Carolee Schneemannby Ann McCoy
Further Evidence – Exhibit A
P.P.O.W.| October 21 – December 3, 2016
Further Evidence – Exhibit B
Galerie Lelong | October 21 – December 3, 2016
“The great and amorous sky curved over the earth, and lay upon her as a pure lover. The rain, the humid flux descending from heaven for both man and animal, for both thick and strong, germinated the wheat, swelled the furrows with fecund mud and brought forth the buds in the orchards. And it is I who empowered these moist espousals, I the great Aphrodite....”
Aeschylus, The Danaides
In this time of war and uncertainty, Carolee Schneemann, the best artist embodiment of Aphrodite we have, has brought us two exhibitions that take us, with her uncompromising authenticity, into places rarely visited. When many are hoping for an Athena armed to the teeth to save our democracy, Schneemann summons Aphrodite, the goddess of couplings, sexual delight, lover of genitals, sea foam, and honeyed kisses. With her morphologies she has built a language all her own—a complex body of work and thought—and has produced writing that often eclipses the commentary of others with its articulateness and brilliance.
At P.P.O.W. a large wall drawing, Venus Vector Vocabulary Score for the Performance Fresh Blood – A Dream Morphology (1983), functions as both Rosetta Stone and periodic table. The pubic triangle found etched on the back of a rock in the caves of Chauvet is perhaps the first anatomical form drawn by our ancestors; here it serves as the genesis of Schneemann’s vocabulary. Schneemann’s genius lies in taking an elementary form and spinning it into a complex narrative coupled with dream interpretations, observations from nature, popular images, real life events, and synchronicities. Like the Rosetta Stone, drawing shows us Schneemann’s multiple languages and multiple origins laid out side by side; this vocabulary drawing is invaluable for understanding what Schneemann is all about, and the building blocks of her body of work and thought.
The glass sculptures titled Venus Vectors (1987) act as propellers radiating images reproduced from Venus Vector Vocabulary Score for the Performance Fresh Blood – A Dream Morphology. The four Maquettes for Venus Vectors (1987) at P.P.O.W. were studies for the lager Venus Vectors (1987) first shown at the Everson Museum in Sacred Spaces. The radiating hinged glass sculptures with their drawn panels possess an energetic dynamic that spins into the artist’s performances, films, and projection installations. Schneemann creates an energy field where a profound charge can envelope and transport the viewer.
Red menstrual blood colors Fresh Blood – A Dream Morphology (1983). Schneemann has discussed the relationship of blood to intercourse in publications like Parts of a Body House Book (Beau Geste Press, 1972). It is in the P.P.O.W. installation that Known/Unknown: Plague Column (1995-96) moves into a darker place with Aphrodite in peril. Faced with breast cancer, the artist refused traditional cancer treatment—including a mastectomy. Breasts are erotic organs as is a man’s penis. Schneemann was determined to keep hers, because reconstructed breasts have no erotic sensation. Fleeing the medical “war on cancer,” Schneemann chose the alternative Gersen treatment. Images of a needle piercing her breast and shit from enemas flushing away during her treatment in the Tijuana clinic fill four monitors. Aphrodite’s Eros is saved, but through a heart-wrenching struggle.
Perhaps the most compelling works portraying the dark militarism and destruction of our time are to be found in two video-projection installations at Lelong. Aphrodite had an affair with Ares, the god of war. Following their morning lessons in hand-to-hand combat, Sappho’s academy taught young men Aphrodite’s lessons of love and relatedness in the afternoon. Now Ares has run amok with no goddess to intervene and mediate—the latest mechanized forms of warfare are relentlessly raining down terror. In Devour (2000-04), Schneemann’s Aphrodite transmogrifies into the student we see killed by a sniper in Sarajevo, her riddled body lifted like a limp ragdoll. Schneemann received these images from the Sarajevo Film Cooperative along with a note saying, “we are disappearing … these are our final images.”
Precarious (2009), a Tate Liverpool commission, fills the large room at Galerie Lelong. The short image sequences and particular type of editing are familiar to students of Stan Brakhage. Brakhage, James Tenney, and Carolee Schneemann were a creative triangle beginning in the late ’50s, but the Anthology Film Archives was a boys club, and Schneemann was shut out (they didn’t consider her work film). Historians would do well to look at Schneemann’s influence on Brakhage’s work; his early black-and-white psychodrama films transformed after seeing her landscape paintings, her use of color and images from lived life. His later films depicting childbirth, intercourse, and death are all products of this interchange. The works at Lelong show Schneemann has both pioneered this tradition of filmmaking and advanced it into new territory.
Precarious also adds another dimension—a mechanized projection system of mirrors becomes a vehicle for the movement of images. All of the animal familiars of the goddesses—Artemis’s bears, Bastet’s cats, and Blodeuwedd’s birds—are chained and caged… and dance for survival in these sequences. Mass prison exercise programs to music have replaced the dances of the maenads. We look the brutal militarized agents of death square in the face in her work. We are now in a dark hour with the forces of fascism and death on our doorstep, and Aphrodite has never been so surrounded and vulnerable. Schneemann brings this fact home in a way few others can.
ANN MCCOY is an artist and writer who lectures in the Yale School of Drama.