Home » Exhibitions » Exhibition Review – Carolee Schneemann: Body Politics at the Barbican Art Gallery from 8 September 2022 – 8 January 2023

Exhibition Review – Carolee Schneemann: Body Politics at the Barbican Art Gallery from 8 September 2022 – 8 January 2023

Carolee Schneemann: Body Politics is the first survey in the UK of the work of American artist Carolee Schneemann (1939-2019) and the first major exhibition since her death in 2019. The exhibition explores Schneemann’s diverse and interdisciplinary work over six decades.

The exhibition features over 300 objects, from the Carolee Schneemann Foundation, as well as numerous private and public collections. Carolee Schneemann: Body Politics brings together paintings, sculptural assemblages, performance photographs, films and large-scale multimedia installations, as well as rarely seen archival material including scores, sketches, scrapbooks, programmes and costumes.

Although today, the personal and political are often enmeshed by many artists, Schneemann using this approach in the 1960s and 70s was considered radical. Schneemann often took her own body as a model and starting point to recognise and challenge how history had defined the lives and bodies of women.

Although predominantly known as a performance artist, she considered herself foremost a painter. Opening the exhibition are the artist’s rarely seen early gestural paintings, including Aria Duetto (Cantata No.78): Yellow Ladies (1957) and Pin Wheel (1957), a kinetic painting activated by the potter’s wheel on which it is mounted.

In her early works on canvas, Schneemann was influenced by American Abstract Expressionism and Paul Cézanne, but was desperate to find her own style.

From the early 1960s, she experimented with ‘painting-constructions’ and ‘box-constructions’. For the assemblage Colorado House (1962), she slashed, ripped and reconfigured what she considered to be failed paintings, while for the diorama-like Pharaoh’s Daughter (1966), she filled a wooden box with glowing lights, slides of biblical scenes and mirrors.

The exhibition charts Schneemann’s radical work using her own body as a medium, key works from this period include a series of photographs from Schneemann’s first solo performance Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions for Camera (1963), in which she staged a series of gestures amid a sprawling environment of materials.

For Up to and Including Her Limits (1976), she hung naked from a harness suspended in the corner of a paper-lined stage set, creating gestural abstract marks with crayons as she swung back and forth in a trance-like state.

In the early 1960s Schneemann was living in New York City and was part of the downtown scene. She became a founding member of the Judson Dance Theater, a group of avant-garde interdisciplinary artists including Yvonne Rainer, Lucinda Childs, Trisha Brown, David Gordon and Steve Paxton, who took everyday gestures and materials as their medium.

Schneemann described her group performances as ‘kinetic theatre’, incorporating complex movement scores, sets, lighting, sound and technical innovations. Numerous performances are represented through photographs, films, scores, sketches, notes and costumes, including one of Schneemann’s most iconic performances Meat Joy (1964).

A focused section of the show shines a spotlight on Schneemann’s time spent in London. The city provided the context for several of her experimental performances, including Round House (staged at the Roundhouse in 1967, as part of a line-up that included poet Allen Ginsburg, anti-psychiatrist R.D. Laing and Black Power activist Stokely Carmichael, among others), Naked Action Lecture (performed at the ICA in 1968), and ICES STRIP/ISIS TRIP (performed on roller skates on a train travelling from London to Edinburgh in 1972).

The final section of the exhibition includes a series of works that address the precarious nature of life and the politics of human suffering in the context of the Vietnam War, the Civil War in Lebanon, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the artist’s own fight with cancer.

This fascinating exhibition illustrates that Schneemann was a radical pioneer who often often had to deal with considerable hostility to her work. Using deeply personal experiences in art can lead accusations of being narcissistic and a number of feminists raised this criticism of Schneemann’s work. Her later work concentrated on local and global politics especially related to how images from the media are diluted to obscure the suffering of war victims. Schneemann may not be widely known outside of the art world, but this exhibition is an opportunity to access her legacy in feminist art history.

Visiting London Guide Rating – Recommended

For more information and tickets, visit the Barbican website here

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