The work has to be…
To say that the work has to be an expression of who I am, at any minute, is to point to a very subjective criterion and would indicate a very subjective art practice. That is something that has been frowned upon in certain influential circles in the art world since at least the 1980s, in the years of the “death of the author,” although it could be argued that any work, even the most deliberately distanced and impersonal, in fact perhaps especially work for which claims of rigorous objectivity are made, is still an expression of who the artist is at that minute.
Every artist works within a number of contexts and territories, so that “this minute” is also the cultural moment—a network of discourses, histories, and ideologies that are always at stake.
Right this minute, I am occupied with the ground. As a painter, I work with figure and ground, the contrapuntal relational relation that has long been under attack, so that the ground is always already ideological, a discursive field upon which we operate, a field occupied by often antithetical forces. The ground is also a given of our daily existence, the very surface we walk on and are buried within. My recent paintings are organized and installed according to the grass or cement demarcation line between sky and earth, austerity and fertility, conformism and experimentation, public and private.
These paintings present a flat ground upon which a schematically drawn figure rests, sleeps, reads, thinks, in a diagrammatic relation to nature and theory. The figure is an avatar of self, thus the figure, “me,” is a she, but at an age where one is no longer a “woman” in relation to the desire of the generic male gaze. This point at which a woman is invisible but seeing is an interesting moment, and one that interested me even before I became a woman who isn’t seen—a woman who’s over forty, whom most people don’t look at in the street anymore. No longer the bleeding body, she is liberated to herself become the gaze. She is a walking pair of eyeglasses, and rays of vision move reciprocally between her and the world. She is at once an eight-year-old girl, observing the world with fresh joy, and Miss Marple, the fluffy little old lady with a mind like a steel trap who sees the darkness below the surface of civilized society.
Right this minute, the avatar’s anonymous embodiment of “me,” the artist and writer Mira Schor engaged in a lifelong narrative project of bringing the experience of living inside a female body—with a mind—into high art in as intact a form as possible, demands that the “I” who will continue to speak here, in this text, must do so in the form of stories told in the third person, as “she,” “the artist,” “the figure,” because she has spoken enough in the first person. Now she desires interpretation and exegesis; she does not want to be the only person speaking, but if she is, she must do so as an other.
One summer the artist reads Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation (2004). It’s a gripping tale about how the tradition of the commons and other folk experience–based crafts and practices that had developed in the medieval period were forcibly, often violently, eliminated and suppressed as part of the transition from late feudalism to early capitalism and the regime of “primitive accumulation.” The body of woman was a major battleground in this rationalization of labor and philosophy: this was the period of the witch hunts.
Federici’s analysis of traditions of medieval culture, before early capitalism set out to destroy shared spaces, such as the commons in villages in England, recalls to the artist history lessons from grade school, including the medieval practice of leaving a field to lie fallow so that it can restore itself. For the artist, this has long been a powerful but threatening metaphor for the patterns of her creative life. There is always the fear: what if the field does not come back? Nevertheless, lying under the tree she looks at the grass upon which her chaise longue rests, and with x-ray vision she places her avatar of self beneath the earth.
The figure in the ground is not dead; she is hiding under the grass until the storm passes; or she is restoring her creative energy and her ability to fight the forces that she feels wish to suppress her or her kind.
Flower versus Doxa
Doxa represents the enforcer wing of a discourse ongoing since she became an artist. This doxa holds that the medium that she loves, her mother tongue of visual language—painting—is dead. This sounds like an old joke, but last year she obediently took notes as one of her graduate students explained to her why painting cannot be the medium to express contemporary experience. Nevertheless, she is drawn to the antithetical, and although this antithetical discourse that she feels she must negotiate is a shape-shifter, its basic purpose remains functionally the same. This discourse posits the real as the only living art medium—the real of the appropriated product of commodity culture, or the real of the performing body of the artist. It posits the photographic, then the technological, because only the newest medium widely used can express contemporary experience. It posits that its goal is to destroy visual pleasure because of visual pleasure’s complicity with patriarchy and commodity culture. It posits that in a period of disintegration of the social contracts achieved with great travail in the period between the Enlightenment and the middle of the twentieth century, art of social engagement is the most morally tenable mode of action. It assumes that painting cannot be a space of social engagement because it is compromised by its preeminent utility as a commodity within the art industry. She welcomes the inspiration and the challenge of these views, but she remembers Ida Applebroog, Nancy Spero, Philip Guston, Leon Golub, Goya, Ensor.
