In the basement of CEPA Gallery, Carolee Schneemann ruffled around excitedly in a plastic bag. After a few seconds, she pulled out a dead, reeking fish she had found earlier in the day on the sidewalk outside a restaurant where she had gone for lunch.
"It's really beautiful. Look at that strange redness," Schneemann said, pointing to the deformed and flattened head of the fish. "I think it's something for 'Vesper's.' "
"Vesper's Pool," one of the many works on view during CEPA's two-month-long career retrospective on Schneemann's work titled "Remains to be Seen," deals with the death of her cat Vesper. After the cat died of a rat bite in 1992, Schneemann began to encounter signs of death wherever she went: a dead dove dropping to her feet in her garden, a dead deer on the outskirts of her property, and now, 15 years later, a dead fish.
Since beginning her artistic career in the '60s, Schneemann has always paid attention to signs. Much of her work -- which spans the disciplines of performance, video, photography and painting -- is motivated by visions she has received in dreams, messages from her beloved pets, or the more apparent messages from conflicts in Vietnam to Iraq. Much of her work is also a response to the work of psychoanalytic and gender theorists such as Ludwig Wittgenstein, Jacques Lacan and Sigmund Freud, among many others.
Independent curator Photios Giovanis said that the current exhibition, a collaboration between CEPA and the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art in Toronto, is part of an attempt to widen the sphere of Schneemann's influence and appeal.
"What's needed with her work is more care and attention in terms of museums, collections," Giovanis said. "There's so much of her work that needs to be looked at and written about."
To that end, Giovanis has separated the exhibition into three separate but interrelated themes to fit CEPA's three distinct gallery spaces.
Her erotic works are housed in the basement, including her 1967 film "Fuses" and a photographic installation called "Saw Over Want," which juxtaposes everyday objects with taboo body parts.
"There's an interference, so that when someone looks at a perfectly ordinary object, they may feel that there's something threatening or uneasy about it because it's beside something [erotic]," Schneemann said.
On the main floor, work on global conflict is featured, most prominently a large-scale piece called "Terminal Velocity" that consists of a series of panels featuring blown-up scans of bodies falling from the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11. This work, like much of Schneemann's earlier art, met with controversy when she first showed it in 2002, but it figures prominently into her commentaries on conflicts from Kosovo to Afghanistan.
Upstairs, a series of self-shot photographs called "Infinity Kisses" document the intense relationship between Schneemann and her cat Minos, one that borders on the taboo that brings up ideas of reincarnation and the relationship between human and animal instincts.
Some of Schneemann's most well-known pieces stem from her controversial performance-art pieces in the 1960s. "Interior Scroll," banned in many places for its perceived pornographic nature, is an exploration of femininity that Schneemann based on a recurrent dream she had about a tampon.
CEPA Director Lawrence Brose, whose own work draws heavily on Schneemann's, says that the common threads in Schneemann's work bind these seemingly disparate elements together in fascinating ways.
"To be a feminist is to be political, and that bleeds right into global conflict, and there you have her experimentation," Brose said.
The exhibition, which runs concurrently with its sister show, "Breaking Borders" in Toronto, is also the basis of a collaborative catalog -- the most comprehensive ever undertaken by CEPA for any exhibition -- including essays from both Canadian and American critics and art writers.
As for expanding Schneemann's appeal, Giovanis doesn't think it's too tough a sell.
"Carolee is always responding to things that are happening in the world," Giovanis said. "I think that's what makes it accessible and interesting and makes it part of this process of educating people about art and how artists make it."