Sex and the Sublime: Carolee Schneemann at Henry Art Gallery
As you may have noticed, I haven’t been posting reviews of art exhibitions on this blog for quite a while. This is largely a function of my constant state of frantic working-on-the-next-thing and the unfortunate fact that spending a lot of time thinking and writing about someone else’s art often feels like a distraction from my own work.
Lord, how the opposite is true of Carolee Scheemann, whose every image feels to me like a universe of potential inspiration!
I first came across Schneemann’s work in the obligatory Canon of Important Artists in undergraduate art history, and received deeper exposure (pun oh-so-intended) to works like Fuses (1965) and Interior Scroll (1975) in a graduate seminar on sexual identity and gender performance with Dr. Patricia Failing at the University of Washington. These works impressed me, both for their confrontational physical presence and for their brash, gendered audacity. Later, upon discovering her earlier series of photographic constructions Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions (1963), I felt as though I had been punched simultaneously in the brain, the gut and yes, cunt by their dazzling, arcane eroticism.
“So this is what a real connection to a work of art feels like,” I say to myself in my memory of that moment. “It feels as though I have been in possession of some obscure sensory power whose existence and purpose has been unknown to me this entire time, which has only just now been awakened; unlocked by this precise arrangement of dark and light in order to be able to take, for a fleeting moment in this life, true, transcendent delight in the dense worlds encoded therein.”
(Oh man, I love it when that happens!)
And so when I received an invitation to attend the press preview of the Henry Art Gallery’s Carolee Schneeman: With and Beyond the Premises, the largest retrospective of the artist’s work organized to date, and to have an opportunity to meet the artist, I leapt at the chance, even though it meant waking up before 11 am. Carolee Schneemann is one of my heroes, one of only a handful of living artists to occupy such a lofty position in my personal pantheon. (Sorry, it’s hard to talk about her without gushing, so I won’t try.)
Upon entering the exhibition, one is immediately confronted with an unexpected sight (at least, it was unexpected to me and to others there who were not familiar with the range of Schneemann’s work.) A small group of bold, expressionistic paintings from the late 1950s establish, lest we forget, that Schneemann began her career as a painter. A good painter, who handles materials with the butch swagger of Rauschenberg while navigating abstraction with the winnowing dexterity of Kandinsky. (My favorite paintings from the group, Animal Carnage and Kitch’s Dream, especially bear a striking resemblance to the synesthetic explorations of Kandinsky and some of his metaphysically-minded compatriots.)
Also included in the exhibition is Untitled (Four Fur Cutting Boards), a mechanized, 3-dimensional painterly construction that served as the background for many of the photographs in the Eye Body series. Eye Body marks the first insertion of the artist’s body into the form of her work, a move that would prove more-or-less permanent. In the same year, Schneemann co-founded the Judson Dance Theatre, where she furthered her idea of kinetic theatre in which dancers would participate bodily in works of visual art with performances like Meat Joy (1964), a time-based human collage of semi-nude bodies, music, and raw meat that culminates in a frenzied, visceral climax that echoes the savage ecstasy once the exclusive domain of the maenads of Dionysos.
“I’m a painter. I’m still a painter and I will die a painter. Everything that I have developed has to do with extending visual principles off the canvas.” – Carolee Schneeman, 1993
Contextualizing Schneeman’s better known “body art” works as an extension of the expressionist concerns of her paintings throws a wrench in the overly politicized reading of her work that some academic types like to give it, but it doesn’t undermine the audacity or tenacity of their vision. It simply places these works closer to where the artist intends for them to be, squarely in the visualist camp where the experience of an image always trumps whatever ideas might be encoded therein.
In retrospect, perhaps this is the most iconoclastic thing about her work from the 1960s. In an era where cold conceptualism was king, Carolee Schneemann not only refused to clean up her act, she consistently cast non-human forms of intelligence—her beloved cats—as voyeurs and subjects themselves, tacitly urging her viewers to see more and “think” less. And yet to my mind, the result is some of the most conceptually insightful work by any 20th century artist.
For instance, Schneeman’s film Fuses (1965) is constantly heralded as among the first sexually explicit works of art to portray feminine sexuality from a woman’s point of view. The creation of sexualized representations of women, we are told, from painterly nudes to hardcore pornography, had previously been the exclusive domain of men. And yet Schneemann’s personal iconography revels in the visual and conceptual themes of neolithic/Bronze Age goddess worship; human artifacts from that oft-forgotten phase in our very own history when [Western] man’s mythological maps of reality overtly resonated with the actual biological, erotic logistics of Creation.
