Dreams and Desires from the Middle of Nowhere: Carolee Schneemann in Illinois
Report from…Urbana-Champaign, Illionois
Carolee Schneemann: Within and Beyond the Premises at the Krannert Art Museum, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, January 27 to April 1, 2012
In 1961, Carolee Schneemann moved to New York City after completing her MFA at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. It’s well known that she was a part of the experimental avant garde in the city: creating performances at Judson Dance Theater, participating at Andy Warhol’s Factory and Claes Oldenburg’s Store, and collaborating with Robert Morris and others on works that expanded her painting practice within and beyond its materiality. But rural Illinois where she studied painting—and the small town where she grew up, and New Paltz, NY where she settled in 1965 — couldn’t be further from that reality. Landscape exists in these places; is these places.
Champaign is in the middle of nowhere. It seems flat forever with nothing to look at but horizon and sky, except for, these days, some eccentric University architecture—charming old round barns, a fascist-looking football stadium, a basketball arena that touched down from outer space in the 1970s. This quiet University town was, to me, the perfect frame for Schneemann’s retrospective, allowing reflection on what was already alive in the artist before New York and contemporary misunderstandings about her. Under an endless, quiet sky it feels natural to contemplate body as activated presence; nature as the essential connection to self; and emotions, even rage, as spacious, possible, fruitful.
The retrospective, which closes at the Krannert Art Museum on April 1, originated at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art at SUNY New Paltz. The current iteration was created in partnership with the Henry Art Gallery of Washington, and will hopefully travel throughout the country. Unfortunately however, according to Kathleen Harleman, Director at the Krannert, they are having trouble getting the show to certain locations due to the nature of the work. That seems incredible. Even though the internet exists, somehow a formal masterpiece like Fuses (1964-67)—which is a painted film, or a filmic-painting, exploring materiality and abstraction in both mediums, and including sexual sensation and fluid, female emotion as its content—can still frighten and offend. As Schneemann read during her performance of Interior Scroll in 1975, “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.”
The Krannert version of the show includes the addition of the charming photo collage Schneemann, Tenney and Kitch: The Illinois Years (1959-60), which is a visual diary of the start of Schneemann’s domestic life with the composer James Tenney, her partner for 13 years, and Kitch their cat. Another difference with the Dorsky’s presentation of the show is the greater emphasis placed on the artist’s film works. Instead of showing these on small monitors, Fuses, Meat Joy (1964-2010), and Precarious (2009) were projected on big screens in room-sized viewing enclaves. Precarious was actually projected around viewers onto four walls in a room, with a fifth smaller moving-image projection traveling slowly, overlapping in diagonal across the back wall. I’d seen pieces of Fuses on Youtube years ago, and Meat Joy on a monitor at P.P.O.W. in Chelsea during Schneemann’s last New York solo show, but the difference in seeing these pieces projected in their entirety on a big screen is enormous.
Fuses, a 35 mm, silent, color film is 29 minutes and 51 seconds long; flickers of light, Schneemann’s figure silhouetted against an ocean shoreline, her cat’s gaze, and scenes of Tenney driving in the country are cut in with shots of the couple making love. Some frames are upside down. All are painted, scratched, baked, cut and put back together to create a textured flow that looks at times the way an orgasm might feel. It’s impossible to say the work is not explicit, as it certainly shows everything, but Fuses is far from a narrative depiction of sex, and the images are tender and natural — a different creature entirely than the abusive images that dominate in the not-so-underground pornography industry. I actually believe that it should be distressing to women that people are or could be (especially people in positions of power to show this work) offended by Fuses. What that says to me is that because of fear and politics, a woman’s ownership of her own image, and her own joy — emotion, life, and formal filmmaking technique are inseparable here — is still unacceptable to many. This work should be much more widely known, shown, and studied.
Before she was making films, Schneemann was a painter who was already trying to find ways off of the canvas, as early as 1960 calling painting her “beloved corpse.” Some of my favorite of her works are the Rauschenberg-like combines that she made by attaching wire, broken glass, plaster and found photos to her canvases. In the front room is a series of paintings and etchings, including semi-abstract landscapes, still lifes, and life drawings that vary from each other only slightly, as well as the larger, built-out combine Sir Henry Francis Taylor (1961). This work includes a found photo of a nude woman seen from behind, broken glass and wood, and a small, weathered map of Illinois. There is a sense of expansion inward and also of pushing away energetically from the traditional means of expression. It looks as if the objects originated from the canvas themselves and just had to get out. Schneemann carried her impulse away from traditional painting farther, and more expertly than most, and yet she was somehow capable of aesthetic continuity between her own body, disparate objects, and paint.
Perhaps this is because of the artist’s attention to her own subconscious, to her dreams and desires, and to the places these natural impulses lead her. The film Meat Joy, which documents a performance of the fabulously disgusting event at Judson Church in 1964 (it was also performed in Paris and London to predictably different responses from audiences), attempts to reach heights of ecstatic sensuality. The soundtrack of the film is made up of sounds, mostly French conversations, from the streets of Paris, but it also includes Schneemann’s voice repeating a sentence in English to someone at least three times during the 10 minute, 34 second film: “I want to show the space between desire and experience,” she says.
In this case, her expression of desire in a pure form took the embodied shape of young men and women wearing very little, eventually covered with raw fish, chickens, and sausages. Participants rolled around together on the church floor, dismembering the carcasses, rubbing guts into each other’s flesh, acting out, and it seems experiencing, ecstatic states. On film, the scene can’t help but look a bit absurd after all these years, which is partially due to the nature of performance documentation versus a film created for its own sake like Fuses, or the photos that make up Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions (1963), which was performed specifically and only for the camera. But it’s also because there’s not much room in today’s adult experience for unabashed ecstasy, so being a witness to it becomes unfamiliar and embarrassing. I can’t help thinking that Meat Joy, as mystical rite and energetic force, was necessarily experiential; on film it lives as a purely visual, yet nonetheless powerful icon.
Iconic works abound in this retrospective, including Up to and Including Her Limits (1973-76), which explores the mark as remnant of trancelike, painterly action, and photos from Interior Scroll, the performance during which a nude Schneemann removed a folded piece of paper from her vagina and then read aloud the letter she had printed upon it. Also present, however, are later pieces that continue to respond to themes from earlier years. Positioned next to each other are Terminal Velocity (2001) and Snows (1967), both of which express a different kind of desire: to somehow respond to unfathomable current events, and to visually express the depths of pain and rage stemming from inhumane political acts.
Terminal Velocity is an elegy to the men and women who fell from windows of the World Trace Center on 9/11. Schneemann took images of these people, mid-fall, that she found in newspapers, and successively zoomed in to enlarge each image. Across the top of a grid, each figure is featured in his or her smallest size; each picture is then enlarged progressively in photos that line up, smallest to largest, from the top to the bottom of each column of the grid. The effect is haunting; it looks as if each subject is in motion, still falling, as his or her image stays captured forever in horrific limbo. Snows is a response to the atrocities of the Vietnam war: the video shows a performance in which the film Viet-Flakes, made up of re-filmed photos of Vietnam, cycled behind slowly moving performers with white make-up on their faces. Schneemann culled the images from foreign sources, as they were suppressed in U.S. media outlets. Audience movement affected the speed of the image and sound transitions in Viet-Flakes, a complex technology (though now common, used then for the first time), creating non-optional participation. Experimental acuity and the ability to combine organic with technical media played a part in the balance of the piece, which is somehow both pure political action and pure formal mastery—which is pure Schneemann.