Apart from his evident governing intelligence, the Dutch artist himself is hardly present in "Videowatercolors: Carel Balth Among His Contemporaries," which occupies the upstairs galleries at the UW's Henry Art Gallery through January 22. And Balth's work doesn't even constitute the whole show, which includes Gerhard Richter, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Wolfgang Tillmans, and others from the Henry's permanent collection. There's something self-effacing about Balth, who, during a Seattle visit and press tour last month, was polite and a bit shy about promoting his art. (The chatter and theory were left to curator Marek Wieczorek, a UW art history prof.)
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Downstairs, there's no such problem in finding the subject of "Carolee Schneemann: Within and Beyond the Premises," a big, comprehensive traveling show (from SUNY New Paltz) that continues through December 30. A pioneering feminist artist who emerged from the late-'50s New York avant-garde and hung out at Warhol's Factory, Schneemann puts herself in most of her photographs and films. (Her work also includes collage, painting, and sculpture.) Before the term performance art was commonplace, long before Cindy Sherman or Matthew Barney, Schneemann made herself the subject of elaborate photo tableaux and home-movie bacchanals, often in the nude and sometimes with a strongly sexual component.
The two shows couldn't be more different: organic body art below, cerebral perception studies above; Schneemann's passionate, political, very personal engagement with the world versus Balth's cool consideration of boundaries, colors, and textures. Which is not to say that Schneemann isn't smart or that Balth lacks humanity, but his is the more forbidding exhibit, so let's start upstairs.
To begin with, Balth's exhibit contains no actual watercolors. Videos, yes. Also some photos and photos of photos. And also some collages and rearrangements of photos where the textures and borders shift to the point where up and down are unclear. He's intent upon echoed shapes, color residues, image remnants, and blurring boundaries. He'll take an image of rippling water—itself cropped out of a conventionally "pretty" scene—then section it into tiles. The vertical no longer matches the horizontal. The displaced segments no longer read as water but as some kind of glacial incursion into a bay . . . perhaps, say, in Alaska. (Without context, the mind plays tricks and invents new scenes.) The surface is no longer reliable, or it's in a process of mutation.
Elsewhere, a dancer is serially photographed at different points in her routine, a la Muybridge. Scenes of melting snow also suggest the progression of time. A clock tower that, again, might be conventionally "scenic" is bisected; the difference between the two halves of the photo diptych is apprehensible only by the degree of sun and shadow. In a soothing color-field video, the hues gradually change—what was green is no longer reliably green, but something else. Everything has shifted. Or, to use the show's organizing metaphor, the surface has run slightly—like a watercolor painting. From composition to capture to canvas or paper and finally to our own eyes, Balth's images resist stasis. Or put differently: His subject is flux.
Down in the cavernous Stroum Gallery, Schneemann's 40-year survey has the raw, sensual intensity of cave art. It's the most visceral and startling Seattle museum exhibit this fall. After beginning as a semi-abstract painter (and a few examples here are quite good), her own body became both instrument and canvas for the next two decades.
One performance video, Up to and Including Her Limits, shows her writhing naked on the floor, suspended from a harness, scribbling on the walls. (This she called "the direct result of [Jackson] Pollock's physicalized painting. My entire body becomes the agency of visual traces . . . ") In another, she and a company of half-dressed pagan performers cavort in a cross between modern dance and a Jack Smith movie—plus raw chicken and blue paint. (This is part of the Meat Joy series, for which Schneemann sought "the character of an erotic rite: excessive, indulgent; a celebration of flesh as raw material.") Screened in its own private theater, she and a boyfriend create a very rustic, handmade porno called Fuses. It's not exactly titillating, not exactly embarrassing, but somewhere in the awkward, authentic middle—true to normal sexual experience. Cats watch and Christmas trees intrude on the shaky, blurry, shadowy scenes. They're the opposite of full-frontal, nothing that would make Ron Jeremy blush.
In Interior Scroll, perhaps her best-known piece of the '70s, Schneemann removes and unfolds a prepared speech from her vagina (surely an influence on Karen Finley). Framed separately from the photos of her 1975 performance, the text is highly degraded, reduced to tantalizing fragments. One reads, "He told me he had lived with a 'sculptress.' I asked does that make me a 'film-makeress'? 'Oh no,' he said. 'We think of you as a dancer.' " Maybe it's online someplace in its entirety.
Here and throughout the show, viewers may feel self-conscious about peering so closely at Schneemann's exposed flesh, but as in Meat Joy, it's part of the performance, part of the raw material. In Portrait Partials, she represents her subjects with 35 biological details: nostril, eye, anus, nipple, penile tip, mouth, labia, and so forth. All these orifices are tools, if you will, the instruments through which we sensually experience the world and—think back to Pollock—sometimes express ourselves in it. Schneemann isn't reducing art to biology, as some suggested of Pollock's splattery spurts of paint, but reminding us of its primitive origins.
Before we had canvas and brush (and before art was codified as a male activity), we only had our bodies and pagan cave rituals. Thoroughly modern on one level, Schneemann's art seems ancient on another. After working as a nude figure model in the early '60s, she first used her body in her own art for the photo series Eye Body (36 Transformative Actions). In these 18 self-portraits, daubed with paint and employing crude props, Schneemann looks like some kind of pre-Christian warrior princess or a figure from forgotten mythology, a fury fiercely returning your gaze.
My favorite piece is a large 1976 collage of numbered notecards and photos, ABC—We Print Anything—In the Cards. The cards are color-coded, with yellow representing Schneemann's dreams and diaries. No. 14 reads, "When he came back to her, she wanted him to feel less guilty for having left her. She borrowed ten dollars, bought long stemmed roses and placed them conspicuously. When she asked, she said they were from a new lover." You can't be sure if the anecdote is true, or if the blue cards (supposedly others' conversations) aren't also her construct. The series reads somewhere between comic one-liners and Barbara Kruger aphorisms. The cards suggest parallel tracks of feminist art theory and personal history. But unfortunately you'd need a ladder to study the upper group, which is hung, frustratingly, far above eye level.
In its entirety, the show is bold, intimate, provocative (see the large, alarming 9/11 photo collage, Terminal Velocity, of rag-doll figures plunging from the World Trade Center), and sometimes even tender (photos in Infinity Kisses document Schneemann and a beloved cat). And Schneemann will visit Seattle this weekend for a lecture (7 p.m. Fri., UW Kane Hall, $10–$15) to speak on a career in which, as she told an interviewer, "the aesthetic, domestic, and the transcendent get all mixed up."