The Drawers - Carolee Schneemann   Commentary written by Julie Oakes

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Carolee Schneemann

The words 'risky' and 'brave' are often associated with Carolee Schneemann's work. These adjectives poke into the core of the apple, that forbidden fruit that Eve first offered to Adam, the apple that had the slight perfume of fear to it's ester, the sense of a higher authority lurking in the wings, spying on the sex. After all, there were repercussions to the bite; God asked Adam and Eve to leave paradise, an embarrassing scene where shameful, original sin had been committed (with Eve probably weeping and Adam kicking himself for having fallen for her seductive ways). Eve was cast as the temptress for although women might have been socialised to behave otherwise, they're not all sugar and spice. Women can be wild, have a propensity to become hysterical, and possess an intuitive psychic response to unseen forces.

Schneemann began as a painter - always drawing - and yet also underpinning her work with the written word. She emerges just as happenings were coming into being, using her body to draw in as well as mitigate what might have been an even more shocking spectacle had she not been so beautiful. In a time when feminist mores were turning to 'sensible' shoes and unshaven legs, she was riding on Robert Rauschenburg's neck, buff naked, glorious and glamorous.

The history of art has sustained few women artists but those who did surface to float in view alongside the more demonstrative males were exceptional and also in their own way, wild. Artemesia Genteleschi, for instance, took the case of her sexual abuse at the hands of her painting teacher who was also her father's assistant, a man his age - to court. Her subjects were a herald of female emancipation, such as Judith chopping off the head of Holofrenes - a brave symbolic act. There were the colorful, exceptional women who lived with the men of the West Bank in Paris and were a vital part of the mileu; Sonia Delauney who married Robert Delauney and Suzanne Valadon, Maurice Utrillo's mother who in 1894 was the first woman painter admitted to the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. A perfectionist, Valadon worked on some of her oil paintings for up to thirteen years, before showing them. There were women working as artists, once the research was done to find them, and Judy Chicago's Dinner Party with her memorial plates to female artists brought a lot of those names to the fore.

Carolee Schneemann speaks of the unspeakable side of women, the un-demure. Interior Scroll performed in 1975 related a conversation between herself and “a happy man, a structuralist filmmaker”. The text was a documentation of irreconcilable inequality between the sexes. She read the narrative from a folded paper that she had inserted into her vagina, drawing it out, inch by inch, her body in an unflattering half crouched position. In the text, she brings to his attention the work that she, herself, had done as a filmmaker. He counters her offering of her credentials by refering to her as a charming woman, “We think of you as a dancer,” is his assessment of her filmmaking efforts. Schneemann's take on the story was brilliant. She drew forth, from her mysterious complex womanhood, the story of an unflinching refusal to see the woman as artist. “He said that we could be friends equally but that we are not artists equally”, she read. Then she read her reply, “We cannot be friends equally and we cannot be artists equally”. The final words that she read (his) “We think of you as a dancer”, spoken as she drew forth the last of the long interior scroll; made it's point.

Meat Joy with the near naked men and women activating contact improvisations using sausages, paint, fish and raw chickens brings out this same irresitible inclination to tell an intuitive truth. Foucault relates to the idea of daimon, that part of mankind that reveals the chaos within and it is by knowing this daimon that we are able to shed the borrowed manners that come with our social conditioning and truly get to know what we consist of. This is a dangerous idea for it involves an awareness of the boundaries of acceptability and that becomes a personal delineation that might not fall within the realms deemed 'normal'. It is the principal of the avant garde, an advanced group that goes to the outfields of the discipline. Schneemann's work hovers around the outfield, lingers on the borders. It is truly unorthodox and experimental.

Schneemann approached the borders between the human and the animal. She accepted the ardent kisses of her cat over the course of eight years. She filmed the daily kisses of this persistent event producing a time factored photographic grid in which the agency of the pet cat becomes an erotic delirium.

In Terminal Velocity (2001), she structured enlarged photographic sequences of people falling from the twin towers, plunging to their death. Pushing the boundaries, once again, but this time sexuality is not the issue. But the question “What is decent?” is still there. Schneemann has put herself out there. She has not done anything vicariously. She has been there herself, making the plunge with the air singing around her and a “break on through to the other side” awaiting. She has been a brave artist.

Julie Oakes Copyright © 2008 Headbones Gallery