Mira Schor

Mira Schor: "Painting in The Space Where Painting Used to Be”

October 22, 2011 – December 18, 2011

Press Release | Images | Essay | Resume


Some Walls is pleased to present Mira Schor: "Painting in The Space Where Painting Used to Be,” an exhibition of paintings from October 22 – December 18, 2011.

Mira Schor is a New York-based artist and writer noted for her advocacy of painting in a post-medium visual culture and for her contributions to feminist art history. This exhibition presents a unique opportunity to see her work, as it marks the first time she has shown in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Schor shows five paintings, each of which depicts the complex and engaging interaction of figure and language; installed and encountered as a group, they offer a rich dialog about painting’s purpose, gender, speech, and creative life.

In her essay "Modest Painting," from her most recently published book, A Decade of Negative Thinking: Essays on Art, Politics, and Daily Life, Schor writes, "Modest painting does not aspire to historical importance through physical domination of the viewer or the room in which it is placed via monumentality of size." Schor’s paintings may be small in size, but the scale of her work is ambitious and generous. Seemingly simple, minimal, and schematic, Schor’s paintings, direct and modest in size, raise big questions, offer pleasure and intrigue, provoke sizable commentary, and propose enormous possibility and imagination.

Recent solo exhibitions include: CB1 Gallery, Los Angeles; and Momenta Art, Brooklyn.

Recent group exhibitions include: Schroeder Romero & Shredder, New York; Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, Atlanta, GA; and David Nolan Gallery, New York.

Schor is the author of A Decade of Negative Thinking: Essays on Art, Politics, and Daily Life, and Wet: On Painting, Feminism, and Art Culture, editor of The Extreme of the Middle: Writings of Jack Tworkov, and co-editor of M/E/A/N/I/N/G: An Anthology of Artists’ Writings, Theory, and Criticism. She has a blog of her writings on art and politics, A Year of Positive Thinking.

She is an Associate Teaching Professor in the MFA Fine Arts Program at Parsons The New School For Design, and is represented by CB1 Gallery in Los Angeles.

See images, an essay, and biography.

Some Walls is a curatorial and writing art project founded in 2009 in a private home in Oakland, California. Some Walls is open by appointment only. View the exhibition online at somewalls.com. To schedule a visit, or for more information, please contact Chris Ashley at info@somewalls.com.

Previous exhibitions at Some Walls:





Mira Schor: “Painting in The Space Where Painting Used to Be”

Writings about New York artist Mira Schor’s paintings on the occasion of her recent solo show at CB1 Gallery in Los Angeles[1] reference the historical, theoretical, and feminist context for her work, insightfully describe and explain her use of words and punctuation in the paintings, and offer Schor’s work as, given the history of continual assault on painting, a new kind of painting or, even, a model pointing the way towards painting’s continued viability.

In the excellent catalog essay[2] for Schor’s exhibition Amelia Jones notes the importance of Schor’s study in the Feminist Art Program at California Institute of the Arts, and provides background about Schor’s work as an artist, writer, thinker, and feminist. Regarding Schor’s work, Jones writes, "…she paints in order to ‘paint paint,’ or— as I would slightly revise this to encompass the radical fleshiness of her practice—her practice enacts painting the act of painting, thereby extending but radically updating the classic modernist project of addressing in each medium the characteristics of the medium itself (to paraphrase Clement Greenberg)." In terms of Schor’s pursuits and intention, Jones cites Schor’s essay "Modest Painting" published in her most recent book, A Decade of Negative Thinking, and points out that the paintings, "…may look to be low key and unassuming. But, when engaged with the full range of haptic sensation that they elicit, the paintings can open to complex worlds of affect as well as what Schor in "Modest Painting" champions as ambition for painting itself rather than career ambition. By making thought (and feeling) material, they achieve a kind of exchange of potential meaning, feeling, and experience that only non-explicit modes of communication can attain."

Mike Minelli’s extensive review[3] provides a mini-overview of Schor’s painting of the past two decades, from the earlier "word and punctuation" series, to the subsequent "thought balloon" works, which he calls transitional, and on to the more recent figurative works. Citing Lacan’s discourse of difference as affording, "…early seventies feminism a working model from which to describe, represent, and in turn resist the machinations of patriarchal oppression," he suggests that Schor’s use of language in painting, specifically her use of terms employed by Lacan, defies historical and gender-based expectations for painting, opening it to the possibility of proposing or presenting the female body, consciousness, and experience in a way not before possible. "In place of the assertive criticality seen in Schor’s earlier word paintings," Minelli writes about Schor’s "thought balloon" paintings, "one now reads vulnerability and the creep of abstraction. What are words for? What are pictures for? What is paint for? How does one paint their failure?" Finally, he calls the recent stick figure works both comic and tragic self-portraits, in which the schematic figure is, "…seen sitting, reading, writing, thinking, and walking…the self as a schematic," and that, "In effect, by rendering a sketch of what one does, one sees one’s self…as in a mirror. It is through this act of recognition that the self is then spoken. No longer stopped up, now the idea is free to leave the mouth: ‘This is what I do’; ‘This is me.’"

