'Controlled Burnings: Hiller, Latham, Schneemann' reviewed in The Brooklyn Rail
28 June 2023
With the exception of carved sculpture, the making of art has historically been an additive, creative process in which materials are turned into ingenious works. It is both the physical hand and innovative talent of the artist that transform materials into objects that have meaning beyond their simple constitutive elements. Bringing together works by Susan Hiller, John Latham, and Carolee Schneemann from the period when all three were based in London and in dialogue with one another, Controlled Burnings centers on these artists’ challenges to standard additive modes. In fact, the exhibition title’s focus on “burning” rests within a larger category than its purely fire-based title suggests: creation by destruction. This seemingly oxymoronic trend, mostly post-World War II, has been discussed numerous times, notably by Kerry Brougher, Russell Ferguson’s 2014 exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum, Damage Control: Art and Destruction Since 1950. None of the three artists in the tightly curated Lisson show were included in the Hirshhorn presentation. Nevertheless, they clearly belong to this rubric and should be added to that contradictory, anti-canonical classification.
As much as this destructive-type artmaking is a recent phenomenon—as evidenced by the 1950 date in the title of the Hirshhorn show—the practice recalls the hallowed burnt offerings of early religious traditions. Like the specific carbonized practices of Hiller, Latham, and Schneemann, the ancient acts of burnt offerings were simultaneously ritualistic, symbolic, and performative. The three artists purposefully evoke much more intimate, if sometimes ephemeral, connections to the human body and assembled archives, which might be called sacred elements or texts. In fact, it is difficult to discuss these works without invoking religious terms, whether it be the title of Hiller’s “Relics” series, the description “baptism of fire” in Lisson’s press release, or Schneemann’s own claim of making work that is at once “ritualistic and realistic.”
Many of Schneemann’s box-form constructions on view in the exhibition were made before her first trip to London. A controlled burning titled For Yvonne Rainer’s Ordinary Dance (from the Fire Series) (1962), is a tribute, an homage, to Yvonne Rainer, the avant-garde dancer-choreographer. The dedicatory hallowed, ironic ring of the work’s title makes us understand that Rainer’s ordinary dance is anything but. The box constructions shown here, made from the early to mid-1960s, were inspired by Schneemann’s meeting Joseph Cornell. Cornell’s enigmatic boxes, carefully constructed from precisely chosen images (and objects as images), became a totally different animal in Schneemann’s hands. Her use of the torch and glass shards, among other elements, offer a personal and physical engagement that feminist art historian Maura Reilly connects to the next generation’s take on action painting. Schneemann’s One Window is Clear - Notes to Lou Andreas Salome (1965), pushes the homage to Rainer into the category of memorial. In this case, it is the memorialization of Salome, Rilke, and Nietzsche. Using limp, cast-off recording tape as part of her assemblage, the audio vector’s potential to operate—to speak—becomes extinguished, made impotent. It exists solely as a droopy, inert physical element that projects the flat-bed work out into three-dimensional space.
Read the full review by Norman L Kleeblatt in the Brooklyn Rail here.