The Thing Itself



Mira Schor is a painter and writer living in New York City and Provincetown, Massachusetts. She is the author of A Decade of Negative Thinking: Essays on Art, Politics, and Daily Life (Duke University Press) and the blog A Year of Positive Thinking. She is an associate teaching professor in MFA Fine Arts at Parsons The New School for Design. She is represented by CB1 Gallery in Los Angeles and Marvelli Gallery in New York. The exhibition Mira Schor: Voice and Speech opens March 29 at Marvelli Gallery at 526 West 26th Street, 2nd floor, New York, New York, and runs through April 28.

Bradley Rubenstein: I feel that the art and the politics of the artist come together pretty seamlessly in your work, but in your most recent paintings there is more of a sense of introspection, despite the use of language, etc. They are really contemplative self-portraits. Am I far off the mark on this one?

Mira Schor: It's true. The work I've done since my mother Resia Schor died in 2006 has been deeply marked by that loss. It is an individual, private grief within a world where terrible loss is a constant, as we look at events in Syria today and around the world. Mine is a private individual loss, underpinned by larger historical forces. I'm the last of my immediate family on a family tree that my mother and sister composed in the 1990s. That piece of paper has been a major driver of the work I've done since 2007, beginning with my thought-balloon paintings. My mother remembered about eighty named or specific individuals from her family and my father's, going back to the 19th century. I counted that nearly half had perished in the Holocaust. At the bottom of the paper, at the end of this chain of human beings, my sister placed her name and birth date and mine. I feel a responsibility to all these lives, to my parents' artwork, and to the stories of their lives, which include the war and the Shoah. So this is cause for introspection, which in itself for me is a kind of joy.

At the same time, I'm a politically minded person, always drawn to oppositional ideologies and polemics. Interiority and exteriority occur sometimes in the same work, or works in a series shift from one frame to the other. I speak of two "politics": what's happening in the world, and art politics -- examining which definitions of art are hosts for different types of power. So in one painting I did last summer, a figure lies under a tree and looks at words hanging from the tree, words on time and space: "here/then" and "there/now." I was reflecting on the question posed by an e-flux book I was reading, What is Contemporary Art? I felt that the real question suggested by the book was, "Where is contemporary art?" and that the answer is that the contemporary, the now, is not here, where I am -- in the West, in the tradition of painting -- but there, in new global sites and new media. But I can only continue to paint, in the place I occupy, "here." Another painting in the series represents the same figure asleep with only the word "time" hanging from the tree, so now "time" is not just historical time or timeliness, but also the time one has on Earth to work and express -- the temporal sword of Damocles.

In another new painting, the same figure sleeps under a series of cartouches that spell out the words "the dreams of all of us." I was trying to figure out how to express in my newest work the effect of Occupy Wall Street. This gets at some of the basic problematics of political art: Do you represent? Do you illustrate? Do you perform? I already was painting these sleeping dreamers, and then I was touched by a comment made by the student of a friend, which she posted on Facebook. The student (whose name I don't know, but I'm grateful for the eloquence) wrote,"In abstraction, one might think of Occupy Wall Street as a 'Sleep-In.' What fascinates me about this particular conceptualization is that it implies using the body's faculties for repose and rest(oration) in an artistic form of activism.… The use of the shutdown of the body to attempt a shutdown of the system is not only a startling symbol (metaphor), but also a deployment of the one thing that capitalism has not yet fully infiltrated: our sleep. It metonymizes sleep with resistance."

This was such a beautiful idea. I have a lot of trouble sleeping, but love to and need to sleep; one of my favorite scenes in the movie Orlando was the long sleep from which Orlando awakens as a woman. As he sleeps on, doctors are summoned, they examine him, and finally, with great and deliberate pomp, they declare, "The Lord Orlando is sleeping." I often think of that line with longing for such an epic and transformative sleep. Meanwhile the tents and all the apparatus of sleeping at OWS was the unglamorous (and courageous) nitty-gritty basis of what they were doing and maybe what drives authorities craziest. They are (they were) lying outside at night, vulnerable, for us, and collectively they were dreaming for us.

BR: It is interesting; when we started this interview, you were talking about doing figurative work again. How do you see what you are actually doing now as being different from how you pictured it would be?

MS: It was funny to read now what I said in our earlier interview, "I can't quite envision a way to represent myself as a figure in painting."Now most of the recent paintings are inhabited by a sketchily drawn figurative avatar of self, wearing glasses. I think I couldn't imagine it because all my earlier figurative work had been pretty tightly painted one way or another, and my goal was to move toward a more painterly expression in oil paint. For example, my figurative and narrative Story paintings from the early Seventies were painted really differently than I do now; then, I literally filled gouache color into line drawings. And the body I represented at age 22 was a lot differently imagined than the one that appears in my work now: then it was that of a girl growing her sexuality; now it is a barely gendered, barely embodied person walking around, sleeping, watching, reading. Some people have read my current avatar with its blocky head and large glasses as a walking camera rather than a human figure. But, in fact, there's a chain from narrative drawings I did in childhood to the current figuration. And painting language, which remains central to my work, is in part another form of figuration, though with a certain objectivity and power derived from the power of "speech" over "voice" or embodiment.

