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Art review: feminist artist Judy Chicago

Anna McNay takes in two exhibits by the iconic American

Anna McNay

Wed, 19 Dec 2012 17:08:36 GMT | Updated 4 years today

"Feminist art is all the stages of a woman giving birth to herself. […] It is art that reaches out and affirms women and validates our experience and makes us feel good about ourselves."


--- Judy Chicago, What is Feminist Art?, 1977


Judy Chicago (born 1939) is a pioneer of feminist art who came to prominence in the late 1960s and is probably best known for her controversial installation, The Dinner Party (1979). Made to celebrate great women throughout history, this was a ground-breaking work, both as an icon of the feminist art movement, and, more broadly, of twentieth century American art history.


Chicago herself describes the piece as: "a monumental work of art, triangular in configuration, that employs numerous media, including ceramics, china-painting, and an array of needle and fibre techniques." Each of its 39 place settings - plates decorated with variations on butterfly - and floral-styled vulva - commemorates a goddess, historical figure, or important woman, and the whole thing stands upon an immense porcelain floor - theHeritage Floor - comprising 2304 hand-cast tiles on which the names of 999 other important women are inscribed.


These two parallel exhibitions, hosted by Riflemaker and Ben Uri, The London Jewish Museum of Art (Chicago was born Judy Cohen, into a left-wing, politically-active Jewish family in Chicago in 1939, and legally changed her name in 1970 to escape the perceived male patriarchy), are the first showing of Chicago's work in London since her installation of The Dinner Party toured to an empty warehouse in Islington in 1985. Chicago is pleased to have the opportunity to introduce her UK audience to aspects of her work beyond this iconic piece, since, unsurprisingly, in a career spanning five decades, there is much more to Chicago's oeuvre than is widely known.


Touching upon her most commonly recurring themes, which embrace autobiography, art as diary, erotica, feminism, the nude, self-portraiture, performance, issues of masculine power, birth and motherhood - and the cat - Riflemaker is primarily showing early paintings, sketches and sculpture (albeit alongside a rarely seen test plate and runner drawing forThe Dinner Party), and Ben Uri is focusing on the more private and intimate side of her work, with over 170 pieces on display, contextualised alongside three women artists from this side of the Atlantic: Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010), Helen Chadwick (1953-1996) and Tracey Emin (born 1963).


As the chairman of the Ben Uri Gallery, David J Glasser, writes in his foreword to the catalogue to accompany the exhibition, it is almost irrelevant whether an artist labels her cause as feminist (as with Chicago) or not (as with Emin), since it is the public's response and perception which determines the legacy of a work. The four artists in this exhibition are, in the eyes of this general public, most certainly synonymous with womanhood and feminism, and, despite considerable progress since Chicago first hit the scene, there is still much disparity in the art world. In the year ending June 2012, the highest auction price achieved by a woman was by Louise Bourgeois at $9.5 million, a far cry (excuse the pun) from Munch'sThe Scream, which achieved $120 million.


Furthermore, the Frieze Art Fair 2012 Audit, carried out by East London Fawcett, which gathered data about the representation of female artists at London's largest art fair this autumn, found that only 27.5% of the artists represented at the fair were women, and whilst only 1.5% of the galleries represented less than one third male artists, 67% represented less than one third female artists. [See]


Much of Chicago's work, then, is art about women's experience, created in media women can relate to. As she herself points out, there is a certain irony in telling women's history through women's crafts and turning this around and making them high art. Birth Project(1984), for example, a collaborative work produced in response to the lack of images of this key life event in contemporary art, is an impressive feat of quilting and embroidery, much like Emin's blankets and other textile works, of which examples are on show downstairs in Ben Uri Gallery's deceptively extensive basement. Further parallels between the two artists' works might be seen in Chicago'sMy Accident (1986), a series telling the tale of her hospitalisation after being knocked down on her morning run, and Emin's prolific abortion monoprints.


Both Emin and Chicago have also met with widespread hostility and critical dismissal during their careers, being branded as "bad" artists with no formal skills. In Chicago's Autobiography of a Year (1993-4), a series of 140 drawings hung in chronological rows around a small room, the "entry" for 16 November 1993 admits: "The hardest part was having people say: 'you can't draw'." This is what precipitated her turn to the use of text, in itself no bad thing, since the scriptovisual combination certainly packs a strong punch.


Later in the same work, Chicago states that she prefers cats to people, and then, in the neighbouring room, there is a watercolour, Self-Portrait as My Six Cats (1999). Similarly, Emin has produced many works devoted to her cat Docket, a number of which are on show here, and Bourgeois also produced Self-Portrait (2007) where her face and neck crane out from the body of a cat.


Chadwick's best-known works are her bronze Piss Flowers(1991-2), cast from the shapes she and her husband created by urinating in snow. These stand proud next to Chicago's own variation on the theme, Pissing on Nature(1982), a lithograph of a male torso, legs, and penis, urinating over some hilltops. The fluid is a lurid yellow colour, disturbing and nauseating, although perhaps less so than the vivid excretion in her Red Flag (1971), the first work of art ever produced to confront the taboo of menstruation, depicting a bloodied tampon being removed from a woman's vagina.


The best summary of Chicago's oeuvre can be found in Retrospective in a Box (2012), a selection of seven lithographs representing the seven key projects/phases from her career, compiled as a "starter kit", a survey of her career in a box, in response to many potential collectors telling her that her work was so varied that they didn't know where to start. And one work in this selection might also be seen to aptly summarise her approach - as well, perhaps, as that of the three women shown here beside her - their searing honesty and often heart-rending personal revelations: Aging Woman/Artist/Jew(2012) depicts the artist in the nude, emblazoned with the text "Everyone would see who she really was."


"In the beginning […] Awe of the universal Goddess was expressed as reverence for women, and the female body was repeatedly represented in art as a powerful symbol of birth and rebirth."*


­The work of Chicago, as well as of the other artists in this exhibition, strives to bring back and reappropriate this image in a positive and powerful way.


Judy Chicago: Deflowered

Riflemaker Gallery

12 November - 31 December 2012




Judy Chicago

Ben Uri, The London Jewish Museum of Art

13 November 2012 - 10 March 2013






Judy Chicago

Aging Woman/Artist/JewfromRetrospective in a Box

© Judy Chicago, 2010

Lithograph, 24" x 24"

Photo © Donald Woodman

Ben Uri Gallery 



*Judy Chicago,The Dinner Party: From Creation to Preservation. Merrell: London/New York. 2007.



Anna McNay

twitter: @annamcnay

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