Karen L. Schiff

Karen L. Schiff brings attention to the ancient technology of the manuscript by using handwriting as the basis for forms that look present, yet archaic or even timeless.  Gestures toward communication look latent, yet no message can be discerned. The artist begins each piece by writing about the phenomenon of writing; she then traces the shapes of her handwriting and paints over the words so that, in the end, they are completely invisible, or visible only as shapes. Even the artist cannot remember what she has written. This allows for musings on textual theory without any concerns about editing, which is important for this artist who is also an occasional writer and professor.  The writing emerges as a journal entry, from the subconscious, and it can remain subconscious because it literally lies beneath a layer of paint.  The visual residue, of forms that obscure the lines of writing, hints at buried thoughts.  Some pieces have writing in two directions, like people used to do in their correspondence, to save money on paper and postage; in this case, the spaces between the lines create forms that resemble ideograms: the negative space takes on palpable significance as if the silence were speaking.  Even in the drawings with only vertical forms, the spaces between the forms become electric with visual significance, as in the Talmudic idea that the Torah is “written in black fire on white fire,” and the challenge is to learn to read both.

This project highlights the abstract and impenetrable qualities of language.  Writing is actually a series of squiggles -- abstract line drawings that we have agreed to interpret in specific ways.  By preventing conceptual interpretation, Schiff restores the visual immediacy of language, as well as its ultimate incomprehensibility:  both poststructuralism and psychoanalysis have emphasized that even the most explicit words can actually be interpreted in multiple ways.  In this age of digital technologies, Schiff uses language made through the original digits (her fingers) to forge images that retain not only multiple points of entry and interpretation, but also a sense of the vital pulses that animate language, labor, and even silence.  The touch of the hand conveys messages that go beyond words, and what is unsaid (either not said at all, or retracted after having been said) is often more powerful than the words that we can access.  By covering her words, Schiff honors language and its ability to reveal more for having been concealed.  How do we know what someone is thinking, even when we hear their words? How do we think back on texts we have read, if not through non-linguistic impressions?  These mute(d) pictures speak volumes.


Karen L. Schiff works at intersections between art and language, in images and in words. She holds an M.F.A. in Studio Art (School of the Museum of Fine Arts / Boston, 2006), and a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and Literary Theory (University of Pennsylvania, 1998). Her work has shown in galleries and museums in New York, around the United States, and in Spain; most recently she had four drawings in the “Art=Text=Art” exhibition at the Hafnarborg Museum in Iceland. Her recent reviews of books about Agnes Martin appeared in Art in America and Art Journal, and The Brooklyn Rail published her essay “Beyond Thinking.” Artworks and writings are archived at .

Quiet Please! On Silence and Acts of Silencing