Despite this ongoing discourse against painting as a medium for critical or socially engaged contemporary expression, the artist has come to the conclusion that there is no longer such as a thing as discourse, despite the infinite proliferation of discourses and identifications nurtured within academia. The illogic of the market trumps all. Nevertheless doxa continues to arrogate to itself the job of policing prescribed positions. Because the artist emerged from the same discursive matrix as doxa, she is attuned to its subtexts and knows that no matter what space she occupies, she is not in the right space according to doxa. Therefore, she tells herself, just do a stupid painting. And when deeply seated aesthetic criteria reassert themselves, she reassures herself: the painting you just painted is already the stupidest painting you could paint, so the pressure is off. This is a variant of a trick she has often used to get back into her work after any long interruption, those inorganically fallow periods imposed by the schedule of the world, not her own. What would that mean, a stupid painting, since doxa has posited painting as irrelevant and the market accepts whatever it wants? But she is still engaged in a work of critique because even when she tries to paint something stupid—what could be stupider than a child’s version of a Marimekko-like flower?—she cannot abandon criticality but will not concede that visual pleasure is the exclusive province of the market. She asserts a hybrid engagement—not just the duality of artist/writer, but within the work itself, the duality of criticality and visual pleasure.
The artist began a group of paintings last summer by trying to map Conditions of Contemporary Practice. The figure walks away from some of the contradictory conditions of contemporary practice of any kind, not just art: celebrity culture, which tempts but excludes most of us, and austerity measures that most of us are suffering under. The figure walks toward or is pulled forward by what seem like more productive spaces of productive anonymity, experimentation, and benign neglect.
Productive anonymity is the ability to experiment without much at stake except your own process of discovery. It is a fact often overlooked that many works of art that are now canonized were done when the artists worked within productive communities not yet divided by the critical and material success of some and the relative obscurity of others, and that the work done when the artist works within celebrity culture is often safer and less challenging or interesting. Productive anonymity fosters experimentation. Benign neglect is, for the artist, the ability to do things with just enough attention to make you feel like you are part of a world and can go forward but not so much attention that your gesture becomes a trademark and a creative dead end (see Schor 2013). The artist doesn’t want to be killed or imprisoned for doing her work, and she even craves recognition, but she knows that the glare of celebrity culture can foreclose on creative interaction, so benign neglect seems a good place to work. But then a friend reminds her that the term “benign neglect” was used by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1970 in a memo to President Richard Nixon recommending that “the issue of race could benefit from a period of ‘benign neglect,’” a social policy thought to have ushered in the undermining of the welfare state that we see in its fullest measure today. Her friend assures her that her use of the term is, in fact, exactly related to her intended politics.
The painting began with an underdrawing, still visible as a pentimento or as the previous frame of an animation, in which the figure is on a less level playing field and walks purposefully down to the end of a small patch of tilting ground. The painting never resolves itself until the artist understands that it must be left as such, a rough sketch of a rough situation.
One evening the artist gets off the subway at the 79th and Broadway station in New York City, in a neighborhood where recent surveys show that the median income, although said to be dropping, is still very high in relation to most parts of the city and the world. Something anomalous in her peripheral vision stops her from moving out and up with the crowd. In a curved corner of the station wall there is something that looks at first like a black garbage bag. But in nearly the same instant, the nature of what was anomalous is revealed: the artist realizes that the black form is in fact a person, tiny, turned toward the wall, seated on a small bag, completely shrouded in a black coat except for two tiny feet in what look like Chinese cloth shoes. These two little feet provide the only clue that this is indeed a human being and not a garbage bag. The little subway figure is in the most exposed and public and therefore perhaps the safest space in the subway station, in full view of an at least fictionally functioning CCTV camera, yet the little subway figure has taken every precaution to be invisible, by that most childlike of tricks, that of obscuring her own field of vision under the dark cloth.
