Carolee Schneemann

by Jane Harris

When moving through this largely chronological exhibition, the magnitude of Schneemann's influence is undeniable. EYE BODY (THIRTY-SIX TRANSFORMATIVE ACTIONS), 1963, a mytho-erotic performance of Schneemann in a variety of eccentric tableaux captured here by a beautiful series of black-and-white prints- significantly predates the body-art of Ana Mendieta and Hannah Wilke, and the photo-based work of Cindy Sherman. Even more substantial is the impact of Schneemann's orgiastic performance MEAT JOY, 1964, the legacy of which can be traced in the work of Annie Sprinkle, Penny Arcade, Karen Finley, and yes, even Madonna.

Schneemann and Madonna have a lot more in common than some of us might care to admit. Both are considered performance artists who, at their core, play with notions of sexual decorum in a fashion so surreptitious as to almost negate the radicality of their actions.

Indeed, feminists are often the most myopic of critics, dismissing the artists' actions as narcissistic (Dionysian) or essentialist. This is because neither Schneemann nor Madonna employ preexisting forms of (social and political) critique to structure their work, instead choosing to implode these notions of decorum with, and through, the use of the body. When Schneemann describes her body (in conversation with the show's curator, Dan Cameron, December 4,1996, The New Museum) as a pleasurable weapon, a missile she sends into our repressive culture to blow it apart, Madonna's in-your-face eroticism immediately comes to mind. Moreover, while Schneemann's vanguard expressions generally belong to the world of art (and occasionally art history) and Madonna's to the world of popular culture/entertainment, both have managed to achieve an iconic status in their respective milieus as the proverbial bad girl everyone loves to hate.

In less gendered terms, Schneemann and Madonna are part of a philosophical continuum which insists upon the phenomenal authority of the body. Schneemann expresses this with a potent mix of erudite theory (ocular muscularity and its relationship to the Ab-Ex gesture, for example, is a complex idea she has articulated to explain her desire to move painting outside the confines of the frame) and sixties sensibility (all of her work evolves from her unconscious, and is literally instructed by dreams).

If Schneemann has any calling card it is this persistent marriage of art (object) and action (body), evident throughout her oeuvre, even as the exhibition makes clear to point out in her most object-oriented works of the late '50s and early '60s. In Up To and Including Her Limits, Cameron's well-chosen examples from this period include two early, prescient paintings; the Cezanne-inspired LANDSCAPE, 1959, and the mixed-media, de Kooning-ish, LETTER TO LOU ANDREAS SALOME, 1965. Hanging nearby are three of Schneemann's box constructions which, in my opinion, more than just recall Joseph Cornell (the assemblages combine objects such as mirrors, dead birds, and old photos with music boxes, lights, and clocks), anticipate Schneemann's early performance work.

What the works of this period best convey is Schneemann's ability to openly embrace the influence of artists such as Cezanne and the Abstract Expressionists who so clearly articulated her own painterly problems while vigorously advancing their ideas through a personalized resolution (of these same problems) in her own work.

Together the paintings and boxes make evident Schneemann's struggle to transcend the limits of her media by actualizing the stroke, or mark, in space. In fact, Schneemann continues to refer to herself first and foremost as a painter, refusing thus, to make distinctions between her objects, body-based performances, and multi-media installations. Not surprisingly, she frequently encapsulates her aesthetic in paradoxical statements like "I am the nude, but I also hold the paintbrush".

The vociferous wall text (authored by the artist) initially feels like The New Museum's usual education-in-overdrive approach. But rather than distract you, Schneemann's remarkably coherent writing style provides the corporeal thread that fittingly ties together her sometimes dizzyingly diverse oeuvre, and instead, proves to be a pleasant read. Schneemann is a prolific writer, and fragments of her journal entries, along with sketches, photographs, and diagrams, comprise the ephemera of her "kinetic actions"; MEAT JOY, 1964, and SNOWS, 1967. Mounted neatly in glass display boxes, the ephemera's orderly arrangement seems to contradict the cacaphonic energy of these once very lively performances. The same is true of the infamous INTERIOR SCROLL, 1975, which exists in the subdued form of the actual scroll, yellowed and weathered with age, a legibly typed copy of the letter/poem to the structuralist film maker, and a photo of Schneemann pulling it out of her vagina. Here again, the intense energy of the original act is completely flattened. Of course, it is a nearly impossible curatorial challenge to present the documents of performance-based work in a manner that transcends the archival.

Cameron has tackled this problem by animating the surrounding space with a continuous video program of interviews and performances that span nearly thirty years of the artist's career. And it does make a difference.

Up To and Including Her Limits is Cameron's first show at The New Museum, inspired by a long-time interest in Schneemann, originating in undergraduate school and culminating with the recent MORTAL COILS, 1994 (originally shown at Penine Hart Gallery, New York). The installation, the largest piece in the show, is an elegiac meditation on loss (its title derives from a Hamlet quote), and the fugitive nature of time. Images of fifteen of the artist's deceased friends are projected onto a wall and refracted by motorized mirrors, while fourteen heavy manila ropes hang from the darkened ceiling, slowly coiling on a flour-dusted floor. The ropes turn at precisely 6 rpm's, a structure determined by another of the artist's preternatural dreams. Indeed, the ropes have an oneiric presence, suggesting the hazy void of the unconscious, a kind of spiritual infinity

Surrounding the ropes are blown-up fragments of anonymous newspaper memorials; their intimate brevity a poignant metaphor for life itself. We are invited to read them, or just sit down and reflect. The atmospheric quality and materiality of the work together underscore its subtext which is Schneemann's more universal comment on art's relation to lived experience most of Schneemann's friends were artists (well-known to us all).

Making public the intimate is perhaps Schneemann's greatest contribution to art, this and the fact that she continues to do so despite the obvious costs. That Cameron in his revisionist impulse has so successfully conveyed this in Up To and Including Her Limits is to the benefit of all.

Copyright ©1996 Jane Harris & REVIEW All Rights Reserved