The old glass medicine bottles that dot flea markets and your grandmother’s bathroom cabinet always seem to contain more than their peeling labels suggest: their dark glass and archaic titles evoke mystery—did they contain panaceas? Pills? Poisons?
Yet, as Professor of Art David Schorr’s exhibition “APOTHECARY (storehouse)” suggests, perhaps they hold much more than even the cures of days gone by.
“APOTHECARY,” which shows in the Davison Art Center through Mar. 4, is a masterful achievement in the study of light, color, and transparancy. A long way from their homes on the shelves of American and European drug stores, Professor Schorr fills these mystifying bottles with new life.
The exhibit, comprised of more than 75 masterful paintings, plucks these once antiquated bottles from time and space, suspending them against stark backgrounds and bathing them in bright, contrasting hues.
The word “APOTHECARY,” Schorr explained, stems from the ancient Greek term meaning “storehouse.”
“I realized that just as an apothecary shop had all of the things stored away in these bottles to mix prescriptions for people, we all have all sorts of things stored inside of us in bottles, some memories, shameful thoughts,” Schorr said. “Sometimes there are bottles we keep very tightly sealed because we don’t want the content to get out. Other bottles we open from time to time and take a smell or a whiff of a happy memory.”
The impetus for the project was, understandably, medical—Schorr sought the help of an ophthalmologist for an eye problem, something that can spell the end of a career for an artist. The first doctor could offer no help, nor could the second. Yet the third suggested a simple, time-worn remedy: artificial tears. Though prescribed merely as a balm to alleviate symptoms, Schorr’s affliction all but disappeared.
“I was so grateful that I wanted to make him a present,” Schorr said. “My father had been a doctor and I had some old apothecary bottles from his office. I took one of them with a Latin name and changed the label to Lacrimae Arte Factae, Latin for ‘artificial tears.’”
The initial drawing caught the eye of Schorr’s art dealer, who insisted that he make another. Frustrated with the progress of some of his other projects, Schorr invested himself in recreating these bottles. Critical acclaim spurred him to take the nascent project in a more serious direction.
Schorr found himself scouring eBay for subject matter, ordering bottles from across the globe straight to his doorstep.
The bottles provided a window into the pharmacies of the turn of the century, a time when our medicine was not concealed in colorful capsules. Apothecaries held a tremendous amount of responsibility—a drop too few from the brown bottle and the patient remained ill, a drop too many and he was poisoned.
While the bottles’ original labels bore archaic references to common chemicals, Schorr, a lover of language, changed them as he drew, switching from English, to French, to Latin, to Yiddish, and so on. Sometimes, the changes in language were merely aesthetic or arbitrary; but other times, the labels took on historic or personal meaning.
One of the bottles is labeled as ‘furtive glances’ or ‘coup d’oeil furtifs’ in French.
“For me, when I think of furtive glances in French, I think of café society and who is wearing what, who is sitting with whom,” Schorr said.
These linguistic subtleties are intertwined with the intersections of the individual and its historic context.
“There is another bottle that has ‘furtive glances’ in Serbo-Croatian,” Schorr said. “In the country where in the last few years, people would be killing, turning in their neighbors, their furtive glances might be truly dangerous.”
Each piece featured in “APOTHECARY” depicts a bottle gracefully suspended against a colored background. Covering one of the DAC gallery walls from nearly floor to ceiling and spread throughout the gallery space, the paintings comprise a colorful grid, the myriad bottles seeming to float in the back corners of Schorr’s mental attic. The DAC space takes on an ethereal quality, splashed with color and suspended glass.
“I put gray and blue with a few red accents together,” Schorr said. “This wall is all Shakespeare and Mozart [gestures] and those three over there all deal with past romance. The one on the top, with the brown background is ‘Coniunx Pristinus,’ ex-husbands in Latin. The one on the bottom, the red one, is ‘Vecchie Fiamme,’ old flames. I don’t know if that goes into French, but in Italian and English it means old loves, old lovers, and the label says ‘manneggiare con cura,’ handle with care.”
Indeed, many of the inscriptions elude simple translation. For example, “L’Espirit d’Escalier” means the spirit of the stairway, or that thing that you should have said long after the argument ended. “Spukhafte Fernwirkung” is directly translated as spooky motion at a distance, but refers to the interaction of two objects separated in space and time.
Painted on Fabriano’s Roma paper with opaque watercolors, the bottles sparkle against subdued backdrops, light scattering through the thick, colored glass. Names like “Stolen Kisses,” “Dreams of Gold,” and “The Old, Wicked Song” add a hint of context that leaves more room for imagination than definitive answers.
Elegant, surreal, and mysterious, Schorr poetically depicts a wealth of experiences in “APOTHECARY,” opening his mental attic and brushing the dust from each glass bottle. Throughout viewing the exhibit, the mystery of what lies under each glass cap pervades: between “Private Lives” and “Wasted Time,” “Twofold Silence” and “Remembered Laughter.” “Apothecary” is a cathartic experience, a beautifully illustrated tour through history, memory, language, medicine, hurt, healing, and time.