In her autobiography, Judy Chicago explains the inspiration behind her overt lithograph Red Flag. The idea stemmed from her private conversation with four other women about menstruation, who realised they had never openly discussed the subject before nor had seen it addressed in art or literature. In fact, the subject was completely absent, a taboo, an ignored mark of ‘otherness’ connoting inferiority in women. It was seen as vulgar and disgusting, qualities that women are not expected to conform to in our culture. Yet, it is a natural bodily that process women experience, why could it not be discussed with dignity and sophistication in art? Chicago states how she wanted to validate female subject matter by using the ‘high art’ form of a handmade lithograph in order to challenge male reactions.
Red Flag depicts a woman’s hand pulling a bloody tampon from her vagina. We can only see the tops of her thighs, the hand and the tampon which is seen directly in the centre of the piece, the main point of focus and reference. Chicago also stated how she tried to make the tampon as overt as possible, down to the naturalistic tone of the blood so that it could not be interpreted as a penis. It just proves how culturally conditioned we are to visualising phallic shapes, rather than realising what is right in front of our eyes: the reality of living in a woman’s body. Red Flag is also an extremely important image for women; it takes a bodily process out of obscurity and validates it as art, installing women with confidence and pride in their bodies. Therefore, it opens up possibilities for discussion on a subject that women felt anxious or scared to talk about, and honest discussion can only lead to a greater awareness of such processes both anatomically, socially and culturally. The fetishization of women is acceptable in our society but this image, a mundane, everyday act is considered obscene and offensive. Why? It rejects the normative patterns of domination and submission in our social order; women are no longer hiding behind the conventional, yet restricting, veil of modesty. This piece also corresponds with Julia Kristeva’s theories of abjection, that discuss a state situated outside the cultural world concerning repulsive objects that we try to cast away such as blood, rot and excrement. Facing these repulsions, here blood and menstruation, blurs the clear boundaries we sustain between nature and civilised society. This lithograph exposes this reality for open consideration, necessarily flouting ideals of good taste and feminine respectability in order to reclaim women’s own sexual and cultural power. Such a feminist intervention is necessary in its overt nature in order for public perception to grasp its true meaning and to explore the internalized taboos presented. Red Flag is not a white passive flag of surrender, admitting defeat and powerlessness but a soaring, passionate and colourful flag of defiance and strength.
Hannah Wilke was another artist involved in feminist arguments during the 1970s, deconstructing feminine stereotypes often through the use of her own body. By focussing on one of her most important works, titled Pink Champagne, I would like to argue how she successfully achieved a powerful feminist intervention that challenged notions surrounding the profane secrecy of women’s sexual organs. Like Chicago’s Red Flag, I believe Pink Champagne equally and radically investigates notions of the public and private. However, whilst Red Flag urgently dissolves the taboo of menstruation, Pink Champagne actively confronts taboos concerned with female sexual pleasure. Pink Champagne is a seven foot wall sculpture made of overlapping, undulating layers of latex. Liquid latex was poured onto a wide plaster bed and pulled into thin layers in order to create the layers, which appear like rippling, sensuous waves when mounted together. The wet, shiny material of the rubber alongside the fleshy appearance connotes the labial structure, opening outwards powerfully, suggesting erotic sensations. The colour, pink, is often associated with conventional ‘femininity’ and the conditioning of gender roles- young girls are dressed in pink in childhood, but here Wilke reclaims the colour from its restricting binary and uses it to create an aesthetic, organic effect. The ripples of rubber also connote petals, the soft curves alluding to flowers, specifically roses. Again, a cultural symbol of femininity reworked consciously, allowing Wilke to gain control of her own representation. The vagina is also representing sexuality outside of its maternal or reproductive function. Even the name, Pink Champagne, suggests an overflowing experience of glamour and extravagance. Champagne is a decadent, bubbling and pleasurable drink that should be savoured and enjoyed. I believe Wilke is claiming the same notion for women, addressing them directly to savour, relish and enjoy the sensuality of their own erotic experiences. Wilke introduces a positive image of the female genitals, expressing its capacity for pleasure in a feminine language, not a masculine ideology of female sexuality and fantasy. This sculpture works to transform negative associations of the vagina into a positive, expressive and beautiful form. It is therefore a valid version of feminism that Wilke invites the viewer to embrace, “Feel the folds; one fold, two folds, expressive precise gestural symbols. Multi-layered metaphysics below the gut level, like laughter, making love, or shaking hands.”
To read more about artists of the 1970’s, check out these following links:
Through the Flower: http://www.throughtheflower.org/page.php?p=40&n=3
Clips of Judy Chicago speaking: http://judychicagoandthecaliforniagirls.com/judychicago.html