April 23, 2014
Judy Chicago at the Brooklyn Museum and Environs

Paradigm Shift
April 23, 2014
Heather Saunders
On Saturday, April 26, in celebration of the artist Judy Chicago’s 75th birthday, she will conduct a pyrotechnic performance called A Butterfly for Brooklyn. The event will take place at 7:30 in Prospect Park, at the north end of Long Meadow.

The butterfly has long been associated with Chicago. For instance, in The Dinner Party (1974-79), winged patterns are referenced with mirrored images on ceramic plates of the 39 place settings celebrating significant women throughout history. In this context, they function as symbols of liberation. Now permanently housed in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, The Dinner Party was the subject of much controversy, to the extent that it was debated by the US House of Representatives for its apparent pornographic undertones. Clearly, not everyone appreciates the virtual miracle of it being on display at long last. On the week-end, I overheard a young woman enter the room and say in an exasperated tone, “We have to walk around. $&@#!”

Chicago is in good company in using pyrotechnics as an art form. Her contemporaries, Ana Mendieta (1948-85) and Marina Abramovic (1946-) have both created powerful works using fire outdoors. Archival photos of Chicago’s pyrotechnic works exploring colour through smoke on the West Coast are currently on display in the temporary exhibition, Chicago in L.A.: Judy Chicago’s Early Work, 1963-74, on the same floor as The Dinner Party. The show follows her career up to The Dinner Party, even including colour tests on ceramic plates that informed the installation.

My first impression at the entrance of the show was surprise at how different her minimalist sculptures of repeated geometric shapes are from the vulvic images for which she is known. Elsewhere in the show, the artist reveals that she had to emphasize structure to get by in art school, because there was a lack of appreciation for symbolic imagery. Colour may be the one unifying element in her oeuvre. Looking through the negative space of the sculptures, the viewer can appreciate the consistent palette—a rainbow of pleasant colours suited to sorbet—by noting their repetition within various works.

Chicago saw herself as ‘one of the boys’ and became skilled in construction as a sculptor. This may seem like it would be par for the course, but in that era, there was a large contingent of artists who eschewed fabrication, reveling in the notion of using readymades like bricks in Duchampian fashion. Conceptual art was emerging, and with it the perspective that genius was a myth and that the idea behind a work was more important than who made it. Curiously, there was also emphasis on the labour of artists, seen in particular in the Art Workers Coalition, which promoted itself with images such as artists lugging sculptures as big as Chicago’s. Her practice was as much physical as it was conceptual, and she passed her technical skills onto female students at Fresno State College and later the California Institute of the Arts. Emphasizing this part of her practice, noteworthy though it is, is risky. The exhibition wall text, for example, notes that, “Chicago took a boat-building course to learn how to use fiberglass, another nontraditional medium with masculine associations.” Highlighting this fact could reduce her to her gender even while stressing that she acted outside of its confines.

Also deviating from the feminine is a recent recreation of a piece called Birth Hood (1965). On a car hood with rounded cut-outs where headlights would be, she painted biometric forms in the same colours as her minimalist sculptures. Created not long after her first husband died in an automobile accident, it reads as an unconventional memorial to him, and by virtue of the title, as an allusion to her survival in a new form–not unlike a butterfly. Although interpreting work in relation to autobiographical details is also risky, it seems appropriate for an artist who changed her family name to her hometown as a publicity stunt coinciding with a change in art dealers. Chicago is no stranger to autobiography, having written her memoirs in two parts. Personally, I have found them to be a case of TMI but her narrative texts are compelling in a series of drawings called Rejection Qunitet (1974) with secondary titles like How Does It Feel To Be Rejected? and Female Rejection Drawing. The majority of the paper is filled with undulating vulvic forms and the bottom has text written in pencil that resembles diary entries in content. One piece recounts the story of her attending a party at a collector’s house with her husband at the time. Upon leaving, she thanked the host for having them and he said, “I haven’t had you yet.” She then thanked him for ruining her evening.

In another drawing, she asks, “How many women are willing to face rejection and rejection and rejection and rejection and rejection and rejection and rejection and still insist on exposing their femaleness?” To contextualize personal observations like this, the show displays an Artforum article from 1974 by Lucy Lippard in which the critic observes that Chicago’s work had not been written about in an article in spite of 11 years of exhibition experience. Since Chicago knew she wanted to be an artist from age 5, when she began art classes, the event on April 26 also marks an impressive 70 years.

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