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Carolee Schneemann: ‘Body Politics’

  • Art
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
© 2022 Carolee Schneemann Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / DACS, London.
© 2022 Carolee Schneemann Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / DACS, London.

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Carolee Schneeman got kicked out of university for ‘moral turpitude’. The 1950s just weren’t ready for her, nor were the ’60s or ’70s. Even today, the pioneering American painter, performer and dancer’s work still feels dangerous.

That accusation of turpitude was levelled at her because she’d painted images of her own naked body. The prudes couldn’t hack it. Imagine what they would have accused her of if they’d seen her pull scrolls out of her vagina or make paintings with her menstrual blood as she did in the 1970s.

The paintings from that early period don’t feel all that radical to modern eyes, but an empowered woman was a dangerous thing back then. They look like abstracted, half-remembered Cézannes, or erotic abstract expressionism. But the canvas couldn’t contain all her ideas. She quickly moved beyond the frame, her works getting draped with ropes and spools of tapes, closer to sculptures than paintings. Then she discovered boxes and filled them with lights and mirrors, set fire to them and ripped them apart.

These earlier pieces are clever enough, but they fit a little too unremarkably into the whole schmear of experimental art of the time, not distinct enough from people like Robert Rauschenberg or Jasper Johns yet to be properly memorable.

This is Schneeman creating a world of total body autonomy

But Schneeman got really good, and really unique, when she stopped trying to make art about the body, and instead made art with the body. She realised that she was the best subject she could hope for, becoming both the image maker and the image itself, as she put it. In ‘Eye Body’ she photographs herself smeared in paint and grease and chalk, peering into shattered mirrors, hidden in plastic, covered in snakes. It’s her controlling how you see her body, mediating the whole process of being looked at, creating a world of total body autonomy.

From there, she formed a dance troupe and put on heady, ritualistic, animalistic happenings across Europe, with performers writhing about in fish guts and chicken carcasses. She made grainy, distorted, psychedelic sex films, she tied performers up in ropes. It’s erotic, over-the-top, totally free art.

Her most iconic works are downstairs in the Barbican’s two-floor space. She spins naked from a swing and paints the walls, she dabs her menstrual blood on to tissue paper to create intricate little abstracts, and then ‘Interior Scroll’ finds her reading a feminist text from a long sheet of paper pulled out of her vagina. These are brilliant, confident, fearless works of body art that have had a huge influence and seeing the scrolls themselves on display – all twisted and stained – is incredible.

There’s a lot of geopolitical work about war too, and a whole wall of photos of her inexplicably snogging her cat, and everything just gets a bit messy. It’s okay not to do exhibitions chronologically, but the sprawling half-chronological, half-thematic mish-mash here is super-hard to follow. 

And let’s face it, a lot of Schneeman’s work can feel very, very silly. All the naked writhing and paint-smeared nude happenings feel like punchlines to a joke about performance art. But Schneeman lived this art, totally and fully; she was utterly dedicated to her ideas. There’s no cynicism here, it’s real, it’s personal, it’s emotional, it’s important and it’s 100 percent serious. 

Eddy Frankel
Written by
Eddy Frankel


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