To look at Professor of Art David Schorr’s paintings in his new collection, “The Imaginary Life of Ordinary Things: the dish ran away with the spoon,” is to peek into a dream-space in which everyday objects take on a life of their own. They seem to flow and dance across the canvas as if playing like children in the artist’s subconscious.
Schorr discussed his work last Thursday in the Davison Art Center’s gallery, where his work is on display until March 5. He explained his process and intentions in creating the series, with the caveat that the artist is not always the best interpreter of his own work.
“I am not certain that what I have to say about these pictures is in any way correct,” he said. “The artist’s voice carries an authority, however unwarranted, and so my worst fear is that you will believe me.”
He recounted his struggle to lay a finger on the meaning behind his paintings, which had eluded him until well after the project began. It was an intriguing example of how art can emerge first from the unconscious and only later reveal its purpose to the forefront of the mind.
As Schorr explained, he began his work for a simple enough reason: to try something new.
“My starting point was a notion that having always drawn or etched the human figure, either nude or draped, that I wanted to finesse the figure and try using just patches of cloths,” he said.
He painted portraits of handkerchief after handkerchief, many of which appeared in the exhibition. Without his awareness, these handkerchiefs ended up holding a certain energy that gave them the impression of being alive.
“But David, you’re still painting figures,” said Schorr’s friend and former Wesleyan professor Jacqueline Gourevitch. “They are all actors and dancers moving across the stage.”
This did not bother Schorr. When he showed his work to his New York art dealer Mary Ryan, she told him that he needed “antagonists to the handkerchiefs,” objects that were different in color, shape, texture and size.
“Then one night, late, working on a picture, the coffee cup arrived,” he said. “It just sort of levitated into the picture. I barely remember drawing it. There was my antagonist.”
His unconscious started revealing more things to him, he said. He suddenly thought of Alice in Wonderland and Mother Goose and the John Crowe Ransom poem “Blue Girls,” all of which entered onto the stage of his paintings, dancing with the handkerchiefs and coffee cups in an unknown abstract world.
“I thought, maybe [the objects] dream of flying through the skies and tumbling and making friends or maybe, I thought, they are servants, and like servants, when the master is away, they really do carouse and make mischief. Ah ha! I thought, the dish ran away with the spoon. And that opened the door to other ordinary things.”
The result is an extraordinary study of how disparate objects, from jars of mustard to packs of Gauloise, can both offset and complement one another.
“[There is] a wonderful interplay,” said Clare Rogan, curator of the Davison Art Center. “There are things repeated and talking to each other. There’s a Gauloise package that shows up in various paintings, and the logo from the package shows up here [on another painting.] The paintings speak to each other and are connected in different ways.”
Half of the gallery space is taken up by prints from past masters, including Rembrandt, Kandinsky, Durer, Walter Evans and many others, which also speak to Schorr’s work. Having studied these prints for decades, Schorr calls them his friends and teachers. They have informed his work as much as any critic.
“They have become a crucial part of everything I make, both on conscious and unconscious levels,” he said.
While Schorr was reticent to discuss his own work, he wrote lengthy captions for each of these older prints that explained the technique of the artist, his own impressions of the print, and how the print influenced his work in this series. In such a way the exhibition also reveals Schorr’s deep commitment to teaching.
According to Rogan, Schorr has taken his printmaking students every Monday for thirty years into the Davison Art Center to look at these very prints, which are part of its permanent collection.
“He pulls out the prints that exemplify the points he wants to make that week,” she said. “Very few printmaking students in other universities get to see so much.”
“Professor Schorr often reiterates to his students the importance of looking, not just at one’s own work, but at the work of past masters,” said Ali Osborn ’06, who is working on a printmaking thesis with Schorr, “His understanding of these two aspects of art-making is something I’ve always appreciated.”