Shifting from others’ words[4] to look closely at a few individual paintings, we can observe what they share and how they’re different from each other, and, based on what is actually present in the materials and her marks and decisions, discuss several possible ways to look at, think about, and experience Mira Schor’s paintings.

On the occasion this essay documents, five of Schor’s paintings, two of words and three figurative works still referencing or using language, are hung in a single row, with two just a little closer together to ensure their shared dialog is observed. Two paintings are dated 2011, two are 2010, and one, Lack, is from 1997. All of the paintings measure 12 x 16 inches; while the stretchers of the four newer works are 1.5 inches deep, the 1997 stretcher is .75 inches deep. All are oil on linen, except for Thinking of Thinking, 2011, which is ink on gesso on linen. At a glance, the palette these works share is simply black, white, and umber. The surfaces vary: shiny versus matte; brushed versus spread and smoothed with a knife; and direct and opaque versus layered or translucent. A range of approaches to painting are used: the word "lack" is made by rubbing into and erasing the Flemish-like field of dark brown paint; on Thinking of "Thing," delicate strokes of ink sink into and bleed forward from the matte gesso surface, a combination of glaze and fresco; on Thing the title word is written in cursive and surrounded by gray paint carefully following and caressing the letters’ contours (I think of Morandi); the figure and objects in First Idea uses sgraffito stained and wiped with umber, like scored clay or an etching plate; and on the sparse, flat, creamy, sleek surface of The Space Where Painting Used to Be, thin Dufy-like calligraphic strokes of liquid black rapidly draw a seated reading figure and delineate a few words. All of the paintings include words, except for First Idea, in which text is referred to by roughly scratched-in lines across the pages of an open book the figure carries; Thinking of "Thing" contains a similar image. These observations serve as evidence not only of Schor’s knowledge and use of painting’s history and techniques, but also are useful in understanding how the use of different painting techniques inform and effect meanings and ideas.

Encountering Lack, those who know Lacan’s work will recall the notion that lack is the cause of desire, and that symbolic lack, for example, the lack of phallus, or the lack of a signifier in the Other, can lead to difficulties or confusion with identity, distinguishing self, or identifying with Other. But beyond this knowledge and the title, what do we know about Schor’s painting? A field of thick, oily, almost sludgy umber is evenly spread across the surface with a palette knife, collecting and clumping around around the canvas’ edges. The sides of the canvas are smeared with wayward paint and fingerprints, and a few drips and snags of colors from previous underpainting. The canvas looks used, at least second, and perhaps third generation. The umber paint has been rubbed into or brushed away along the lines of a word written in swirling cursive painted with a thin brush beneath the umber surface so that the word "lack" is formed in two ways: the pre-existing painted letters, and the halo of erased paint around the letters. We know this word is "lack" because of the painting’s title, but if one didn’t know this the word guessed might be "look," "lock," or "luck." Or, is it even a word? Is this a swirl of practiced looping lines, or an abstract still life or landscape? The effort to create a painted field and then to carve or erase something out of it is both additive and then subtractive; make something "full" and then empty part of it, creating "lack." The effort is determined, even a struggle, as if the word, as void, fights to exist despite the field painted over and covering it. Why is the word not capitalized? Is this an isolated segment of a longer word, or is this a word "lacking" in definitive identity, so not yet deserving, or thinking it deserves, capital status? The "l" is so much larger than the other letters, most prominent and erect; the negative space in the top right quadrant of the opaque brown field formed by the top edges of the letters and reaching down past the painting’s center is like a single pointing finger or, perhaps more ominously, a hanging male appendage. Can we say that no matter the creative individual’s efforts, and the language employed to fight against it, there is always the hierarchy of male privilege hanging overhead and interfering? Even the painting’s thinner stretcher profile, noticeable in this lineup of four other paintings with deeper stretchers, is a physical occurrence of lack despite the painting’s endeavor to find equal identity regardless of differences in physical size or depth.

