New York

Mira Schor, Bear Triptych (Part II), 1972, gouache on paper, 30 × 22". From the suite Bear Triptych, 1972–73.

Mira Schor, Bear Triptych (Part II), 1972, gouache on paper, 30 × 22". From the suite Bear Triptych, 1972–73.

Mira Schor

As a painter, writer, teacher, and recipient of this year’s Women’s Caucus for Art Lifetime Achievement Award—in addition to being a dedicated cultural commentator on her blog,—Mira Schor freely roams between art criticism and artmaking. Her gestural renderings of text are as tactile as her fluid, figurative imagery, treating language and bodies as constitutive elements of consciousness. A keen feminist analysis is as present and salient in her images as it is in her thoughtful, clear-sighted essays. Schor’s show “California Paintings: 1971–1973” brought us back to the beginning of her career trajectory; namely, her graduate-school years at CalArts. The works here, most of which hadn’t been shown since they were originally made—and some of which had never been seen before—included Glimmer, 1973, a gouache-and-pencil drawing on paper of sharp-tipped cacti leaves, one spraying blood. The drawing was appended with a list of words and phrases such as PRODIGAL RETURNS . . . OR MYTHS TEARS STIGMA. This would seem to be where she first introduced her now-signature motif of handwritten annotations on painterly or otherwise tactile grounds. Additionally, a vitrine of archival photographs and sketchbooks, among other ephemera, framed the exhibited works as artifacts of a particular time and place.

Schor was enrolled in CalArts’s legendary but short-lived Feminist Art Program, led by Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro. Her immersion in its emotionally and intellectually heady curriculum surely had a profound impact. But Southern California’s natural and man-made landscapes also seem to have been a clear influence on her imagery, especially given that Schor was raised by artist parents in a Jewish émigré community in New York before she landed in Los Angeles’s expansive suburbs. The Bear Triptych, 1972–73, and Car Triptych, 1972—both gouache on paper—are unsettling and surreal tableaux of palm trees, cacti, and a luxe vehicle. They also depict women and animals gathered together, entangled with one another, or simply floating above it all, in the manner of the ascending gal in Car Triptych (Part II). SoCal’s peculiar desolation peeks out in the receding perspective of Bear Triptych (Part II), 1972, where a woman with an injured hand stands at a safe distance from a blood-spattered brown bear. The mammal appears unruffled by the wounding, as if violence was just as normal as a palm tree or well-maintained hedge in paradise (and as someone who grew up in LA, I assure you it is).

This body of work, brought back more than forty-five years later, complemented other reappearances this spring. Serendipitously displayed at Red Bull Arts, across town from Schor’s Lyles & King show, was Gretchen Bender’s installation Flash Art, 1987, which threw shade at the painter David Salle, favorite son of the 1980s, for his depiction of women. The year before Bender made the work, Schor’s first published essay appeared in the premier issue of the journal M/E/A/N/I/N/G, which she and the artist Susan Bee ran between 1986 and 1996. Titled “Appropriated Sexuality,” it was a pull-no-punches critique of Salle in which she concluded: “A vicarious suicide, David Salle savages women rather than savage himself. This is considered appropriate sexuality, and this is a source of his market value.” This sentiment was echoed by the radical feminist author Andrea Dworkin in 1981, in a text now excerpted in the recently published anthology Last Days at Hot Slit: “In pornography, men express the tenets of their unchanging faith . . . to ward off recognition that a commitment to masculinity is a double-edged commitment to both suicide and genocide.”

Men creating any kind of image of a woman were taken more seriously than women committed to taking seriously their own depictions of themselves, their interior lives, or the structural ideology mediating and generating their sense of reality. As Schor relates in the intro to her essay collection Wet: On Painting, Feminism, and Art Culture (1997), a curator once sat in her studio puzzling over whether to understand her paintings as mostly political or purely formal. Schor wanted to say, “Stop right there, the whole point is that they are both!” Breaking down binaries is of top concern these days, and she’s been doing it all along.