The artist waits until everyone else who got off the train with her has exited the station so that she can take a picture; she approaches a few steps closer and takes one more picture. She goes up the stairs, profoundly marked, thinking to herself, “there but for the grace of God go I.” Current economic precarity makes the subway figure’s situation seem to the woman artist like a possible fate, even if it is not a likelihood. A few days later, she shows the picture to a student working on a public art commission for a subway station in Great Britain. A well-educated Briton, he is unfamiliar with the expression “there but for the grace of God go I.” She has to explain it to him, thinking to herself that his unfamiliarity with this saying may be a sad indicator of the degree to which we have become a Darwinian society where the privileged cannot envision themselves as ever sharing the same fate as the destitute. The artist passes through this subway station daily but she never sees the little subway figure again. She always takes note of the absence.
Reversible Painting: Map
The little figure had been sitting near the subway map. We need the map for our underground journeys but it imposes patterns, orders us to be in order—it can be a guide or an imperative. But another underground exists, the chthonic space of the earth beneath a garden, where thought, restoration, and creativity can occur in private. “This minute,” below or above, depending on how you hang the painting, is an Arcadian midsummer moment in which time and matter slow enough to be studied at leisure by the artist’s avatar of self, and above or below, depending on how you hang the painting, is another avatar of self, the subway figure, shrouded to near invisibility for self-protection, in a temporary and barren shelter, with only the guidance of a map, which offers no directional guidance, simply the idea of a map or of mapping. The reversible painting suggests that the process of expropriation seems to be in a kind of stasis or impasse, a topsy-turvy that remains unresolved or, simply, dual.
The artist’s productive studio life has developed according to strangely agrarian rhythms. She was born in New York City; its tempo determines hers. In the winter, she enjoys the jostling of conflicting antithetical ideas that cannot be avoided, even if she thinks there is no longer any discourse, nevertheless the city is a bracingly discursive field, but then and there she also spends her time cultivating other people’s gardens; she must try to keep up with imperatives of other people’s agendas and timetables. In the summer, in a reversal of Persephone’s journey to the underworld, though enacting the same split, she plunges into the quiet of a garden near the sea and immerses herself in her own mind: she reads, draws, paints. She considers the discourse from a useful distance and she cultivates her own garden.
In this agrarian time, the summer spent in the chthonic space has always been cast by rationalist thought as the “dream,” while the winter existence is one of wakefulness—it is “reality.” But as the first line of the Japanese Noh play Atsumori suggests, “Life is a lying dream, he only wakes / Who casts the world aside” (see Keene 1995). The time we live on the clock of 24/7 is a closed time, one that makes every minute that passes a failure of potential productivity (Crary 2013). The time of the chthonic space, of the “dream,” expands without limitations.
Morning in America
The “dream” is not immune to pressure from “reality.” It is almost easier to live in “reality”; its demands and its sense of importance are such that it erases the individual’s dream, which goes underground. The “dream,” inactivated, may sap the strength of its host. But once the artist is plunged into the “dream,” the conflict between dream and reality may be even more unbearable because “reality” is still there as a ticking alarm clock. So, at the end of a summer of intense productivity in the studio, driven at once by a “real” deadline and by the momentum of her ideas, the artist is painting so fast that if she were walking she would, like many of her figures, be on the verge of falling flat on her face. That speed allows her to finally get to the painting she wanted to paint when she worked on Conditions of Contemporary Practice a few weeks earlier. Both paintings are based on the sketchiest of sketchbook drawings, where the figure is at the edge of nonexistence and language, scrawled notations, most of them appropriated from Nigerian scam e-mails, and a verbatim quote—“I’m glad to see you are keeping busy”—a haplessly cheery and also ineffably condescending comment in an e-mail from a former student written to the artist/educator. The artist feels that she has for that minute, at least, brought into “high art,” in the old mode of painting, with as little self-censorship as possible, what it feels like to live inside a female body with a mind now, barely able to live either above or below ground, harassed by voices from above who impinge on her privacy, mock her labor, and assure her that their virtuality is, in fact, real.
Some portions of this text were adapted from recent interviews with the artist, from “Productive Anonymity,” written for the February 2013 issue of the Brooklyn Rail, and from “Day by Day in the Studio,” a series of fourteen blog posts she wrote in the summer of 2013 on her blog A Year of Positive Thinking, ayearofpositivethinking.com/2013/07/13/day-by-day-in-the-studio-1-july-13-2013/.
Reproductions courtesy of the artist.