Hales Gallery, London
17 September – 29 October 2022
Carolee Schneemann: Body Politics
Barbican Art Gallery, London
The Barbican Art Gallery is staging the first comprehensive retrospective in the UK of pioneering feminist artist Carolee Schneemann. Up the road at Hales Gallery is a tightly selected group of the artist’s early paintings and drawings and together the shows are a revelation. For although her groundbreaking performances Meat Joy and Interior Scroll have almost always had a mention in feminist art histories, the breadth, influence and seriousness of her practice has never before been explored in this way here.
Schneemann grew up before the advent of the first feminist movement, a fact that renders her sheer bravery all the more astonishing. In rural Pennsylvania, as a girl her horizons did not extend much beyond the domestic sphere. In 1952 she found her way to New York and Bard College where she garnered the distinction of being expelled for ‘moral turpitude’ – for painting herself in the nude. Defining herself as a painter her whole life, she could not but be aware of the machismo of the New York scene in the 1960s. She called it the ‘Art Stud Club’. Abstract Expressionism lionised the heroic male, the artist as genius. Schneemann countered this with her theory of ‘vulvic space’ – invoking the power of the female principle and drawing attention to the way history consistently obscured or erased the achievements of women. Schneemann’s was from the beginning a politically conscious practice and one which extended, in her later years, from the personal into the wider international arena.
Key to Schneeman’s oeuvre is her conviction in the ‘embodied self’ – a rejection of the binary mind/body separation, which so often implies the male/female binary. (A later feminist artist, Barbara Kruger, pithily summed up that opposition in the early 80s with her work We won’t play nature to your culture). Schneemann conceived of the body as a feeling, thinking, erotic entity, coextensive with a wider Nature. The radicality of her thinking was as confronting to some women as to men. When challenged by her contemporaries about the use of her naked body in her work, she countered “I am not showing my naked body: I am being my body”.
Her famous performance work Meat Joy debuted in Paris in 1964. Founded on the improvisatory principles of the Judson Dance Theater in New York, the semi-naked performers interacted first in pairs and then in larger groupings, while raw fish and plucked chickens rained down on them from above and cans of paint were emptied onto the floor. Film documentation shows a primal, ecstatic rite, disturbing in the frenzied energies it released. Schneemann saw the work as painting and a radical means of escaping the medium’s static limitations. Shortly afterwards the performance was repeated in London where the police were called and the performers were forced to flee.
A series of drawings and watercolours from 1957 in the Hales Gallery show prefigures the work that Schneemann went on to make on her return to New York. Rapidly achieved nude sketches and vivid with the sense of desire, they depict a man and woman embracing. Schneemann took the classical tradition of the nude and brought it out of the allegorical and into the real world, where it exists in all its messy sensuality. A decade later the artist repeatedly filmed herself and her partner, the composer, Jim Tenney making love. The film stock for the work that became Fuses, 1964-67 was then burned with fire and acid, painted, baked, and abraded such that when projected, the image has a wild, irrational quality, as if the intensity of the sensations of the protagonists had itself acted upon the material. Crucially, Fuses is an account of an erotic relationship from a woman’s own perspective – an account that does not objectify, but centres the experience of a woman. Schneemann was vocal in her decision not to have children. Running through her entire oeuvre is an assertion of the creative function of the body in art, the right of women to be creative rather than procreative.
In 1968 Schneemann performed her Naked Action Lecture at the ICA in London. Discussing her work with a slide show she repeatedly undressed and dressed herself, confronting her audience with the question of whether a woman can be authoritative when naked, whether her lecture would be received in the same way. We have travelled so far in the intervening years (the overturning of Roe v Wade this year notwithstanding) that it is hard for contemporary audiences to imagine the harshly repressive views of the society in which Schneemann was operating. Her performances to camera are extraordinary because they distill so many issues into a single, eloquent act: revealing with a striking clarity the prevailing misogynist prejudice and simultaneously celebrating the female principle.
These seriously researched and staged exhibitions go a long way towards properly situating Schneemann in art history, and through an immersive experience of her work, they give some idea what it must have been like to witness it first hand. I would say they are essential viewing.
Hales Gallery, 7 Bethnal Green Road E1 6LA, London, UK
Opening Times: Wednesday – Saturday 11am – 6pm or by appointment
Exhibition Open until 29 October
Opening Time: Monday – Sunday 9.30am -11pm and 12-11pm on Bank Holidays
Exhibition Open until 8 January 2023