Two paintings, Thinking of "Thing" and Thing, hang close together; though separate works, here they have a special relationship: the single sign-like painted word "thing" in one painting, and in its companion the figure’s recall and contemplation of that painting while engaged in study or leisure. The letters of "thing" in Thing are casually written in right-leaning contemporary print-cursive in umber with a brush and surrounded by gray. The five letters are spaced out like still life objects. The "t" is lowercase but looms as high as the "h"; like a cross its horizontal bar is longer on the left and tilts upward on the right, lending a hint of perspective in an otherwise relatively spaceless image. Only the letters "h" and "i" are connected: "hi." The modesty of a straightforward "n" anchors the word in the canvas’ field. The final "g" is the most cursive-like, with a tail that loops around and exits the painting’s right edge; while, oddly, the space inside the looping tail is filled with the same gray paint that surrounds each letter, the inside circle of "g’s" head reveals a thin greenish underpainting. What is the "thing" here? Is it the painting as a thing (object) in itself; is it simply the word "thing" (read or as sound); or is the "thing" the image on the painted surface (representation)? As a word, "thing" is generally thought to lack specificity, though ultimately it is a declaration of existence or objecthood, even if the word is only a temporary stand-in for a more specific word or concept. To use the word "thing" is to attempt to make something out of uncertainty, whether it is uncertainty about what the thing is, or the inability to identify or recall the word or concept for the thing one wants to make known. To paint a "thing" may answer the artist’s question, "What should I paint?’ while answering the viewer’s question, "What did you paint, and what am I seeing." The care Schor uses to write and paint the word "thing," beautifully brushing and scraping a lush gray around the words, shows that a thing, even if it is simply a "something," or perhaps a "nothing," is a subject worth contemplating.

On and within the delicate dry white surface of Thinking of "Thing", thin ink strokes depict a figure sitting with an open book on her lap (let’s assume that the figures are all female and represent Schor’s life as an artist and writer). In the top right corner is a small rectangle, a representation of the painting Thing, which in this installation hangs immediately to the right of Thinking of "Thing". The figure reclines with legs propped up; though she is not supported by an actual chair, the shape and angle of the body suggests a chaise (highly unlikely that it’s a La-Z-Boy!). On the figure’s boxy head two horizontally-aligned rectangles represent eyeglasses; a mass of lines from the rectangles streaming down to the book’s pages suggest reading, while a similar mass of lines emanate from the figure’s forehead towards the small Thing painting, perhaps initially implying that the figure is multi-tasking—thinking of Thing while reading. Is the figure reading to better understand her painting? Does the reading recall, evoke, or inform the painting? Or, can the artist not stop thinking about her art; in the middle reading, is she distracted by the thought of her painting? Or, is this small floating reproduction of another painting akin to Schor’s "thought balloons," a memory or a thought about Thing? Perhaps the text in the open book is important to the art’s purpose or existence, or maybe this is a scene of the artist in her element, living her life fully, with meaning and pleasure: the strands of liquid ink lines are absorbed into the gesso, and earlier ghost-like lines faintly, beautifully seep back towards the surface; this web of lines and layers gently assert depth and complexity, dimension and integration. Thinking of "Thing" suggests that art making is not an isolated activity; not only is it connected to the world through thought and text, but it is also, even in private, a strand of one’s complex life, and that each painting is connected to various nodes in the artist’s oeuvre.

Similarly, First Idea depicts a figure holding a book, but this time she is walking along the painting’s bottom edge, about to exit at right. The book is held below waist level, thus below reading level, and each of the two exposed pages contains rough, parallel lines meant to suggest lines of text; the figure holds the book more as a display turned toward the viewer. The figure is walking, not reading, and she and the book cast a shadow in the bottom right corner. She again wears rectangular glasses. A second, larger pair extend off the back of the figure’s head—perhaps the "back of the mind"—and several horizontal lines shoot out from one lens of this pair and exit the canvas’ left edge towards something which is outside of the painting. Allen Ginsberg told Phillip Glass, "First idea, best idea," meaning, respond to and act on ideas. In other words, in the context of First Idea, all of the world’s texts cannot tell the artist what to paint, and what painting is about. The subject of painting may be found in the act of painting, but is also a response to something outside of the painting. Noam Chomsky advocates for the view that our brains are hardwired for language, yet in their book The First Idea, Stanley Greenspan Stuart Shanker claim instead that our ability to reason is founded not on genetics (language) but on emotional responses formed by environment and interactions, a link between symbols and language. The artist’s engagement and interaction with the world is essential to identifying content and beginning the creative process. At the same time, the artist’s engagement with the material of her painting is equally essential. First Idea’s white surface is smoothly and evenly spread. The drawn lines defining the painting’s figurative components are made by scratching through the wet white paint with, say, the opposite end of a brush’s handle—sgrafitto—and then umber paint is rubbed into the lines, à la intaglio. The figure’s attention is drawn outside the painting in search of an idea, or content, or a "thing" to respond to. Schor as a painter digs into the surface to find her image and print it. Both kinds of attention are required to make a painting.

