Carolee Schneemann, a contemporary artist renowned for her work in the 1960’s and 1970’s, graced the Brooks-Rogers stage last Thursday for the Annual Plonsker Family Lecture in Contemporary Art. Known for featuring innovative artists, the annual lecture is coordinated by the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA). For those unfamiliar with Schneemann’s work or eager to learn more, the lecture, “Remains to be Seen,” provided a wonderful opportunity for students, faculty and members of the Williamstown community to gain a strong perspective of her multidisciplinary work over the course of her life as well as the social circumstances that framed the context of her work.
Professor Carol Ockman introduced Schneemann as a bold artist who has never been timid in expressing physicality and sensuality as well as profound social statements. She also made the point that to view Schneemann as an artist who solely focuses on themes of physicality would never do justice to her work, for her portfolio is an eccentric amalgam that covers both social and political themes in addition to the physical.
Schneemann, recipient of numerous awards including individual artist grants from the National Endowment of the Arts, the Guggenheim Fellowship and the Rockefeller Foundation Film/Video/Multimedia Fellowship, utilized a slide show in order to convey the dynamic nature and perpetual themes within her work. Along with her explanations and analyses, she also provided humorous and droll anecdotes of her life that accompanied the time frame for each slide grouping.
First, she displayed several sketches that she made while she was just a child. Motifs of cats and staircases pervaded many of these drawings, which she attributed to child-like curiosity and “confusion.” The staircases provided her with her first perceptions on dimension, which would later influence much of her work. Next, she displayed many of her works as an undergraduate and graduate student at Bard College and the University of Illinois, respectively, which, as she described, were not widely accepted by their art departments. She sarcastically claimed that these works highlighted her “ineptitudes” as a college art student. One such painting that depicts a nude man on Schneemann’s bed especially upset many of her professors and fellow students, for the overt sensuality and physical imposition of the body was deemed too graphic for the times.
Her later work that she displayed consisted of anti-Vietnam War installations as well as photographs of her and her colleagues that either distort or magnify the graphic nature of reality. One such photograph, titled “I lost my tree but I’m still in my house,” shows Carolee nude, oscillating on a tree swing. As she described this and similar works, she noted that the purpose of this style of art is that “it looks effortless but is physically demanding.” Another remarkable work that Schneemann shared with the crowd was her most recent, titled “Terminal Velocity,” which depicts humans falling in black and white. These especially magnify the positions of the humans in the air, thus hoping to entrance the viewers with its strong, visual nature. Her last work that she presented was a multimedia project, titled “Infinity Kisses,” which seemed to draw the most attention from the audience. The short video depicts photographs of Schneemann kissing two different cats and is accompanied by her self-designed music, whose dark tones elicit visceral responses. When asked about the cats, she commented on the fact that “the two cats were purely romantic” and that “cats are persistent in history of visual culture.”
In her work, Schneemann has challenged and facilitated in altering the established perceptions on human physicality, sexuality, gender roles and war. Due to the common theme of struggle that all of these topics exude, she claimed that she has “kept the joyfulness of the aesthetic properties in life” in order to depict the struggles as they truly are. By means of her work, Schneemann has successfully established herself as a renegade of sorts, willing to challenge and restructure ideas and, in the process, has secured her name as one the greats of American contemporary art.