Few artists have stormed the bastion of male privilege with as much vigor and influence as Carolee Schneemann. Using her body as a paintbrush and the stage as her canvas, Schneemann, for 50 years, has challenged gender roles (muse, model, sex object, housemaid) while expanding the boundaries of painting, film and performance.
Schneemann’s big breakthrough came in 1964 with Meat Joy — a loosely choreographed mock orgy in which scantily clad participants writhed with dead animals (mackerel and chicken) and paint to produce Gutai-like splatters that resembled the aftermath of a crime scene. Detractors called it obscene, narcissistic and worse. But clearly, a barrier had been broken. “I was using the nude as myself – the artist—and as a primal, archaic force,” the artist stated. Unleashed, it inspired a generation feminist art, much of it body-based, and still resonating today in the work of artists as diverse as Hannah Wilke, Cindy Sherman, Karen Finley, Barbara Kruger, Judy Chicago and Lynda Benglis.
This mini retrospective, Remains to be Seen, provides a representative sampling of her output, historic and current. Videos, photos, drawings and assorted documents capture the sensuousness of Schneeman’s performances, the rawness of her films and, perhaps more than anything, the spirit of an era when feminist art was committed to inducing a shift in consciousness and cultural authority. Her goal, as she once put it, was to reset “the territorial power lines by which women were admitted to the Art Stud Club.”
Documents of two seminal works, Interior Scroll (1975) and Up to and Including Her Limits (1974) reveal some of the methods she employed. The first, of a performance in which she pulled a paper scroll from her vagina, is shown in 13 black and white photos, which, despite the passage of time and the coarsening of American culture, still shocks. Speaking to an audience from atop a table in a variety of bodily contortions while reading aloud from a text about the ways women had been erased from history, Schneemann claims for herself – and for all women – the role of high priestess. The stills are fabulous, but a video clip would definitely enrich the experience. Unexpectedly Research (1992) is montage of photos in which Schneemann is seen posing or performing in various guises (Cleopatra, fertility goddess, harem seductress) alongside images drawn from natural and human history. Borrowing from Steiglitz, the artist calls them “equivalents,” but instead of finding familiar forms in clouds, Schneemann juxtaposes the present against the primordial in a kind of Jungian montage. It packs real punch.
Up to and Including Her Limits-Blue (1973), a hand-colored photo of Schneemann’s most famous local performance, shows her suspended, naked, from a harness at the Berkeley Art Museum. Swinging to and fro with her arms outstretched, she inscribed a crayon drawing on the museum’s floor, coopting a male sex fantasy to invade the male-only preserve of action painting. In this iconic photo, her come-hither pose doubles as a physical threat. What’s not conveyed is the kinetic, erotic charge of the drama and its effect on spectators. Such is the ephemeral nature of performance. Again, a film clip could have helped bridge the gap.
The video we do see is of a different sort. Devour (2003), a two-channel video installation projected across a wall, and Precarious (2009), a DVD displayed on a monitor, mix news footage and pieces of previous works (Snows and Infinity Kisses) into a dizzying mélange of abstraction and representation. Vietnam War atrocities, marching soldiers, a suckling baby, a woman shaving, the artist kissing her cat, a demolition derby, a brief sex act and dancing prisoners are among the images that flicker in and out in of view and out of focus. They’re intended, I suspect, as a comment on the brain-deadening effects of media consumption, but it’s hard to know since there are no clear relationships drawn or inferred.
What’s clearer is that Schneeman’s strong suit has always been personalizing the political, and nowhere in this exhibit does she do so more forcefully than in the suite of 12 watercolors about 9/11 titled Dark Pond (2001-05). Atop news photos of people falling from the Twin Towers, she superimposes bleeding washes, dark smudges and loose gestures, creating an Expressionist danse macabre against the unyielding vertical lines of the buildings. If you lived in New York during these events or watched their endless repetition on TV, these drawings will likely bring back feelings of helplessness and dread, the sense that things really had run amok. As such, they rank among the strongest history paintings of our time, equivalent in moral suasion to the work of Luc Tuymans, Nancy Spero, Kara Walker, William Kentridge and Gerhard Richter.
Schneemann began as a crusader for herself and for women. Today, as the open-ended title of the show suggests, she’s become something more: an advocate for all living things.
–DAVID M. ROTH
Carolee Schneemann: “Remains to be Seen” @ Gallery Paule Anglim through December 22, 2012.