Judy Chicago at the Ben Uri Gallery. Beware some sexually explicit material which may (apparently) shock some people

It’s all over, bar the shouting.

Or is it? see here

From "Nine fragments from the Death of Venus (boxed set)" 2004by kind permission of the Ben Uri gallery

From “Nine fragments from the Death of Venus (boxed set)” 2004
by kind permission of the Ben Uri gallery

"Peeling Back" 1974by kind permission of the Ben Uri gallery

“Peeling Back” 1974by kind permission of the Ben Uri gallery

Both images very shocking, but perhaps most shocking is the text that accompanies the lower image:

“This is a print made from the center drawing of the Rejection Quintet, five works originally inspired by several experiences I had in Chicago; one with a male dealer, the other with a male collector, both of whom made me feel rejected and diminished as a woman. I decided to deal with my feelings of rejection and in so doing confronted the fact that I was still hiding the real subject matter of my art behind a geometric structure as I was afraid that if I revealed my true self, I would be rejected. In the first drawings I asked “How does it feel to be rejected?” and answered : “It’s like having your flowers split open.” In the last drawing I asked: “How does it feel to expose your real identity?” And answered: “It’s like opening your flower and no longer being afraid it will be rejected.” In this, the transitional image, I “peeled back” the structure to reveal the formally hidden form. What a relief to finally say: “Here I am, a woman, with a woman’s body and a woman’s point of view.

What I gained from the looking at the work of Judy Chicago and what I gained from the study visit seemed slightly at odds with each other. I was the only ‘Other’ student present, so anything I say will be very visible…

The general comments from the students revolved around how Chicago did the work, the craft of the images, whether, for example, she had sub-contracted some of the stitching. About how some of the work was very detailed and yet some of was somewhat looser, which suggested to some that maybe the finer detailed work might have been created, albeit under Chicago’s direction, by other craftspeople.

I too was looking forward to see how beautiful this work was, I had seen all of the work via a video produced for the show and had seen the ‘dinner party’ (which I know was a collaborative project, under Chicago’s direction) in a couple of video presentations. I wasn’t disappointed. The work presented was very good; I am no expert in stitching, fabric or textiles, but I felt that this work was of an extremely high standard. The piece “Birth Tear 1982” had a great deal of animated discussion over whether the stitching had been dyed, or whether she had actually been involved in the fabrication of the piece. The tonal gradations were extremely finely constructed in shades of red and pink with black (or a very very dark red). Everyone seemed very impressed with the craftsmanship of it. The general consensus in the “Autobiography of a year”, where Chicago seemingly poured out her emotions in, as the exhibition catalogue denotes, “140 small drawings” was that the draftsmanship was nowhere near as good, except for a few that depicted a cat (presumably Chicago’s own). That the images were generally about sex was not to everyone’s liking. One of the OCA tutors had led the discussion at the start about what the images perhaps referred to, about some of the references Chicago might have been accessing, ‘religiosity’ was raised a few times, though not wholly successfully; other, short, conversations surrounded some of the photographs about perhaps how the female form was somehow a thing to be worshipped, but it didn’t really come to any conclusion, or consensus.

The small number of students present did divide into two separate groups, but the gallery is very small, and the number of works were considerable the twin parties soon fell back into one group and after an hour or so we were encouraged to consider which of two possible alternative galleries we might all decamp to – one being a textile exhibition and the other a group a feminist artists. It all seemed a bit hurried.

I decided to ask about feminism and sexism. I wanted to try and get a feel of what the group felt about the work. The general consensus was that feminism was largely a non-issue, that the work had been done and that it didn’t seem to affect these students very much. What I felt we didn’t do, as a group, was to explore why Chicago did what she did and still does; after all if feminism is largely a trope of the past what was the point of continuing to do the work in much the same way as she has been doing for several decades? That Chicago uses images that have the power to shock, combining graphic sexual imagery with a beguiling craft in such a way that still makes the viewer stop short isn’t a movement that has many adherents today. Chicago may be ‘out there’ on her own, but she is still doing it, some students wondered whether it might be her capacity (I wondered about need) for self promotion – to this someone added Tracey Emin’s name as someone who also, apparently, glories in self promotion ‘she knows what sells!’. I didn’t hear the same about Chadwick, though of course she is no longer with us.

That we, as a group, didn’t spend much time discussing why Chicago makes art at all was a disappointment to me. I expected to spend time looking at the craft. The focus when away from the craft dwelt on the sexual, if not (as was suggested) pornographic content of the work, but not why she felt she still needed to do the work in that way. I don’t think the group as a whole felt any need to discuss the reasons, the inspirations or the motivations in the work a great deal, which surprised me; this artist, and Emin, and Beorgois, and, perhaps especially Chadwick aren’t amongst many who are challenging the patriarchy of the world that we inhabit – this capitalist, consumer society in the West. As I said previously this group didn’t think there was a fight to continue, my own research, polling some forty or fifty women of different age groups, didn’t think, in the main that there is much of an issue today for women in society. And that disappoints and surprises me.

I had the fortune to spend about as much time again in the gallery with one other student who had also decided to stay and study the work. We discussed how Chicago’s work might seem to stuck in a time warp, that, as mentioned above, she seems still to be railing against the hegemonic dominant construction that appears to continue to increase it’s dominance over our lives. That maybe Chicago feels that she can’t move on because the cause that she continues to highlight through her work has a more acute relevance, has a resonance that will over a relatively short period begin to fully encroach on ‘developing’ economies and societies, such as India. It was a very useful conversation I found, and certainly the most fruitful of the day for me. Thank you Lucie, it was enlightening. P.s. I left your reference in!

I find it puzzling that the cause of feminism hasn’t apparently moved on a great deal. The artists like Chicago, Wilke, Chadwick, Spence, Emin and others have been unable to move the conversation onward. That activists like Fyn Mackay are represented as they are; why this sort of blog is required , and when I asked the same women about this quite a few more said “yeah, that happened to me all the time”!!

I thought the work of Chicago was both very beautiful and dramatic, that it provoked very visceral responses from me and the other students suggest that the work still has some potency. That it is seen a irrelevant to a lot of people, particularly women is a cause for concern to me. The fight for women’s rights isn’t over – this post contains some correspondence from 1909 suggests that we have moved forward, but by how far?


6 thoughts on “Judy Chicago at the Ben Uri Gallery. Beware some sexually explicit material which may (apparently) shock some people

  1. I can’t comment on Judy’s work or the exhibition because I didn’t visit but I did wonder whether the rest of your group might have had a different conversation if you, as the only man present, hadn’t been there. I do wonder as well why a woman would feel it necessary to display her genitalia, even artistically, to prove that she has a woman’s point of view. It seems a bit like putting two fingers up or mooning to me. There’s something not quite right about it but I haven’t worked out what yet.

  2. I don’t think any of the more explicit images were from herself, however she did, as did a lot of other feminists artist, use her body as a vehicle to express her feelings about the way she felt women had been portrayed. As a visit it didn’t seem like some of the other study days I’ve been on – a discussion for another time and place I think.

  3. Pingback: Surrealism and Feminism | John Umney - Gesture and Meaning

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