Harriet Shorr’s new exhibit is filled with difficult images. They mark a new direction for Shorr, who is known for her more straightforward still lifes. Here, she has attempted radically new works that wrestle with allegory in the guise of porcelain figurines, textiles, flowers, branches and reflective surfaces.
If the paintings at first seem decorative, the palette (hot pinks, cool ivories and a broad range of green from the musky to the electric) ensures they don’t blend in with the wallpaper.
In “Picnic with plums” (2004), she directs our gaze downwards to a puddle filled with branches, flowers, and fruits seemingly spilled over from a table we see in the reflection. There is an impossibly painted glass fruit plate sitting on a floating tablecloth, while the surface of the puddle softly ripples. The panel has all the elements of a Soviet Social Realist painting—flat strokes, a modern perspective of a pastoral genre scene and an overarching sense of nostalgia. Unlike official Soviet art,however, the narrative here is ambiguous. The moment Shorr chooses is marginal.
In “Embarkation” (2003), Jean-Antoine Watteau’s “The Embarkation for Cythera” (1717) is reflected in a river or pond. Shorr has taken liberties with this masterpiece of eighteenth century European painting by shifting its focus from the caravan of revelers to her own allegorical objects (bird eggs, a ribbon, a floral crown) placed in the foreground. This collection has a moralistic air more typical of Jean-Baptiste Greuze than Watteau. The transparent tulle ribbon hardly has the elegance of the original Watteau, the wild bird eggs are curious but seemingly random, and why is the floral crown placed neatly on the bank? Something off the upper right edge of the canvas creates a ripple that carries through the river. Gone is the misty elegance of the French master—Shorr has replaced it with a strange cartoony atmosphere. While the original painting collides the human courtiers with mythological fantasy, this painting revels in a consciously manufactured sensibility.
The world that Shorr paints in Cythera is opaque, inaccessible, and populated by tightly wound metaphors. I admit I was at a losswith her work and labored for weeks to crack her code. Thankfully, the exhibit was chosen to be the subject of one of the National Academy Museum’s “Review Panels”, so I attended their Friday, April 1st session hoping to come across insight.
While the panel (David Cohen, Gregory Volk, Karen Wilkin, Robert Storr) seemed a little stilted discussing the show, there were two comments that offered insight into the objects and their meaning. Wilkin, a former professor of mine, aptly observed that the painting surfaces seemed “dead”—a comment that ignited backlash from the audience. Irving Sandler, an audience member that night and a friend of Shorr, made a muddied comment that suggested 9/11 inhabited some of the psychic space in the show. It was a half-heard remark that no one in the room commented on but it offered me a key to the fractured canvases. I reexamined Shorr’s work. The connotation of post-9/11 realities was immense and seemed to invigorate the works with a new significance.
“Picnic with Plums” became infused with a new possibility, with its fruit landing on a watery pool strewn with flowers. While we examine the fallout today, the ominous day can appear distanced from reality, cloudy in our memories. Is Shorr suggesting we are so busy looking at the fallout that the event itself has been distorted in our memories?
Some of Shorr’s tendencies seem on the mark. Uninterested in the moments that created her amputated figurines, broken mirrors or spilt fruit, her paintings are about the refuse and fallout from irreversible moments. Even rich paintings, like “Forsythia Fantacy” (2004), that are not overtly tragic are still infused with a suffocating quality, like being in a small dusty room with heavy brocade curtains covering all the windows.
What marks 9/11 from other tragedies is the media circus that accompanied it and amplified the event in our media-saturated consciousness. Shorr turns to the distancing tableaus of figurines and reflected scenes. Like Plato’s cave, looking at her paintings we are standing in the darkness judging the outside world through her brush. That anxiety of indirect experience makes the paintings not only difficult but tortured. But then there are those dead surfaces. Like the horrific photos of people jumping out of the twin towers, they are powerful images but they hang like corpses. After a while your emotions and the hollowness has nowhere to go, as if the mourners in Andrea Mantegna’s The Lamentation Over the Dead Christ (c.1490) were removed.
Shorr doesn’t offer catharsis but amplifies the anxiety. If the paintings don’t sit well it’s because they stir a level of discomfort that doesn’t necessarily make them great paintings but does make them original compositions that sometimes capture a moment of clarity. If these paintings are flawed and awkward, it is because they seem to reflect our own deep confusion and unease.
Hrag Vartanian is a writer, critic, and designer. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.