WHAT: "In the Workspace," works by Carolee Schneemann
WHEN: Through Dec. 17
WHERE: CEPA Gallery, Market Arcade Complex, 617 Main St., Suite 201
May I propose that only greedy oil producers or those who hold a monopoly on pork bellies be allowed the use of that awful Latinate word, "consortium"? The art world, of all places, should shun it. Then organizations like the New York State Artist Workspace Consortium might get catchy handles like, say, the New York State's Artists Gang or the Really Big Empire State Art Group.
But, alas, it's an imperfect world, and the consortium does indeed do wondrous work with a plethora of residences, workshops, exhibitions and publications organized through its member-organizations. So please don't be put off by the proletarian worker-bee title of CEPA Gallery's "In the Workspace." This a wide-ranging exhibition of work done under the auspices of six of these member-organizations that, at critical junctures, goes well beyond the common image of the artist chugging away in his or her "work space."
Carolee Schneemann is the shining example of an artist who is gloriously unfettered by the notion that the artist is a mundane maker of art products. Schneemann is infamous for early performance pieces like "Meat Joy" (1964), in which the naked artist and her partners have an erotic romp in the bloody company of raw fish, chicken and sausages. Up to that point, only paint and the body had been conjoined -- e.g., in French artist Yves Klein's 1960 "live" paintings using nudes as "brushes." Schneemann upped the ante dramatically with blood replacing paint and the erotic energy reaching orgiastic proportions.
The work on view at CEPA is a killer group of black and white photographs documenting a done-for-camera studio performance called "Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions." Executed a year before "Meat Joy," this is pre-blood and guts Schneemann when she was still immersed in the paint and junk assemblage aesthetic created by painter Robert Rauschenberg and Happening-makers like Jim Dine.
The studio set depicted in the photographs has the cluttered, eroded and paint-slathered ambience of a Rauschenberg, only here there are a couple of added stunning elements: Schneemann's naked body and her imperious face. Her facial expressions and bodily attitudes make her seem like a once-pristine goddess gone slumming in the dirty corporeality of the real world. The sense that Schneemann represents some mythic figure indulging in animal carnality gives these photographs a strange sexual charge that hovers hauntingly between the sacred and profane.
Though the sexual explicitness barely reaches the soft-porn level, Schneemann inventively uses face, body, props and backdrops to enlarge the mytho-erotic implications. In one famous image she assumes the pose of an odalisque, her body foreshortened before the camera while two garden snakes work the landscape of her breast and belly. In another her head in ensnared in moplike ropes and her body smeared with cursive marks right out of an abstract expressionist canvas. One open-legged pose is glowingly obscured behind a plastic sheet; another comes near to a smoky, high-art take on a classic pin-up caught in some crazy, painted-mucked environment.
The photographs, taken by Icelandic photographer Erro, are gorgeous in their distribution of strong light and dark and in their textural movement through broken umbrellas, shattered mannequins, ragged fur and disheveled newspaper. The photos not only capture perfectly what Schneemann recently called her "pleasurable weapon" -- her naked body -- but also convey the full dimension of this pioneer's vision of female sexuality. This remember was long before Madonna, Karen Finley and Annie Sprinkle -- in fact, long before the notion that the image of the naked female might be wrested from the grip that the male artist had on it. (CEPA will be printing this fresh edition and will host a Schneemann retrospective in 2006.)
There is much in the exhibition to enjoy: a wealth of handmade paper art from Dieu Donne Papermill; Rainer Maria Wehner's sculpture from Sculpture Space (florescent-illuminated X-rays on steel armatures); a film in the window on Main Street by Alison Crocetta (Harvestworks); and the video program "Whiz Bang" and "Political Project" also from Harvestworks. And then, in a display that might be the formal antithesis of Schneemann's performance work, Women's Studio Workshop presents 30 hand-printed artists books that range from the elegant to the hilarious, including Miriam Shenitzer's "How to Talk About Art" that comically makes fun of critics like me who use prefixes like "mytho." She has nothing to say about "consortium."