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GOTHAM ART & THEATER
by Elisabeth Kley
 
Carolee Schneemann blasted her way through social taboos in the 1960s with her pioneering nude performances and self-portrait film having sex (Fuses, 1967), but she insists that she has always been a painter. Proof can be found in "Painting, What It Became," an exhibition curated by Maura Reilly at P.P.O.W., Feb. 1-Mar. 28, 2009. The show includes paintings and painting constructions made between 1957 and 1965, as well as documentary photographs, performance videos and films dating from 1963 to the present.

With their energetic flurries of brushstrokes now yellowed and dull, Schneemann’s relentlessly material paintings, often featuring rags, photographs and bits of debris, bring de Kooning, Rauschenberg and her close friend Joseph Cornell to mind. They also grew out of Cézanne and Cubism, but Schneeman went on to expand her sense of fluttering life right out of her canvases and into the world. In Body Collage (1967), a notable performance preserved on film and presented at P.P.O.W., she covered her naked body with wallpaper paste and rolled in a pile of shredded white printer’s paper, as if enveloping herself with animated strokes of paint.

Fur Wheel (1962), among the most interesting pieces on view, is a spinning fur-covered lampshade decorated with crushed beer cans -- a painting that acts out its own confined performance. A larger work festooned with tattered revolving umbrellas and slashes of red and blue paint, Untitled (Four Fur Cutting Boards) (1963), looms in the gallery like the aftermath of a thunderstorm.

Transformed by the camera into a black-and-white set for a 20th century Eden, both of these paintings appear behind Schneeman’s nude body (sometimes colored with paint or covered with plastic and snakes) in the Icelandic artist Erro’s documentary photographs of her Eye Body: Thirty-Six Transformative Actions for Camera (1963).  

The famous Meat Joy (1964), an idyllic orgy of cavorting men and women dressed in bathing suits, can also be seen. Men drag women across the floor, paint the women’s faces, and pour more paint on the floor. A "serving maid" appears with platters of sausages and chicken carcasses that are draped over the bodies. In a sexual metaphor foreshadowing Sarah Lucas’ sculptures, raw fish are placed between the women’s legs.

A concurrent exhibition at Carolina Nitsch Project Room (through Apr. 11) features performance photos from the 1970s, when Schneemann’s feminism sharpened. The notorious Interior Scroll (1975) can be seen in a group of photographs along with Scroll Box – The Cave (1995), an actual snakelike length of typewritten text that Schneemann, in performance, pulled out of her vagina and read. Her words describe a discussion with a structural filmmaker who abhors subjectivity in art. He concludes that he had always thought of her as a dancer -- a comment that for Schneemann encapsulates years of condescension and isolation by men who expected her to work like one of the boys. The photos are priced from $5,000 to $75,000. 

But Schneeman’s art has always grown out of her female core. The surprisingly elegant Bloodwork Diary (1972), for example, is a series of menstrual blood splotches on pieces of tissue placed in a grid and pasted over silver paper. Parts of a Body House Book (1974-76) includes an amusing graph that turns the table on men, rating her sexual encounters in terms of organ size, length of time, sadism and fear (among other criteria), while in Aggression for Couples (1972), another grid of photographs documents a pantomimed tussle between Schneemann and an unnamed man.

Schneemann’s most recent work, Infinity Kisses – The Movie (2008), is on view at P.P.O.W. The film animates a series of photographed kisses between the artist and her cat. Cat lovers will adore this touching exchange of affection, although no doubt the implied pun of love between artist and pussy is fully intentional.

It’s telling that Schneemann now feels she must turn to the animal world for sensual interactions to transform into art. "Inundated as we are with Abu Ghraib and those torture images, am I ever going to create a pile of pleasured naked bodies again?" she asked in a 2005 Brooklyn Rail interview. "I don’t think so! That aspect of physical, visual pleasure is displaced from my culture forever, it’s gone, it’s not coming back." Prices at P.P.O.W. range from $6,000 for an Eye Body photograph to $400,000.

Laura Parnes at Participant
Evidence of our current shell-shocked state can be found on Houston Street on the Lower East Side at Participant, which is screening Laura Parnes’ new film, Janie 1978-1982 a.k.a. Blood and Guts in High School, a 50-minute-long version of Kathy Acker’s 1984. The show commemorates Participant Press’s publication of Blood and Guts in Hollywood: Two Screenplays by Laura Parnes, a wonderfully structured book that gives a comprehensive account of two of Parnes’ films.

