her practice into the present. Issuing from a breast on one end and a phallus attached to an ear on the other, a red liquid stream outlined in squiggly pubic hairs spells out the word “undue” in cursive. The pink, impastoed, fleshlike ground bears the word like a tattoo. In the Gulf War context, “undue” could describe excessive force; but, given Schor’s predilection for double entendres, it also implies “undo,” as milk morphs into blood, the nurturing breast undone (presumably) by the weaponlike phallus. In Sign (2005), the title word is interlaced with Cézannesque swatches of green, beige and yellow paint. Schor’s art-historical roots are manifested in the work’s references to cubistic landscape, graphic design and, in the overall composition, a languorous Matisselike nude.
In a number of paintings from 2008–10, Schor turns from calligraphy to quirky stick-figure self-portraits quickly sketched with a paintbrush. The body parts seen in earlier works yield to depictions of the artist in her trademark glasses reading, walking and writing. She also ponders, as evidenced by thought balloons containing Gustonesque horizontal textlike lines. As always, attention is lavished on painterly process and formal manipulation: wet on wet application; transparent, tinted washes; bleeding marker lines; crusty accumulations of pigment; ghostly pentimenti; errant brushwork. However, in Blank Slate (2007) and (2008), bereft of figures or text, the thought balloons become small abstractions, executed in luscious strokes of moody grays, sooty whites, murky ochers and shades of black. The abandonment of explicit imagery or words and a reliance on the expressiveness of the paint itself to communicate leave us searching for clues, meditating on the paintings’ secrets. It appears as if Schor is finally, truly, “painting paint.”I’m Fine
Photo: Mira Schor: Blank Slate, 2007, oil on linen, 16 by 12 inches; at CB1.
Mira Schor’s small, unframed paintings—oil on linen and ink on gessoed tracing paper—suggest the vulnerability of barely formed thoughts arising unbidden between waking and sleep. Hovering throughout her recent work are word- and thought-balloons that seem to have been conceived less with a view toward public statement than as products of an intensely private studio practice. The isolated words that appear in Schor’s cursive script—“suddenly,” “me,” “anonymity,” the last painted self-effacingly in barely visible, shiny black letters on a matte black ground—feel incipient, like shards of meaning pushing through pain. An intimist whose candor is akin to Emily Dickinson’s, Schor uses the sparest of means to signal, as the poet put it, “The loneliness / One dare not sound.” Words fail, and yet, seen as painting, they convey a great deal.
Balloons, those common graphic vessels, play several roles in this work, including containers of thought or speech, heads, clouds, mirrors and actual balloons. In two paintings, Cool Guy and The Professor (both 2008), they become comical caricatures wearing glasses. Their animated contours, executed—as is Schor’s painted handwriting—with single strokes, sometimes indicate electrical circuits. They also recall the humorous and variously signifying condoms of Schor’s earlier work. Sometimes containing a thicker texture where a thought has been overpainted—that is, silenced—the balloons are subtly nuanced (a quality lost in reproduction). Even wrinkles in the supporting surfaces convey feeling.
In the exhibition’s rebuslike installation, the paintings all assume roles in a quasi-narrative structure. One canvas features the word “suddenly,” which interrupts a tan ground; the empty balloon in a cool white painting that follows is ruptured by a bright vertical slash. The theme of intrusion repeats, each time as though without warning, throughout this sequence of works, which ends with ascending balloons, the last bearing the hopeful inscription, “a life.” Two paintings titled As a Cloud (both 2008), each showing a solitary balloon, evoke Wordsworth’s lonely, cloudlike wandering, though with no promise of that poem’s “crowd, a host, of golden daffodils.” The emotional perplexity of Schor’s work is both personal and general.
Through her writings and co-editorship (with the painter Susan Bee) of the feminist publication M/E/A/N/I/N/G, Schor has contributed greatly to the ever-vexed discourses on the relation of gender to painting and of the autobiographical to the political, and to other issues at the nexus of theory and practice. (Due out within the year is a book she edited of the writings of Jack Tworkov, and a collection of her own recent essays.) With this new body of work, it is as though Schor has relinquished her precisely articulated overview. Not that she has rejected it, but rather, consistent with her belief in painting per se, she has let the conceptual concerns of her long pursued project take care of themselves.
Photo above: Mira Schor: The Professor, 2008, oil on linen, 16 by 12 inches; at Momenta Art.