Carolee Schneemann still pushing the edges of decorum

Oct 23, 2011

There are some works of art that can make people really uncomfortable.

Artist Carolee Schneemann is a master at pushing the edges of decorum. She’s also one of the first people in the early 1960’s to ever be called a performance artist.

Her paintings, films and photographs cover everything from dancing suggestively with dead fish to the people who jumped from the World Trade Towers on 9/11. A retrospective of her work is currently on display at Seattle’s Henry Art Gallery.

A painter first, but ...

Schneemann sees herself first and foremost as a painter. She also ventures into photography, film and video installations.

There are pictures of her resembling a young Elizabeth Taylor,  posing naked with a snake; a video of her naked, suspended in a harness while drawing, a work she says was inspired by Jackson Pollock; and a few other pieces in the show that wouldn’t be appropriate to describe here.

Schneemann, who is 72 year old, has been called a lot of things, but one label that that seems to really annoy her is "performance artist."

“I don’t want to be a performance artist, some sexualized person who has to perform. We were about invention, spontaneity, the unconscious. Almost the physicaliztion of a live body in a collage configuration. But most people will be walking around wondering where that nude image is, it’s such a dominater.”

'Meat Joy' did it

Schneemann says her art started to be taken seriously with the rise of feminism in the 1970’s. However the work that firmly affixed the term performance artist onto Schneemann is her 1964 film called "Meat Joy." She was invited to create something for an arts festival in Paris.

In "Meat Joy," men and women barely clothed in fur and feather underwear are choreographed in a variety of movements while covered in paint. They writhe on the floor with glistening, large dead fish and dead chickens.

Remember, this was 1964, when white gloves and pill box hats were must haves for any woman’s wardrobe.

Audiences were stunned and paralyzed

Patricia Failing, a professor of Art History at the University of Washington says Schneemann is fearless and that "Meat Joy" is a prime example of her ability to push boundaries.

“I think her emphasis of taboos, eroticism, her style is not just over the top, it’s over the top, over the top that’s kind of tough to experience for some people, but it can also be kind of powerful.”

Today, 47 years later, Meat Joy still packs a punch. If you try to watch it on YouTube the site will only open the door if you say you are at least 18 years old. This, despite the fact no one is actually naked in the film.

Terminal Velocity controversy

Another piece that stirs the blood in a different way is Terminal Velocity. It’s a collage made up of pictures of people as they jumped from the World Trade Towers on Sept. 11, 2001.

“I wanted to be as close as possible to the image of these few people who had been depicted falling through space. And then I began enlarging them and enlarging them until I saw more clearly, the shoe, the shirt, the pocket of the jacket, the hair blowing."

Terminal Velocity was completed one month after the tragedy. Schneemann says Terminal Velocity is a memorial piece.

Yet it was greeted with anger and hostility. The images are enlarged to the degree where it might be possible for people to identify their loved ones lost that day.

Schneemann’s retrospective is at the Henry Art Gallery through Dec. 30. She is giving a lecture at the University of Washington on Nov. 18. 

Artscape” is a weekly KPLU feature covering Northwest art, performances and artists. The feature is published here on Sundays and airs on KPLU 88.5 on Monday during Morning Edition, All Things Considered and on Weekend Saturday Edition.