Bursts of bright colour, radical tapestries and personal drawings exploring loss and grief mark out the Baltic’s current exhibition of Judy Chicago’s work, which spans the whole of her 50-year career.
There are many words that have been used to describe Judy Chicago’s art. Some are less complimentary than others, but those used most often are “courageous” and “groundbreaking”. Born as Judith Cohen in 1939, Chicago started drawing at the age of three. Her fierce, unflinching combination of art and activism can be traced back to her parents: her mother was a former dancer and her father a political activist and labour organiser. Both encouraged her to think and act beyond societal conventions. For Chicago, that meant in particular challenging the accepted place of women. Forging her own way in the white, straight, male-dominated art world of the 1960s and 70s, Chicago (who changed her name to that of her home city in 1970) has established herself as an artist who is unafraid to challenge the patriarchal world in which we still live. The exhibition at the Baltic, Gateshead, is the first survey of its kind in the UK, and spans the whole of Chicago’s 50-year career.
From the start, one thing is obvious – Chicago does not shy away from issues most people prefer not to talk about. Not only does she talk about them, she renders them in bold, provocative, colourful, dynamic art, and hangs them on the wall for everyone to see. There were a few squirms as I walked around the gallery, but I sense that this was not Chicago’s intention; instead, she wants us to think and to question alongside her. We are all born, and we all die. We all have experiences in between that are personal, universal, inextricably linked to the world that we live in and the environment that surrounds us. And yet many of these experiences – especially those of birth and death, and the pain and grief both entail – are not talked about. Chicago wants us to change that.
Then, of course, there is the feminist angle. Chicago is known as a proud feminist artist, and her early years as an artist and teacher in California were dedicated to exploring exactly what a feminist art practice could look like and how art could be disseminated through a feminist lens. She made bold experiments with colour: “minimalism was supposed to be genderless, universal, and devoid of colour…it had a political stance and it was about the authority of the straight, white, male.” Her landmark paintings from this period, Let It All Hang Out (1973) and Heaven Is For White Men Only (1973), burst with flamboyant colour and life. They hang either side of the entrance to the exhibition, a reminder (if one was needed) that this is not art as defined by “the straight, white male”. This is art and life, lived, experienced and portrayed by a woman.
It’s appropriate, then, that the exhibition opens with The Creation (1982), a four-metre long tapestry that depicts the beginning of the world from a female perspective. There is no god here, no male deity presiding over a world in its infancy. The Creation instead births the earth in colourful stitches, all of the birds and beasts rushing forth from dusky pink ripples which in turn have emerged from the darkness. It sets the tone for other works in The Birth Project that are both powerful and tender, primal and beautiful. During the 1980s, Chicago researched and documented the act of giving birth as she sought to address the glaring absence of it in Western art: she studied films, talked to women who had given birth, attended live births, and studied mythology, folklore, and traditions around the world. The result was a stunning, collaborative 85-piece project combining painting, needlework and text that explores the moment of giving birth.
Now in her eighties, Chicago has turned her attention to that other universal experience – death. Her latest work, The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction, looks at death and dying in three parts. The first, ‘The Stages of Dying’, based on Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s stages of grief, depicts a nude figure – recognisable as Chicago with her distinctive red hair – experiencing denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. The second, ‘Mortality’, is even more personal and reflects on Chicago’s own considerations of death and dying (one moving image shows a blond man, Chicago’s artistic collaborator and husband Donald Woodman, cradling a female figure, with the words “Will I die in my husband’s arms?”). The third, ‘Extinction’, details the decline of the natural world at the hands of man, showing the plight of penguins, polar bears, birds, gorillas and wolves. In this last series, Chicago takes us effortlessly from the personal to the universal, placing her own death on a par with that of the environment and forcing us to think not only about our own mortality, but that of the earth. Under Chicago’s gaze, the two are inextricably linked.
These aspects of The End – the willingness to embrace the personal in art, and the concern with the natural world as part of a holistic view of humanity – can be seen throughout Chicago’s career and are demonstrated neatly in the other major parts of the exhibition. Opposite The End hangs Autobiography of a Year (1993-1994), in which 140 drawings lay a year in Chicago’s life bare. She records everything in sketches and a few words, using colour as a barometer to express her emotions and revealing with striking honesty all the extreme ups and downs of the human experience. In My Accident (1986), she records the trauma and aftermath of being hit by a truck while out running. The accident occurred just after she had married Woodman, and the series is almost brutal in portraying – through her own paintings, Woodman’s photographs, and text – the damage to both her body and mind as she dealt with first the accident itself and then the long recovery. Immensely personal, yes, but also universal – it could happen to any one of us at any time.
The series is shown next to three photographs from Atmospheres (1968-74), a series of smoke performances in which women were depicted in the midst of the coloured smoke from flares and fireworks, and which again demonstrates the close connection Chicago makes between the personal and the universal, the human body and the environment. At a time when male artists were busy displaying dominance over the natural world (Richard Serra cut down giant redwoods for Sawing in 1970, while Robert Smithson merrily blasted thousands of tons of rock and earth into America’s largest saltwater lake for Spiral Jetty, also in 1970), Chicago set out instead to create a low-impact, relatively sustainable, feminine form of art within the natural landscape of the Southern Californian desert. The photographs seem dull in comparison to the effect the original perfomrnaces must have had, but they still manage to convey a juxtaposition of dramatic and soft, explosive and fairytale, delicate and harsh – in other words, the whole spectrum of human life within the natural world that sustains it. Three photographs didn’t feel like enough!
Given the huge scope of her work and the large scale of most of her projects, it was perhaps inevitable that this exhibition feels like little more than a glossy overview of Chicago’s career. Anyone even vaguely familiar with her work will notice immediately what has been left out – her most famous work, The Dinner Party, remains safely at home in New York in its entirety. Instead, a short film documents the making of the work and its history. Likewise only one preparatory canvas from The Holocaust, the eight-year project with her husband Donald Woodman that places the Holocaust within the context of Western history and civilisation, is included. Just seven of the 85 pieces of The Birth Project are on display, and while The End as a finished project is a series of spectacular glassworks, here we have the preparatory works on paper. Enough to tempt; not quite enough to satisfy. But these glimpses are still powerful. They are enough to provoke and unsettle, to force us to look at existence from the inside out. And that, I suspect, is Chicago’s mission accomplished.
Feature Image: detail from Judy Chicago’s Smoke Bodies, 1972, fireworks, California desert, CA. © Judy Chicago, photo courtesy of Through the Flower archives.