New York

Carolee Schneemann

Max Hutchinson Gallery

The air of frustration about Carolee Schneemann’s recent mixed media objects has to do with their subject matter—the war in Lebanon—but it expresses itself, in a kind of reflexive subtext, as a loss of esthetic faith. Instead of Robert Rauschenberg’s famous “gap” figure of speech, Schneemann would probably see art and life as weaving onward in mutual self-realization, woof and warp; yet this work seems to balk, to be as much about intermittent, relentless, disruptive return, as about flowing on. There’s a hitch.

Take War Mop, 1983, an image/machine of vaudevillian inevitability. Slowly one end of a motorized mop rises above a video monitor. Inch by inch it ascends, until, gravity sodden, it suddenly plops down on the set. With scenes of Lebanese devastation on the screen and small debris in front of it, this rigging is the kinetic equivalent of counting to ten and still losing your temper. A contemporary Punch and Judy show, it epitomizes the helpless homebound viewer’s reaction to the news. The first time mop impacts on set can be a Zen rap on the head, a frisson of illumination, or merely a recalling out of abstraction, as Gulliver’s Laputans were brought back to themselves by whacks from a bladder. After that the blows grind dully, like the endless cycle of housework.

This is effective and dispiriting. Compare Schneemann’s Hand—CrankMovie—Lebanon, 1983, with any of Vito Acconci’s apparatuses: when Acconci’s viewer puts something into motion, a chain reaction is set off; when Schneemann’s viewer turns the handle on this pseudo-nickelodeon the same pictures reappear, part of history’s recurring nightmare. Causality in Acconci’s work, however unexpected and uncontrollable, is opposed to powerlessness in Schneemann’s. Both Acconci and Rauschenberg, whose “combine” technique Schneemann embraces, invoke an evasive strategy totally alien to her confrontational ethic: they implicate the audience, while she implicates herself with numerous self-portraits. Where Rauschenberg’s breach is now a landfill of verbal gamesmanship, the closest Schneemann comes to a pun is when she “embeds” the private in the public, with photos of two people in bed, in a matrix of press photos. When she plays off repeated images of refugees against images of geese in formation, images originally printed on a scarf whose border (along with other fringes and ruffles) has been detached and moved elsewhere, we are getting symbols of flight and displacement in a border war, not wordplay. Above all, if Rauschenberg repeats an image he does so for compositional reasons, not, as Schneemann does, for obsessional ones.

The war overrides Schneemann’s intentions. She wants to root history in dailiness, but war and the domestic can never coexist, as she tacitly admits in the videotape segments of violated living rooms. Only images of war can cohabit with routineness. Maybe because of this Schneemann seems to lose faith in images altogether. Perhaps unconsciously, she begins to equate her long-practiced expressionist stroke with violence and her objects with mere trinkets. On the tape, war scenes cut to close-ups of some of the pieces in the show—brush details and the word “souvenir.” As a brilliant performer, Schneemann may naturally feel the superiority of events over artifacts, but there may also be here a sickening recognition of an unwanted complicity.

Jeanne Silverthorne