The Space Where Painting Used to Be presents another reclining figure who sits inside a rapidly drawn rectangular frame—a room—reading a book; we see the cover, on which is written, "POST." Above her head is a larger rectangle inside of which is written, in all caps, "SPACE WHERE PAINTING USED TO BE." To the left hangs another rectangle inside which is written, in cursive, "Sociality." This is a complex situation. Is Schor suggesting that painting can’t function without language to inform or describe it, and thus language supercedes image? Or is that painting is supported by and dependent on language and our social nature, our tendency to form friendships and community, yearn for common ground, and share experience? "Post" has several meanings: after, or later; to put up a sign; an official place or assignment; a pole or upright support; to send mail or, more recently, to post an email, a message (Facebook), or a piece of writing (blog post). The figure, alone and at her post, has posted two signs questioning the place of painting in an era when, saturated by media, it is almost post-pictorial. And yet, all of these possibilities about painting’s purpose are raised via a handmade, painted picture.

Often when scale in painting is discussed the concept is used erroneously; usually, the speaker is really talking about size: measurements. What scale in painting is really about is the relationship of all the painting’s components—what is depicted, material, color, line, stroke, etc., but also the subject and content of the painting—to the surface and the size of the painting: an integrated, holistic entity that, in addition to its own actual size, can suggest grandness or intimacy, or something in between and appropriate to the painting’s subject. In her essay "Modest Painting," from her most recently published book, A Decade of Negative Thinking: Essays on Art, Politics, and Daily Life, Schor writes, "Modest painting does not aspire to historical importance through physical domination of the viewer or the room in which it is placed via monumentality of size." Schor’s paintings may be small in size, but the scale of her work is ambitious and generous. Seemingly simple, minimal, and schematic, Schor’s paintings, direct and modest in size, raise big questions, offer pleasure and intrigue, provoke sizable commentary, and propose enormous possibility and imagination.

Chris Ashley
Oakland, CA
October 2011

  1. Mira Schor: Paintings From The Nineties To Now. November 20, 2010 – January 9, 2011. CB1 Gallery. Los Angeles.
  2. Jones, Amelia. Mira Schor: Making Thought Material, Painting (the Act of) Painting (catalog essay). CB1 Gallery. Los Angeles. 2010.
  3. Minelli, Mike. Mira Schor: Paintings From the Nineties To Now. X-TRA Contemporary Art Quarterly. Los Angeles. Fall 2011.
  4. Schor’s 2009-10 CB1 Gallery exhibition also received the following reviews:
    1. Mallinson, Constance. Mira Schor. Art in America. April 2011.
    2. Knight, Christopher. Art review: Mira Schor at CB1 Gallery. Culture Monster. Los Angeles Times. December 16, 2010


Mira Schor (for complete biography and more information see the artist’s web site and blog, A Year of Positive Thinking)

  • Education
    • MFA in Painting, CalArts, Los Angeles, 1973
  • Recent Exhibitions
    • “Mira Schor: Paintings from the Nineties to Now" (solo exhibition)
      CB1 Gallery, LA, November 20, 2010 – January 9, 2011
    • “Vivid: Female Currents in Painting"
      Curated by Janet Phelps. Schroeder Romero & Shredder, New York, November 18, 2010-January 22, 2011
    • “Shifting the Gaze: Painting and Feminism”
      The Jewish Museum, New York, September 12, 2010– January 30, 2011.
    • "The Visible Vagina"
      David Nolan Gallery, New York, January 28 – March 20, 2010
    • "Books of Pages: New Work by Mira Schor" (solo exhibition)
      Melville House Publishing, Brooklyn, February 1st – 26th, 2010
    • "Substitute Teacher"
      Curated by Regine Basha and Stuart Horodner at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, March 5 – May 16, 2010
    • "Suddenly" (solo exhibition)
      Momenta Art, Brooklyn, March 20 through April 20, 2009
  • Writing
    • A Decade of Negative Thinking: Essays on Art, Politics, and Daily Life
    • Wet: On Painting, Feminism, and Art Culture
    • Editor, The Extreme of the Middle: Writings of Jack Tworkov
    • Co-editor, M/E/A/N/I/N/G: An Anthology of Artists’ Writings, Theory, and Criticism
  • Teaching
    • Associate Teaching Professor in the MFA Fine Arts Program at Parsons The New School For Design, New York
  • Representation
    • CB1 Gallery, Los Angeles.