Mira Schor, “Power” Figure: The Great Man Speaks, 2016, ink, flashe paint and gesso on tracing paper, 64″ x 24″
By Kavior Moon
The problems of painting, language, and gendered power relations have long animated the work of New York–based artist and writer Mira Schor, who graduated from CalArts in 1973 and participated in its Feminist Art Program. In a preface to her 1997 book of essays titled Wet: On Painting, Feminism, and Art Culture, Schor noted that her goal has been to make political paintings in the “full sense of both terms”—artworks whose political content is enhanced by their seductive medium. “Painting not as ‘eye candy,’” she wrote, “but as a synergetic honey-trap for contemporary discourse.” This statement, written a few years after Schor completed her multi-canvas work War Frieze, 1991–94, continues to resonate nearly twenty years later in her series “‘Power’ Frieze,” 2016. Both bodies of work were recently on display at CB1 Gallery.
Installed along the four walls of one large gallery was the second half of Schor’s War Frieze, made between the fall of 1992 and that of ’94. Comprising eighty-two twelve-by-sixteen-inch painted linen canvases placed side by side slightly above eye level, this installation was the most comprehensive presentation of the work to date. (The frieze is more than two hundred feet long and has never been viewed in its entirety by the public or by the artist herself.) Begun in the aftermath of the First Gulf War, and informed by gender-related controversies such as the Anita Hill hearings and abortion litigation (which remains a topical issue), the paintings in War Frieze feature body parts and suggestive corporeal forms, as well as words in cursive script connected by a thin, sinuous line that stretches across the entire suite. Disembodied breasts and penises (some with ears), vagina-like slits, toilet bowls, and politically charged phrases such as AREA OF DENIAL and UNDUE BURDEN commingle on sometimes thinly scumbled, other times thickly built-up grounds of fleshy-pink, bloodred, jizzy-white, and turd-brown paint. Language fragments taken from the news media (such as terms referring to weapons of war and to the legal standard used by the Supreme Court to determine the lawfulness of state restrictions on a woman’s access to abortion) are incorporated into the paintings, provoking a meditation on how legislative phrases can make abstract the very bodies whose owners experience these words’ consequences most keenly.
In another room hung thirty-five works from Schor’s “‘Power’ Frieze” series. Made from any of various combinations of ink, gouache, oil, pencil, and charcoal on gessoed tracing paper, each work portrays an archetypal figure representing “Woman Artist.” The monumental female figures are sketchy, skeletal, and sticklike. Their eyes and breasts appear respectively vacant and unarticulated, often hauntingly represented by large dark circles. In comparison to Schor’s earlier War Frieze, the tone of these recent works feels more urgent and more personal. For example, in ‘Power’ Figure: The Great Man Speaks, 2016 (one of three works included with this title and date), the “Woman Artist” clutches the sides of her head, like the disconsolate figure in Munch’s The Scream. But whereas Munch’s figure sways in existential isolation, Schor’s cringes in an attempt to block a dark phallus pointed at her head that announces THE ‘GREAT’ MAN SPEAKS. (This phrase and phallic shape ominously recur throughout the series.) A watery line trickles down from between the “Woman Artist’s” legs onto a miniature female figure below and circles back up to a bubble that states, HER WHEREVER (a reference to presidential candidate Donald Trump’s crude remark about blood “coming out” of Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly). Schor has mentioned that the series was inspired by a recent exhibition of Kongo Mangaaka sculptures, nearly life-size “power figures” made of wood, metal, and sacred materials that were commissioned by Kongo political leaders during the latter half of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. These intimidating figures were intended to serve as embodiments of social authority and, ultimately, as protective talismans against the brutal Belgian colonizing regime. As with the Mangaaka sculptures, Schor’s “‘Power’ Frieze” paintings should be interpreted as tools for cultural resistance in dire political times, as symbolic images of collective struggle and opposition against a paternalistic order that seeks to subjugate and disenfranchise.