In contrast to Acker’s gritty, violent novel, filled with poverty, incest and rats, Parnes’s film is banal and antiseptic, like a low-budget production for community access cable TV. A group of interchangeably youthful actors seem to play out their frustrations for each other, so cut off from reality that they can’t even experience their own oppression.

The capitalists in Acker’s novel use Janey as a name for "perverts, transsexuals, criminals and women." Parnes has transformed Janey into Janie, a clean-cut young woman who bounces from one distressing situation to the next, dressed in various clichéd youthful costumes -- pink and blue wigs, torn stockings and jeans, neck collars, leggings, miniskirts. As helpless as a character from a Kafka novel or a Beckett play (not to mention The Perils of Pauline), Janie is flummoxed by the senselessness of every institution she confronts.

At her job selling cookies, a co-worker berates her for her fake smiles and then tells her she is rude when she stops smiling. A sleazy young preacher in a cheesy chapel with a neon sign that says "good news" ignores her plea for help and tells her she will burn in hell. At school, she is told to communicate like an adult and then beaten up by a gang of club-wielding young men.

Episodes from Janie’s life are bracketed by archival footage of human rights disasters that took place at the time Acker wrote her book. Horrific scenes of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the Jim Jones massacre and the invasion of Afghanistan make Janie’s travails seem even more unreal.

The archival footage cuts to action in which Janie takes part in each disaster, such as hiding in a bomb shelter after a nuclear reactor explosion, and lip-synching Jim Jones’s pre-massacre speech in male drag. The film ends on an optimistic note when Janie escapes down a country road, leaving her nightmares behind. The exhibition also includes a set of eight life-sized archival ink-jet portraits of Stephanie Vella (the actress who plays Janie) dressed in her various costumes. Printed in an edition of ten, the photographs are priced at $3,000 each.

Paul Sharits at Greene Naftali
Back in Chelsea at Greene Naftali, an exhibition by the late Paul Sharits (1943-1993) has as its centerpiece Shutter Interface, an installation created in 1975 (the same year as Schneemann’s Interior Scroll). Although Sharits is considered a structuralist filmmaker -- one wonders if he represents the type of male artist Schneemann meant in that dialogue -- his work is hardly the paragon of logic that the term suggests.

Four projectors are lined up in the main gallery, each projecting a different color, which is now and then punctuated by frames of black. The projections overlap, producing a rapidly flashing five-striped rainbow flanked by two large rectangles. Hues are muted yet rich, and the mesmerizing installation is both seductive and sadistic. Warm reds and pinks predominate, with occasional flashes of glowing turquoise. The hissing soundtrack of high frequency tones is ominous and ever present.

In an adjacent gallery, drawings in marker, ink and pencil demonstrate the systems behind Sharits’ installations, via tiny bright rectangular shapes that resemble Agnes Martin paintings on acid. Real life crashes into this lineup of delicate graphs in a frantic 1982 study of the artist’s feet in a hospital bed, surrounded by giant pointy nailed fingers and written complaints about the boring isolation of hospital life.

In the '90s, Sharits found relief from structural obsession through a series of garish neo-expressionist text paintings. He also envisioned a Flux-fashion line called X-Rags. Several bizarre clothing designs are displayed in a vitrine, including "Katharine as a multiphrenic shark" in a blue, pink and brown bodysuit covered with fins, and "going upstream," a de Kooningesque female nude covered with "decayed and ugly" turquoise fishes.

"The sky must undulate with the sense of anxiety/ecstasy" is written on a 1974 drawing, a plan for a light show on Mexico’s Chichen-Itza El Castillo Temple. It’s an apt description of an installation that communicates passion, beauty and fear through the simplest of filmic means. The drawings are $5,000 to $30,000. 

James Castle at Ameringer Yohe
Limitations were necessity, not choice, for James Castle (1899 – 1977), the deaf and mute self-taught artist who lived in rural Idaho. A selection of his evocative drawings and constructions can be seen at Ameringer Yohe Fine Art on 57th Street, Mar. 5-Apr. 11, 2009. (Knoedler & Company, the gallery representing his estate, also has a show of Castles drawings, on view till Apr. 25.)

