by Kara Q. Smith
“We’re going to see some recent work by an inspiring feminist artist who is known for performing radical pieces about sexuality and gender and another female artist who I think is a lesbian cowboy,” I told my date.
I prefer to see shows alone, and definitely not during openings, so I can retrace my steps and mutter to myself as much as I like. But this week, I deemed Gallery Paule Anglim a decent date destination. I’m not sure if I hoped the content would titillate or I could suss out a vision of taste. Both the corporeal work of Schneemann and Gay Outlaw is too good/weird a name to pass up for anything, so it seemed together a telling mix.
Presented as separate exhibitions, the two bodies of work rather blatantly share little by way of content. Titled Remains to Be Seen, Schneemann’s section of the gallery is a collection of material containing familiar scenes from her past performances and newer pieces comprised of found imagery and mark making. Her Unexpectedly Research, 1992, is a collection of dyed, framed chromaprints hung together as one large tableau. Within one frame, I pick out a still from what I assume is her 1965 film Fuses, next to it, a fecund ancient figurine. Thus, a pattern emerges: documentation of a past performance, primordial female statuette, each set unique without repeating, each tinted a blue or purplish hue. Here Schneemann is drawing from a trajectory of semiotics of the female form, placing herself in the continuum and coloring them all the same to present to the viewer. Considering all the images as a whole renders the narrative of re-presentation of the female form in a continuum that still finds relevancy in its confrontation with the viewer.
Both archival and current, the embedded rhetoric here was a conversation killer. Let’s move on.
One of the most successful pieces in the show is Devour (2003), a multi-channel video installation. Both projections loop a collage of material that for the most parts appears to be appropriated footage. There are vaguely political and heart wrenching scenarios: at one moment there is a man, his head completely busted open on a curb while obscured people try to move him; intimate moments: a cat atop a human, nuzzling a pair of female lips (my guess is it is Schneemann herself); and moments where there is just recorded black-and-white TV static. It’s captivating. It leaves you uneasy. The quieter moments within the montage, also including a baby breastfeeding, become indistinguishable in the onslaught. Though you look to them for reprieve, they are often found when the scene you didn’t want to see again is looping on the second screen. Bodies (both human and feline) become ambiguous in these clips, irreducible amongst the chaos, becoming an abstract theatre of psychic associations with the imagery indistinguishable between affection and aggression, human and animal.
Gay Outlaw, Untitled (After Morandi), 2011, Acrylic on paper, photographs, 11” x 14”; Courtesy the Artist and Paule Anglim Gallery, San Francisco.
Heading to Outlaw’s section of the gallery from there, passing by a couple print montages depicting similar-looking material from Devour by Schneemann, switches gears slightly from message to material. Absent of figures and creating at times surreal-looking landscapes, there is finesse and charm in her pieces, forcing me to read the press release for her exhibition, aptly titled New Work. Here, I gather she is not a lesbian cowboy as I previously thought (or maybe just wished). Gay Outlaw is her name and innovatively employing materials in her work is her game. Her unframed collages draw us in, and back, in and back. A mixture of hand painted objects and mechanically reproduced images create new, abstract shapes evoking questionably recognizable forms. In Untitled (Studio Panorama), 2012, there is a banana, but it’s not a stock photo of a banana, it almost looks like a picture of a painting of a banana. Or better yet, a computer drawing of a banana which had paint dripped on it, then was re-photographed, printed and cut out for this piece.
“Ceci n’est pas une banane,” I don’t say out loud.
My date wants to touch the piece, I can tell by her outstretched finger. I gently tell her, “no touching.” “I really can’t touch this one, it’s behind glass,” she replies, referring to the one framed piece in the exhibition and a measure of how strongly one is beckoned to intimately explore these pieces, almost to a level of frustration. Perhaps here lies a connection with Schneemann’s work, if one needs to be found. The tension back and forth between the positions of subject and object in Outlaw’s landscapes (e.g. viewers’ familiar vs. alien associations with imagery), mirror Schneemann’s employment of the body (e.g. subjective vs. social associations), both artists complicating desires in the viewer. Perhaps their re-presenting of known and unknown materials isn’t so different then dating itself, where one is sharing and reshaping versions of self throughout the continuum of one’s existence, almost to the point of abstraction, from stories chosen to tell, to styling oneself that day.
Carolee Schneemann, Dark Pond, 2001-2005, 12 unique watercolor & crayon with digital print layer, 54” x 56”; Courtesy the Artist and Paule Anglim Gallery, San Francisco.
On our way out, we stop at Schneemann’s Dark Pond (2001-2005). A series of unusually framed poster-size digital prints have been covered by colorful expressive strokes, creating different patterns over each iteration of the black and white printed image. In each, under the surface paint, it’s easy to make out an image of a man suspended in air. In others, it appears to just be the same man’s shadow against a high rise. “I recognize that image from 9/11,” my date says. I wouldn’t have noticed that, but it’s true. The underlying images are all of a man, or multiple men, falling from buildings. The images repeat themselves, sometimes turned upside down or inverted in orientation under the paint. Tapping into my broader collective memory, I think about 9/11.
Then my date and I talk about cascading through air. At some point during the plunge, thoughts dissipate into a sacrosanct state. Then, off to drinks.
—Kara Q. Smith
(Image on top: Carolee Schneemann, Up To and Including Her Limits-Blue, 1973-76/2011, Giclee print with hand drawing, 39.5 x 52"; Courtesy of the Artist and Gallery Paule Anglim.)