New York

Miriam Shapiro

André Emmerich Gallery downtown

Miriam Shapiro has, except for a few lingering traces, abandoned the illusionist, hard-edge paintings of a few years ago. Her new paintings are motley collages of snips of fabric and acrylic. Schapiro’s political activities are fairly well known so there is a temptation to read some sort of feminist connotation into her choice of materials, but whatever interpretation this choice doesn’t seem a matter of great consequence. Most of the paintings are complicated with a ground of a simple configuration covered by many quiltlike bits of fabric, whose placement seems not so much random as arbitrary. Her work at Emmerich has, however, great variation. Two paintings, Nine Patch Quilt, have the same symmetrical construction of patches of different kinds, colors, and patterns of cloth, and resemble the backs of matched decks of enormous playing cards. While the structure—the size, shape, number, and placement of pieces of fabric—of both paintings is the same, the specific pieces of fabric holding equivalent places within the structure are not the same, especially with respect to color and print pattern. The nature of the differences in the printed patterns constitutes detail, and the dissimilarity of the paintings. But because this sort of interest can’t be inferred from any of the other paintings in the show, to make much of a point of it here is probably over-inferring.

Schapiro often uses lengths of various kinds of ribbons as surrogate stripes, and in The Secret Garden the collage of fabric elements is almost representational. The simplest, and for me most interesting painting, is Curtains, made of paint and lace curtain trimmings. The literal curtain trimmings on the right side of the ribbon window sash and the depicted curtains on the left side appear to veil areas of rough pastel colors, almost in a kind of Rauschenberg-Newman synthesis. The painting alternately presents an engaging illusion of seeing through to an ambiguous deep space and a Iiteral, material flatness. The illusions on each half of the painting seem almost different in kind: one is literally seeing through one half and only illusionistically through the other.

Each of the paintings mentioned is unlike each other and the other paintings in the show. There is no reason all the paintings in a show should be similar, but there should be a reason for their dissimilarity, and conversely. One explanation offered by Schapiro in a videotape accompanying the show is that the paintings cover the whole spectrum of her emotional states, from depression and anger to hilarity. I can accept the fact that she is expressing her emotions in these paintings, but I know I am not receiving whatever the expressions are. Physical objects cannot express emotions, or at least they cannot express them to me, and if physical objects can express emotions to anyone else, I’d be very curious to know how that works. Even within the general incoherence of esthetics, generally the term “expression of emotion” doesn’t mean the kind of emotion Schapiro names. In the case of esthetics, my problem is that I can’t understand what is purportedly being said; in Schapiro’s case, I do understand; and I understand as well that the notion simply doesn’t make sense. People may express emotions, perhaps even other animals or even plants could be said to express emotions. But what would it mean to say an inanimate object expresses emotions? If such an object can be said to express emotions, what sort of emotions do these things have to express? In Curtains and the two paintings Nine Patch Quilt, none of this seems to matter, but in Schapiro’s work as a whole, the problem seems to be fundamental.

Bruce Boice