The sixth of seven children, Castle grew up in an isolated farm community, where his parents ran a general store and post office. He was born two months early and kept in a carton lined with batting as a sort of homemade incubator. A world of rectangular boxes, packages tied with string, and lettering on labels must have burned into his infant memory.

In the frontier spirit of letting nothing go to waste, Castle produced all of his drawings on found paper and cardboard. He made his black pigments with a mixture of spit and soot and applied them with pointed sticks, nails and cloth wads, while subtle colors were made with watercolors, crayons, crepe paper pulp and makeup -- the kind of media of deprivation that brings art made in prison to mind.

Castle’s enormous opus, also seen last year in an exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum, includes representational figures, landscapes and interiors; booklets filled with thumbnail sketches and lists of letters and numbers; and complicated constructions made from paper tied together with string. Rectangular shapes predominate in everything he made.

The enigmatic Untitled (large window), for example, is a drawing of two flat squares on brown paper awkwardly attached to a sheet of white paper with long string stitches. Various other layers of paper are tied on with more string, and a small red handle at the top seems to turn the entire object into a skewed representation of a shopping bag. (None of the works have dates.)

On the opposite wall is Untitled (friends), a representation of an assembly of upright rectangular figures with rectangular eyes and mouths that looks like a row of dry cleaned shirts in boxes ready to go out on Halloween. A group of smaller figure drawings made of colored pulp on found paper hangs on another wall, including Untitled (purple & brown figures), an image of a ghostly couple resembling two upright coffins.

In contrast, two pictures of monumental spaces show that Castle could also be a master of perspective when necessary. In Untitled (chair drawing) a huge empty chair seems ready to explode out of the frame, as if exerting the authority of an absent adult. And Untitled (figure), hanging to the right, features a small child walking across a wide board floor between two enormous pieces of furniture that press up against the space like bogeymen.

Castle’s full eccentricity comes to fruition in three relatively large two-sided constructions displayed in Plexiglas vitrines. Dangling from a ribbon hanger, Untitled (Striped Dress) is fitted with six paper-stuffed pockets tied on with more string. And Untitled (Pram Construction) is a baby carriage of black and tan paper, with square wheels and tin foil hubcaps. At $250,000 it’s the most expensive piece in the show, but a tiny orange and purple coffin figure is only $3,000.

Andrew Lord at Gladstone
The British sculptor Andrew Lord is also inspired by his childhood environment -- more specifically, his hometown. "Whitworth," his latest solo exhibition, can be seen at Gladstone Gallery, Feb. 27-Mar. 28, 2009. Born in 1950, the New York-based Lord came to prominence in 1981 with a group of sculptures based on representations of vases in early modernist painting. Next came a marvelous series of monumental groups of twisting ceramic vessels made by pummeling and pressing parts of his body into the clay, and beautifully glazed in white with touches of dripping gold leaf.

The current exhibition features a group of ceramic pieces based on locations in the town where Lord grew up. Covered with multiple finger strokes, the works are reminiscent of paintings by Edward Munch and busts by Medardo Rosso. The complexity of his earlier forms is replaced by an innocent simplicity appropriate for early memories. Nevertheless, the apparent unsculptablity of his subjects is audacious.

Gladstone’s large gallery is filled with a group of black-glazed works, and smaller galleries also contain sculptures glazed in yellow and white. An elegiac video of Whitworth’s present-day landscape underlines the distance between current reality and Lord’s nostalgic conceptualizations.

In Waterfall Healey Dell (2008-2009), rocks are rendered in geometric blocks that contrast with the more slippery stream of water, and the metallic black glaze turns mossy green when it breaks over the clay protrusions. A single silver drop somehow reinforces the sculpture’s paradoxical impression of liquidity.

Another crazy motif is a freestanding flight of stairs completely detached from the places it connected. Veering diagonally into the air, it stays vertical by a mysterious feat of balance. Other subjects in this tranquil, light-filled exhibition include birds, bridges, valleys, doors, tall pointy towers, boyish figures and a tree branch placed on a wall.


ELISABETH KLEY is a New York artist and critic.