New York

Collier Schorr

Camouflaged in the trappings of the Vietnam era—well-worn fatigues, muscle cars, transistor radios, Jane Fonda—Collier Schorr’s recent exhibition spoke directly to contemporary conditions with one of the most powerful political statements to appear this fall. “There I Was” focused on Charlie “Astoria Chas” Snyder, a nineteen-year-old drag racer photographed by Schorr’s father in 1967 just before leaving for ’Nam. Snyder and his “Ko-Motion” Sting Ray Corvette were featured in CARS magazine, but Astoria Chas was killed in combat even before the issue hit newsstands. In this new body of work, a boy and his Ko-Motion are the subjects, but the theme is our current war.

While the exhibition included a few photographs in the seductive style for which Schorr is well known—a helmeted boy silhouetted against the forest (M., 2002) and a teenager in repose on a wooden platform (Summer [asleep], 2004), the red tint of which lends it the air of a faded family snapshot—there was also a vitrine of miscellanea related to Snyder, his car, and the conflict in which he took part. But most significant were Schorr’s pencil drawings. More than twenty of these sketches—derived from the artist’s father’s photographs, Snyder and his friends’ Vietnam snapshots, and reportage images—were on display here. Rather than risk kitsch by attempting to reconstruct Snyder through the camera lens, Schorr renders what she could not have witnessed by producing rough pencil illustrations.

Chas Posing for My Dad, 2007, shows a young man in T-shirt and jeans, bending over the open hood of a car; his tousled hair covers his face and one hand is lost in the tangle of wires. In Motion/Camaro, 2007, a car rumbles across the page with a black-and-white photo of Baldwin Chevrolet’s logo, as seen on the door of Snyder’s car, pasted over the windshield. Two sets of initials serve as the artist’s signature: MLS and CS. Martyn L. Schorr, the artist’s father, is credited in this drawing, but in others an even more eerie doubling occurs when the works are signed CS 68 / CS 07. Crediting both Charlie Snyder and herself, Schorr holds the past and present in delicate balance, insisting upon a correspondence between the war in Vietnam and the present-day one in Iraq. Without fully conflating one with the other, Schorr’s double signature unequivocally underlines the importance of Vietnam in our understanding of the current situation.

In February 2007, Schorr published, in these pages, a portfolio titled There I was . . . . Newspaper headlines about deaths in Iraq and the conflict between Israel and Hamas in Lebanon were collaged with images from her own archives, blurring the lines between the real and the playacted. If the portfolio confronted the fantasy of war, the exhibition (now without the ellipsis and its new-car smell of possibility) placed that fantasy at a further remove, one necessary for us to process the images involved without falling prey to nostalgia. No longer the puppeteer, Schorr makes drawings that feel refreshingly hesitant, as if she were unsure how far to take them, unprotected as they are by photographs’ gloss.

“There I Was” is a testament to the ever-present memory of Vietnam and the protest culture we have come to associate with the era. It also recognizes that such a memory insufficiently describes today’s war. As we so often retreat into the reassuring stance of ’70s nostalgia (witness Richard Prince’s kandy-kolored, tangerine-flake 1970 Dodge Challenger on display recently at the Frieze Art Fair), Schorr challenges us to step beyond sentiment. Hers is a critical lesson; we come to terms with the present only through the past, but the past should not—cannot—stand in for the present.

Rachel Churner

#image 2#