The Body As Art, And Other Mediums: The Work of Carolee Schneemann

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Mortal Coils (1994-1995)

Bwog loves art and Bwog loves to love art. Our very own Bwog Staffer, Layla Alexander, went on down to MoMA PS1 to take a look at their new Carolee Schneemann “Kinetic Painting” exhibit. Read on to see Alexander’s experience!

On Friday morning, I decided to kick off my fall break with a trip to MoMA PS1, where “Kinetic Painting,” an exhibit dedicated to the works of Carolee Schneemann, had recently opened. Schneemann is notable for the extensive number of objects utilized in her work, including paint, rope, old photographs, handwritten letters, and strings of beads. Her work ties together issues of sexuality, sensuality, violence, and more. The exhibit consisted of six decades worth of work, spanning over two dozen rooms and two floors in the gallery.

The first floor of the exhibit was devoted to the artist’s later work, which was also her darker, more brutal work. Thus, my first taste of Schneemann reflected a cynical side of the artist. In one room, obituaries were plastered on a single wall. “We miss your laughter and love,” read one. “It has been fifty years, we still miss you and love you,” read another. Two hanging light bulbs illuminated the flyers, creating a haunting environment. Slightly unsettled, I shuffled into another room, where two large screens stood. One of the larger screens depicted visual static, while the other was a short looped clip. The clip depicted news footage of a woman lying limp on the ground, her head indistinguishable due to a mass of blood and debris surrounding it. In the forefront of the room were four small television sets, depicting various looped scenes, such as an airplane taking off and a baby sucking on a nipple.

War Mop (1983)

In another room was “The Lebanon Series,” in which Schneemann brought together sculpture, film, and paint on canvas to demonstrate her relationship with war during the 60s and 70s. In one corner, there was a mop laid atop a television set, that was depicting intercutting footage from the Beirut tourist bureau and clips of wartime destruction. Across the room was a series of abstract paintings that incorporated images from the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Even more unsettled and awestruck, I continued through the first floor of the gallery then made my way upstairs.

Schneemann’s most iconic work dealt primarily with femininity, the male gaze, the human body, and female performatism through film, theater, and performance art. One room on the second floor was devoted to a red-tinted film directed by Schneemann that featured nearly nude figures rolling about on the floor while holding fish. On display in another room was a series of objects, such as strings of beads, empty cans, and mini horns, all of which the artist had used to make “body noise.” My favorite piece by Schneemann, however, was a performance art piece in which she stood, naked, reciting a manifesto of sorts while pulling a scroll out of her vagina on which the manifesto was printed. Satisfied with this dose of feminist art, I wrapped up my trip to MoMA PS1 and made my way to the subway.

Meat Joy (1964)

Schneemann was deeply concerned with the role of women in the art world. While simultaneously acting as a nude model in art classes at Bard College and painting nude self-portraits, she came to realize just how differently male and female artists perceived each other. Specifically, she came to acknowledge the objectification of women in the largely male-dominated art sphere. Emboldened and ready to make headway, Schneemann turned this concept on its head, referring to herself as both “image and image-maker,” and it was this mindset that sparked 60 years of art focused on femininity, the human body, mankind, and self-perception.

The major themes of Schneemann’s work are not foreign concepts. When she began her work, women were not seen as equals in the art world and other professional fields, such as STEM and law. In a lot of ways, these perceptions have barely shifted, and the legitimacy of women’s work is further compromised when other identifiers (race, sexuality, etc.) are taken into consideration. Schneemann’s work ultimately highlighted the importance of equity and provided meaningful takeaways that we, as students on the brink of entering the professional world, can, and should, take seriously.

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