It is a fact that Carolee Schneemann created many of the greatest works in the canon of performance art. With solo songs like Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions for Camera (1963) and Interior Scroll (1975/77), and those designed for ensembles like Meat Joy (1964), she made her body an “integral material”, as she put it. , in her work, using it to address eroticism, feminist politics and the exclusion of women from art history, ancient votive symbology and more.
With unfailing frankness and frankness, she dealt with her love affairs and friendships, her relationship with the cats that accompanied her existence, her home and environment, her response to current affairs and her cancer diagnosis. of the 90s. For Schneemann, the subject of this major new exhibition at the Barbican Art Gallery, life and art have always been intertwined.
With one of his first performances he said he wanted to destroy “the separation between audience and performer”, a compulsion for his entire career. As with other performance artists, this makes it devilishly difficult to put together an analysis of her work. We are necessarily separated from her by the fact that we see much of her work, especially her first, and her best, decade or so, solely through documentation.
But while I have spent much of my time at the Barbican feeling envious of those who have seen Schneemann’s works live, she is different from many of her performance art peers in two ways: she has been an obsessive documenter of his events, through photography (in which he had several notable collaborators), drawing, descriptive text and more. But also, above all, she was a “creator of images”, as she herself said.
Seeing the abundant photos and videos of the work, you realize that, despite all the wild abandon they might initially project, they are also well composed. Schneemann considered herself a painter, but the curator of the exhibition, Lotte Johnson, rightly argues that she is more of a collagist, who always puts together the materials – her body, the paint, the materials found, the paper and so on – and transforms them. endlessly, extracting their personal and political possibilities and potential. You have called this an “interference” process.
It is a convincing thread through the exhibition, from his first paintings, taking up abstract expressionism in the United States, but without ever abandoning the figure, through his “painted-constructions”, which bring together painting, photographic images and sculpture, to his boxes. – often with broken glass and some of which he had set on fire, until his next work Known / Unknown: Plague Column (1995–96), which explores his diagnosis of breast cancer and lymphoma.
Shards of glass also appeared in his first performances, Glass Environment for Sound and Motion (1962) and Eye Body, where he actually blew up the pictorial constructions in the studio, transforming them into a total environment of which he was a part. The Eye Body images taken by Icelandic photographer Erró are as seminal as the documentation of the performance. I’ve seen them maybe dozens of times now, but they’re as magnetic and dynamic as ever here, and all the more vivid for having some of the constructions Schneemann is shown interacting with positioned next to them in the show.
A bright room reflects how Schneemann’s trends harmonized perfectly with a radical group of choreographers and artists gathered at the Judson Dance Theater in New York, where many of Schneemann’s most compelling pieces were performed. Among these Meat Joy, the video and photos showing the mixed group, including Schneemann, involved in an apparent bacchanal, which inevitably also questions the dynamics of power between men and women.
More explicitly feminist work was to come, most notably in Interior Scroll, where Schneemann first hit the poses of a life model while reading her text describing a dream in which female artists in the year 2000 shouldn’t have suffer the same discrimination that he encountered (a fat possibility, we can now sadly attest). She then unveiled a scroll from her vagina, reading the description of an encounter with a sexist director.
Up to this point, with other works on what Schneemann called “vulvic space”, the show is almost perfect. It becomes more hit and miss with Schneemann’s political work, which tackles the Vietnamese and Balkan wars, the AIDS crisis, and more. Somehow, despite his incorporation of often shocking imagery, compositional immediacy and his own raw voice are more elusive here.
It is one thing to be commendable and thorough – and I doubt we’ll see a deeper analysis of its singular result – but it makes parts of the second half of the show something of a grind. However, Plague Column’s fragmented reflections on her illness and its effects are a jarring return to form late, demonstrating that her genius as a creator of images and political and natural force has never abandoned her.
Barbican Art Gallery, Thursday through January 8; barbacan.org.uk