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by Ilka Scobie
Carolee Schneemann, "Corporeal: Photographic Works 1963-2005," Jan. 12-Feb. 11, 2006, at P.P.O.W., 555 West 25th Street, New York, N.Y. 10001

Four decades after her orgiastic group performance Meat Joy (1964) made history at Judson Memorial Church in downtown Manhattan, Carolee Schneemann continues to court controversy with her current multimedia show at P.P.O.W. gallery in Chelsea. Notably disconcerting are Terminal Velocity and Dark Pond, two scanned digital-print series of nine people falling from the burning Twin Towers.

In stark black-and-white, Terminal Velocity’s figures take on calligraphic drama as they cascade to inescapable death. The addition of watercolor and crayon in Dark Pond embellishes the figures with a kinetic and appalling beauty. Colored splashes explode and fade into toxic clouds floating in the 9/11 dusk. Metal shards vaporize to molten hues of red and blue. These are the powerful markings of an artist who says, "Everything I do is a form of painting. I put the body where the brush is."

In a statement accompanying the images, Schneemann writes:

Scanned sequences of newspaper images consecrate nine people -- among the hundreds -- falling to their inescapable deaths. The computer process allows intimate contact with each figure’s isolation in the desolate shifting space. In this communal nightmare, enlarged visual attributes become vivid, unexpectedly captured, made public. The sequences personalize individuals who in their normal workday were thrown by impact into a gravitational plunge, or chose to escape incineration by leaping into space.

Long before feminism and performance art became cultural commodities, Schneemann pioneered using her own body to actively explore beyond the boundaries of the then-current Abstract Expressionist art world. Connected with and surpassing the early experimental Happenings, Schneemann embraced the political and erotic battleground of female identity. Almost all of the works here use photography as a component. Schneemann wants the viewer to see "how photos extend the reference from the touch of the hand to the technical."

Eighteen silver gelatin prints of "Eye Body 1963/2005" document one of her famous early performance pieces, where she integrated her paint-splattered body in a studio environment of painted panels and constructions. A fragmented portrait highlights mesmerizing Picasso-esque eyes, and a languid Carolee sprawls naked against an expressionist wall.

Concurrent with the P.P.O.W. show, NYU Grey Art Gallery’s sprawling "The Downtown Show: The New York Art Scene 1974-1984" groups Schneemann in the "Body Politic" section, along with later artists like Hannah Wilke, Ana Mendieta and Karen Finley. The original Plexiglas-cased Interior Scroll 1975 is a fragile narrow typewritten scroll which the artist unwound from her vagina, and reads like a contemporary rant that would be perfectly at home in today’s Bowery Poetry Club. When originally performed in Telluride, Colo., in 1966, Schneemann recalls the enraged response of filmmaker Agnes Varda who "hated the piece so much she caused a tremendous upheaval."

Also included is Schnemann's 1976 film, Up To and Including Her Limits, in which Schneemann swings naked from a rope harness, as she creates a feminist reworking of action painting. Today, performance art has been commodified and brought into the academy with graduate programs and benefit dinners. (For insiders, the absence of such a seminal New York figure as Schneemann from the 2005 Performa festival was mind-boggling.)

"A clear historical forerunner," as Dan Cameron has described her, Schneemann’s continued blurring of boundaries between image and action predates performance, and has influenced artists from Robert Wilson to Matthew Barney. Created from personal passion, Schneemann’s raw and enticing works remain militantly noncommercial. While she finds the "institutionalization of performance fascinating," she adds "that no one wants to be labeled radical or vanguard."

Quarry Transposed 1960, the sole painting at P.P.O.W., presents the controlled energy of the artist’s Abstract Expressionist beginnings. These works are united by daring clarity and strength of vision. Carolee Schneemann represents the true Anerican avant-garde.

ILKA SCOBIE is a New York poet.