The late Carolee Schneemann (1939-2019) is synonymous with experimental feminist performance art.
The New York-based groundbreaker is probably best remembered for her 1964 sensation “Meat Joy,” a hedonistic live celebration of the body that notably had its participants festooning themselves with raw meat. Her transgressive performances belied an enduring concern with the feminine and its expression, most often using her own body as her medium.
Schneemann’s legacy continues. “After Carolee: Tender and Fierce,” now on view at San Antonio’s Artpace in San Antonio, brings together a new generation of woman-identifying Texas-based artists who cite Schneemann as a major influence, drawing an unambiguous line between Schneemann’s interventions and the current state of self-reflective contemporary art.
The exhibition formally marks Artpace’s 25th anniversary in 2020 (postponed for the pandemic), but more specifically commemorates Schneemann’s participation in the organization’s International Artist-in-Residence program in 1999. Then, Schneemann found herself at a crossroads in her career. Her induction into the program allowed for a much-needed respite, during which she conceived another of her most groundbreaking performances, “Vesper’s Pool.”
This work performed on multiple fronts as a dedication to her recently deceased cat and as a study on acceptable forms of grief and sexuality.
This formative period is recounted in the exhibition’s introduction, in the form of a contemplative space on the first floor affectionately titled “Carolee’s Room.” As Artpace is known for its extensive record-keeping, the space compiles documents, notes, and anecdotes from Schneemann’s time there, as well as accounts from the artists in the show who describe Schneemann’s influence upon their careers. Evident is her playful and captivating personality, from her letters embossed with custom cat stamps to personal encounters with colleagues and fans who remember her unusual graciousness.
Moving upstairs, the exhibition expands its focus with a look at a group of artists from all around Texas, the state where Schneemann made such an impact 20 some years ago. Decorated independent curator Annette DiMeo Carlozzi rationalizes this premise, stating that it allows for the diversity of thought between artists engaging in feminist themes to be appropriately demonstrated.
Much has changed in 20 years, not least of which is a devastating global pandemic. In fact, much of the multimedia work on display was created during or in its wake. Beili Liu’s “A Breath” (2020), for example, literally immortalizes the event, encasing a cluster of face masks in cement.
Recurring themes include, fittingly, organic life and its byproducts, taking cues from Schneemann’s lead. Ayanna Jolivet Mccloud’s “Balm” (2020), a multisensory installation combining soundbites from gospel songs, plant life, and historical photographs, questions what kind of salve is needed for injustice against Black life — religious, natural, political, or otherwise. “curated bodies, or the transmogrification of labor into sausages or how atrophy leads to alchemy leads to agency” (2020) by Kristen Cochran involves the injection of collagen into modified meat casings, which is expected to transform over time. While it explores the curative processes, Cochran’s installation invokes the body of the laborer and the ways in which it conforms to a life of work.
Feminist thought and desire is also investigated through the relationship between humans and animals. Liss LaFleur in the video performance “Spurs” (2016) repeatedly kicks herself with a handcrafted set of spurs, nude in front of the horses to which this act is traditionally done. In doing so, she dons a unique perspective while feigning solidarity with the animal world. Virginia Lee Montgomery’s “Pony Cocoon” (2019) witnesses the process of a luna moth’s cocoon building. She connects the moth to the modern businesswoman, both in a state of semi-awareness of their condition as elevated but lesser beings.
Designed firstly as a memorial “After Carolee” invigorates feminist art and performance with new life, and with renewed consideration for intersectionality. Twenty years later, the field is not dead; its energy is frenetic and just as prone to breaking the rules.
“After Carolee: Tender and Fierce” continues through July 18 at Artpace, artpace.org. Guest curator Annette DiMeo Carlozzi is giving numerous free private tours of the show. If interested, please contact her at Carlozzi@utexas.edu.