So, let’s back up for a second and talk about the nature of God. (This is, after all, Translinguistic Other…what did you expect!?)
Biology is, quite literally, God. Which is only to say that we are all here because of it. Why? How the hell should I know? To be sure, we can unravel a good many of its secrets, but part of our biological God will always remain shrouded in mystery, even to its most diligent observers. Not because it contains anything supernatural, but because its contents are infinitely complex, and because of the paradox of observation changing the nature of the observed.
Some religious systems have done and continue to do a great job of helping human beings find meaning in life and establish a moral compass given the fact that we are all born, we all die, and our existence is not a static, monolithic given but a constantly evolving stream of highly intricate, evolution-driven happenstance. Our dominant “religion,” on the other hand, fetishizes an infantile notion of God as a rigid, static certainty. This belief system not only considers the teaching of evolution in public schools to be controversial, it considers feminine sexuality and the shapeshifting ubiquity of the Cosmic Serpent to be so threatening that it has cast the serpent in the role of Satan himself and blamed the fertile woman, [engine of evolution though she is!] for nothing less than the fall of the human race.
And so, in a hundred short generations, we have managed to reduce Mother Eve, whose name is synonymous with life itself, from supreme goddess to scapegoat.
Carolee Schneemann’s work from the 1960s and 70s was shocking during its own time because of the sexual taboos it blatantly disregarded. It remains shocking today because the nerve it hits runs very deep into the human psyche. It is not a stretch to declare Schneemann a sacred artist whose work is some 2500 years out of phase with the Western practice of the religion of life-giving feminine eroticism, and indeed, this is where some feminists of a certain ilk like to put her and leave her. But let’s be clear about one thing: this is not to say that she was ever somehow above the mundane concerns of the narcissistic rat race that characterizes the institutional art world.
Case in point: I once mistakenly assumed, based on the ritualistic associations conjured by Interior Scroll, that the text Schneemann retrieved from her vagina and read aloud must have been some sort of darkly magical manifesto on cunts and creation. Though the artist has fostered these associations with her own writings on the work, the text itself is not a key to the mysteries of the cosmos but rather an excoriation of one particular [female] film critic who refused to even look at her work because it wasn’t hip in the right way (framed for the sake of the piece as a fictional conversation with a male filmmaker):
there are certain films
we cannot look at
the personal clutter
the persistence of feelings
the hand-touch sensibility
the diaristic indulgence
the painterly mess
the dense gestalt
the primitive techniques
(I don’t take the advice
of men who only talk to
Yes, the artist manages to frame her vagina’s monologue as a screed against the left-brained, patriarchal assumptions of the academic and critical establishment. But truth be told, Interior Scroll is exactly as much about an ambitious narcissist getting her nose out of joint for not getting the respect she deserves as it is about the primal authority of yonic wisdom. And so it is precisely her indignant resistance to having her work relegated to a “feminist” ghetto that has yielded her most iconically feminist work, an irony that exposes the faultline of ambiguity that makes Schneeman’s work sublime:
“…it has to be rigorous. I have to feel that I’m…engaging with the dilemmas of my culture and then releasing that because I don’t want to do the programmatic, pedantic work, although there is often a subtle complex ambiguity in which contradictions of freedom and constraint, war and delicious dailiness, these kinds of contrasts move into the imagery.”
– Carolee Schneemann, interview with Emily Caigan, 2009
Although it is not quite as obvious at first glance, there is an awareness of the specter of death as strong as the erotic current running through Schneemann’s oeuvre. Works like Hand/Heart for Ana Mendieta (1986), Jim’s Lungs (1989) and Vesper’s Pool (2000) explore the mortality of peers, lovers and pets, respectively, while Terminal Velocity (2001), a photo montage of jumpers falling to their deaths during the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, manages to provide a uniquely…aesthetic perspective on one of the most traumatic and politicized events in our culture’s history.
Her most recent work Precarious (2009) is also on view; a multimedia meditation on the gap between direct experience and perception. Commissioned for the Tate Gallery, Precarious features footage of prisoners, animals, and Schneemann herself dancing. The dancing occurs in frames that are sometimes confined by cages and sometimes aren’t, depending on how we look at them.
Carolee Schneemann: With and Beyond the Premises is installed at Henry Art Gallery through December 30. All in all, it represents a tremendous, heretofore unseen range of work by one of the most important living American artists. Tickets for a lecture on Friday, Nov. 18 and symposium with the artist on Saturday, Nov. 19 are currently available via the Henry’s website.