When I started painting in oil, in the Eighties, I was as scared as any intro-painting student by the uncontrollable aspects of oil paint, the fear of "mud." At first I couldn't figure out how to achieve the freedom that I had gained using pastel and dry pigment on rice paper in my work from the early Eighties, but once I gained some control over oil, the goal has been to lose control. The process is sort of a throwback to Abstract Expressionism's ethos of "finding the painting" or of the painting as an arena for an action, though that ethos is grafted to a conceptual program. Desperation is a good motivator -- when you really feel you have nothing to lose because the painting seems so bad. A work needs at some point to become unmoored from intentionality, and the path to that is engagement with materiality, even if you have a conceptual frame.

BR: When we talked in your studio while you were working on these pieces, I mentioned Plato's Cave -- which you had already written about -- but maybe Walter Benjamin is closer to these works. He wrote about the Truth content with regard to art: "The transformation of material content into Truth content makes the loss of effect, whereby the attractiveness of the earlier dream [of Renaissance or Medieval art] diminishes decade by decade ... in which all ephemeral beauty is stripped off...." It sounds contradictory, but your paintings are both very beautiful and steeped in the arcana of painting, but they seem to be in the process of shedding a tradition of painting, getting down to the elements of what makes a painting a painting.

MS: Thanks for that perception, both parts of it, but particularly the idea that I'm shedding a tradition of painting while trying to get at the elements of what makes a painting a painting -- sounds good to me. But what you are seeing and saying is something that must be said by others than myself. What I can say is that my identity as a painter has always been caught, in a generative way, between the traditions of painting and the proclamations of the death of painting, of the object, of the individual artist, of private studio practice -- everything that has become the doxa of contemporary art.

When, in my late teens and early twenties, I first declared that the works I was doing were paintings, they were absolutely not accepted as such because the work was small, gouache on paper, figurative, and autobiographical; early on what I was doing was dismissed as illustration. This was at the tail end of the dominance of Greenbergian formalism. So right off the bat I was propelled by rejection of my claims for my work, into a place outside of "painting." Feminism clarified the underlying ideologies to me and made me understand more clearly what I had intuited before, that what I was doing was a political act, was artwork with a political valence, even when it did not have the overt markers of "political art." Then, conceptual art's use of language helped release me from a bond of admiration to the great traditions of painting and from a bond to figurative representation; it provided a portal to language as image. These shifts all took place in my earliest years as an artist.

A bit later the work was really more sculpture made of paper than painting, but I still called myself a painter. It got more complicated when I went through a phase of saying that I was a painter for whom sculpture was at the heart of my work and then that I was a conceptual artist who was a painter. But all these identifications really do exist simultaneously. I'm always bringing something from one faction or identity into the other, in ways that have generally made both sides uncomfortable and that give my paintings maybe a sense of, as Mike Minelli recently wrote, "not resting easy on the wall." Maybe that's what you are picking up on when you say I'm shedding the traditions of painting while trying to get to the heart of it.

In a number of the paintings I've done during the past year, my little avatar of self contemplates the displacement of pictorialism to other media than painting. "The Displacement of Pictorialism" was the title of a piece that was going to be a chapter in A Decade of Negative Thinking, but I never finished it. Whenever I find myself in a darkened gallery or museum space looking at a large video projection on the wall, I think of how the painting that once would have occupied this space has been displaced because it is no longer seen as a contemporary interlocutor; its physicality is cast aside, only to be replaced by a projected image on exactly the same square footage. The only change is the displacement of faith in one medium to another, not the circumstance of pictorialism. What's the diff? Or, what the fuck? I think that's why I'm so interested in the objectness of painting -- painting as a "thing." So my little figure sits under a tree and looks at two cartouches hanging from it: one says "sociality"; the other says "The space where painting was," and a heavy ball, like an overloaded wasp's nest weighing down the tree branch, contains the word "matter." Meanwhile, the painting itself is a small oil sketch/ink drawing, so it is itself barely a painting -- somewhere between an oil-assisted drawing and a cartoon.

BR: We spoke about Ad Reinhardt's cartoons and what if Reinhardt had tried to merge his passion for satirical art commentary in his cartoons, and his reductive passion for painting, into one highly contingent work. But maybe that's stretching it; you may feel that the work itself is closer to Guston in style and spirit, with a touch of Indian miniature painting, and some of Florine Stettheimer and Remedios Varo thrown in, in your diffident and studious figures. But my take is a little different: with Reinhardt and Guston there was a definite separation between text and image; I see your painting and writing concerns becoming synthesized. There isn't as great a distinction between where one begins and one ends.

