New York

Carolee Schneemann

Penine-Hart Gallery

With a knack for identifying and then violating taboos, Carolee Schneemann makes work that gets inexorably under your skin. During the “sexual revolution,” her performance piece Meat Joy, 1964, reveled in appetites of and for the flesh in a manner that rendered even the most hardened squeamish. (Deemed pornographic by some, Schneeman’s work has, for the most part, been marginalized, despite its connection to displays of masculine excess usually considered vanguard.)

With typical unflinching candor, her most recent work, Mortal Coils, 1994, honed in on death, not as the kind of abstract loss signaled by, say, Christian Boltanski’s memorials, but, rather, reflecting on the real anguish experienced upon the death of art-world friends and colleagues. Like Hannah Wilke’s last works documenting her lymphoma, Schneemann’s installation was simple, direct, and disquietingly personal.

The noise of incessant swishing filled the dimly lit gallery. Initially unidentifiable but intriguing objects were revealed, upon closer inspection, to be ropes rising from floor to ceiling, gyrating slowly as if bewitched. Projected past these mortal coils were slides of faces, of fragments of a body, and of a solar eclipse, which were then reflected in rotating mirrors that sent these images gliding across the gallery, distorted by light. Some of the subjects were immediately recognizable—John Cage and Hannah Wilke rolled by—the rest were identified in loose-leaf binders attached to the walls: Charlotte Moorman, Derek Jarman, John Caldwell, and Marjorie Keller, to name a few. All those pictured are now dead; the projected body parts were apparently Schneemann’s own.

In contrast to these floating images, the walls of the gallery were plastered with static scrolls of newsprint, enlarged text culled from obituaries, with names of both the deceased and their survivors scribbled out, an erasure that rendered already generic-sounding statements even more impersonal. So many read like gravestone samplers or stoical reality checks (I’m okay; you’re dead) that the odd notes of humor or revealing intimate details seemed touchingly human by contrast.

With the personal ads more personal than this, these advertisements of grief challenged the artist to provide something better; in the brief tributes to her fallen friends, collected in binders, she did. In one, Schneemann recalled Wilke’s snappy proposition, “we should go strip at the Guggenheim during Beuys’ lecture,” going to the heart of the taboo against speaking disrespectfully of the dead. In the end, Schneemann demonstrates that it’s the unfathomable, endless spinning of a connection to life that makes death so impossible to shuffle off.

Ingrid Schaffner