Report from… Bordeaux
“Why Not Judy Chicago?” at CAPC/Musée d’art contemporain de Bordeaux (March 10 through September 4, 2016)
Most people, when they see smoke, run in the opposite direction. Not so Judy Chicago. This Olympian of feminist art sprints toward fire–that is if she didn’t ignite it herself (literally, in her pyrotechnic works). With hair the color of smoldering embers and a razor-sharp wit, Judy Chicago is entering her 77th year with as much determination to combat prejudice and redress the deficit of women’s work in the art world as when she appeared in boxing drag in a Los Angeles gym. That was back in 1970, when women were still barred by law from the ring.
“Why Not Judy Chicago?” at CAPC in Bordeaux, France examines the artist’s career from her graduate student years in California in the mid-1960s, through her Resolutions series of early 2000. Organized in collaboration with Azkuna Zentroa in Bilbao and curated by Xabier Arakistain, the exhibition traces her multifaceted contributions as an artist, teacher, writer and activist. Arakistain, a longtime advocate for gender parity within museums and cultural institutions, has foregrounded two lines of Chicago’s work: her creation of a feminist iconography that denounces the oppression of women, and her efforts to invest the teaching of art and history with their contributions. It is particularly instructive to see this exhibition in France where the seeds of feminism were sown nearly two hundred years earlier than in the United States.
Presented in the Entrepôt Lainé, a vast warehouse built in 1824 for colonial goods (a story of dominance in itself), the exhibition unfolds through a sequence of arches and stone passageways. The diverse media and historic themes of Chicago’s oeuvre are well served by this cloistering, resonant architecture.
Mother Superette (1963), a work on paper made when Chicago was a graduate student, contains abstract figures that could be Cycladic female bench-pressers, but they also resemble Byzantine patterns from The Grammar of Ornament, Owen Jones’s monumental survey of international decorative design, published in England in 1856. Though situated securely within a tradition of architectural and design history, her work was criticized by male professors at UCLA for imagery that was “too-feminine.” Conflicted by her desire for acceptance while repeatedly being told that “you couldn’t be a woman and an artist too,” she switched gears and began to employ abstraction in a more subversive way. Her goal was to use color, surface texture, and form to develop a vocabulary of embedded meanings relating to women’s knowledge, sexual independence, and agency. She had by then changed her name (matching the city she grew up in) and enrolled in an auto body painting class — the only woman out of 250 students. There, she mastered lacquer and spray-painting techniques — de rigueur in LA’s car and surfboard culture — that became an aesthetic foundation for her work for the next several decades.
Pasadena Life Savers Yellow Series #2 (1969-70), rendered in airbrushed mists of blue/green, yellow, and violet on reflective acrylic panels, represents a crucial turn in Chicago’s investigation of the perceptual and emotional impact of color, geometric diagrams, and spatial systems. But these are not just intellectual Op-Art exercises. The iconography of the Life Savers paintings is a visual code that plays out on all quadrants of a complicated field. Circles and hexagons stood for the cunt in both word and image, challenging its socially constructed, demeaning connotation. At the same time, Chicago employed her brand of abstraction in the macho arena of Finish Fetish, the West Coast version of Minimalism. Finish Fetish artists were inspired by California’s surf culture, light, air, and smog, making slickly perfect sculpture in glass, polished metal, plastic, and resin. Chicago’s art reflected these prevailing ideas yet denounced the phallocentrism of a culture in which women artists were essentially absent from major gallery exhibitions, museum collections, and university professorships. Only recently have the women who worked in this milieu, such as Helen Pashgian and Mary Corse, been “rediscovered” in important museum exhibitions.
Chicago’s pyrotechnic works addressed another set of concerns about war, the environment, and women’s rituals. In Immolation IV (1971) Faith Wilding is engulfed by orange smoke from burning flares that encircle her grey-tinted seated figure. This was one of Chicago’s Atmospheres (Duration Performances with Fireworks) of 1968-74, staged throughout California, sometimes with her students as participants. Utilizing colored smoke to soften and feminize the landscape, these ephemeral performances also called attention to the bombing campaigns in Vietnam, and the self-immolation of monks in protest of the war. Haunting documentary footage of the Atmospheres (accompanied by the music of Miriam Cutler) combines Impressionist fascination with the obscuring effects of smoke and fog and a contemporary artist’s outcry against violence in its many forms.
The revolutionary, pedagogical experiment of the Feminist Art Program at Cal Arts is displayed in a series of documents from Womanhouse (1972) and never-before exhibited works by students of Chicago and co-founder Miriam Schapiro. Their inclusion in the exhibition is important in signaling the impact of the other women students who were part of the program. Collaborators Dori Atlantis, Nancy Youdelman and Karen LeCocq, for instance, were staging cheeky photographs that skewered gender stereotypes several years before Cindy Sherman began making photographs of constructed feminine identities in her Untitled Film Stills.
Rarely seen test plates portraying the physician Elizabeth Blackwell and the astronomer Caroline Herschel represent Chicago’s best known work, The Dinner Party (1974-79), her epic tribute to 1038 women who shaped the history of Western civilization. Vintage exhibition posters tell the story of the artwork’s international impact, the hundreds of volunteers and skilled artisans who contributed to its production, and its reverberating power as a cultural monument, now permanently housed at the Brooklyn Museum.
But beyond The Dinner Party, Chicago has yet to be fully assessed in relation to the socio-political history of narrative and mural painting in America. In Cartoon for the Fall (1987) images of labor, violence, and religion are delineated in the model for a monumental tapestry (woven by Audrey Cowan) for The Holocaust Project: From Darkness into Light (1985-93). The project was the outcome of extensive research into Chicago’s Jewish heritage and created in collaboration with her husband, the photographer Donald Woodman, together with skilled artisans. I see the Cartoon as philosophically and visually linked to Thomas Hart Benton’s mural America Today (1930-31), and Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series (1940-41). Benton’s mural represents the utopian dream of a new society but it also warns of the dangers of overconsumption. Lawrence’s narrative cycle (although more intimate in scale) confronts the harrowing journey of African Americans seeking economic and social equality during the interwar years.
The 18th-century French playwright Olympia de Gouze was a self-educated butcher’s daughter who in 1791 wrote The Declaration of the Rights of Women. “The purpose of all political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of woman and man,” she argued. “These rights are liberty, property, security, and especially resistance to oppression.” Judy Chicago, the daughter of a medical secretary and post office employee who embraced civil rights, still runs with a torch that illuminates the achievements of women, and resists oppression in all its forms. If only there were a way to bring this exhibition to America.print