MS: At this point I feel I just have to get to whatever I want to, and that means disregarding artificial distinctions imposed by others. I see that too in the way I approach writing now. For a long time I felt I had to write to a certain academic standard so that my arguments were solidly enough grounded in research and theory that they might be taken seriously in the arena I aimed them at. It was a necessary discipline at the time, but I don't feel I have to do that now. In my blog, A Year of Positive Thinking, I develop an idea in a kind of pressure-cooker method, and there's a free flow between research, politics, artworks, and some of my own photographs and drawings related to the subject at hand. I try to be as thorough as I can, but I'm working to the speed and range of the web.

Similarly, in the recent paintings I'm really speeding up the relations between theory and practice, reading and painting. A number of key paintings have been done in the following manner: In the summer I lie under my favorite tree and read books on contemporary art and theory. Usually I look for books that articulate views seemingly oppositional to my own. I thrive on the resistance they offer, though last summer, in addition, I read some writings and lectures by Philip Guston, as well as a book on his late work, and also the wonderful writings of Morton Feldman. I always keep a notebook near me when I read because I find it useful to engage in a kind of parallel thinking: reading makes me think and write, but not necessarily directly to the specific text (those annotations go directly into the margins of the book). I also have a pile of small sketchbooks, ink markers, and pencils next to me (and some chocolate chip cookies and ice tea -- as you can see, I'm describing Paradise). I sketch to the readings and against them, responding as immediately as possible to my embodied sensations as I lie there, to the text as to the unseen birds chirping loudly in the tree above me. I try to capture the sense of myself lying there, reading and thinking without regard for any kind of representational correctness, in the aim of a more important accuracy, like an internal gesture drawing of a state of mind/body. Then I spring up, run into the studio, and as quickly as I can, I transfer one of these drawings to canvas in what I call oil-assisted drawings, Then these produce the further challenge of how to keep the spontaneity of drawing intact while continuing the conversation in paintings that begin and end with oil on linen only.

BR: You've given your upcoming show at Marvelli Gallery the title Voice and Speech. I see layers of meaning in it -- voice is to speech as seeing is to looking. However, one must also master speech in order to have voice.

MS: Yes, exactly. A couple of paintings feature those words. I was inspired by an idea put forward in Michel de Certeau's The Practice of Everyday Life. His theme is that there exists a knowledge that precedes theory and that retains "voice" even when "speech" attempts to subsume it. It is the same knowledge that causes the city dweller to inscribe living patterns of usage onto the fixed grid of the planned city; it's the knowledge of the folkloric, of craft. He writes, "In turn, 'the voice' will also insinuate itself into the text as a mark or a trace, an effect of a metonymy of the body...a transitory figure, an indiscreet ghost, a 'pagan' or 'wild' reminiscence in the scriptural economy, a disturbing sound from a different tradition, and a pre-text for interminable interpretive productions."

I may be creatively misreading de Certeau -- other writers from this period reverse the meaning, giving "speech" the meaning I'm giving to "voice" -- but "voice" and "speech" are what I do: the feminist project of bringing the "voice" of living inside a woman's body with a mind into the "speech" of art, as co-editor of M/E/A/N/I/N/G with Susan Bee giving visual artists a public space in which to participate in "speech," as a writer bridging the gap between the "voice" of painting and the "speech" of art theory, as a painter of language bridging the gap between two systems of knowledge and returning "speech" to "voice." I'm always seeking to valorize "voice" while giving "speech" to "voice."

BR: I am looking forward to seeing your show. I am sure you are too. I think that seeing your new pieces is going to be quite an event, especially in New York, at a moment when painting, serious painting, is really needed. Any thoughts?

MS: It feels like an interesting moment for me to have this opportunity to show my work, when the art world may be reconsidering or reflecting on excess, and values may be shifting. I hope my work's mix of materiality and thought, interiority and politics, has an emotion that is tuned to the time.

I'm looking forward to installing the show. The works are small, and the space is imposing, with long walls and high ceilings, so right now I'm thinking about how to present the individual paintings while establishing visual rhythm and narrative structure. My work always has a narrative and discursive aspect, so I'm interested in my shows having an underlying narrative, though not at all an overt one, but one that somehow is communicated to the viewer as a subtext that may be intuited: each painting is an individual work, and represents a thought, yet is part of a larger thread of thought.

In this group of work there are a few major themes or progressions along an idea: the idea of contemporary art, painting and theory; the idea of time; the idea of the dream of social change. There are a couple of connections I want to make to slightly older paintings of individual words. Having some sense of sequencing and chronology matters, though it's possible that a less narrative or more metonymic sequencing will work best in the space.

But I'm most interested in the narrative I don't know about yet, in what will become apparent when the work is up. I'm interested in what the paintings will tell me about what the next paintings will be. The world and my daily life will always suggest "subjects," but the works themselves suggest directions in investigating painting itself.