Tag Archives: Judy Chicago

Judy Chicago, Tracy Emin, Helen Chadwick and Louise Bourgeois at Ben Uri Gallery by Ruth-Eloise Lewis

Judy Chicago is one of my favourite artists. I discovered her in my second year of university through a module by Griselda Pollock. In fact, I have even written a little bit about her before on this very blog. So, when I heard she was exhibiting in London for the first time since the 80s, well, I was rather excited. The Ben Uri Gallery in London seemed like the perfect place for her return to the country, having 1300 works in their permanent collection by women artists. Many of these works are currently focusing on themes such as autobiography, erotica, feminism, the nude and issues of masculine power.

Which is precisely what Chicago is most well known for. During the 1970s, she founded the first feminist art program in America, aiming to incorporate these themes into the realm of art. This was a time when the personal was truly political and Chicago encouraged and inspired her students to create feminist artworks that validated women’s experience.

On entering the gallery, I was instantly hit by Chicago’s famous works. On the left wall, recent dynamic lithographs such as Into the Darkness (2008) and Signing the Dinner Party (2009) stood opposite her pioneering feminist works, such as Red Flag (1971) and Menstruation Bathroom (1972).  This was a nice touch. For example,  the iconic image Peeling Back (1974)  on the right echoed  the Return of the Butterfly (2009) on the left, mirroring the core values of the initial work. This sense of dialogue seemed tangible, connoting the idea that these conversations are still vital. The writing underneath Peeling Back reads, “In this transitional image, I “peeled back” the structure to reveal the formerly hidden form. What a refuge to finally say: ‘Here I am, a woman, with a woman’s body and a woman’s point of view.'” After thirty or so years, it appears there is still many more peeling back to do and many more layers to explore.


Judy Chicago, Peeling Back, 1974
Judy Chicago, Return of the Butterfly, 2009

Also in this room were the ethereal smoky goddesses from the series Women and Smoke which drew on the “eternal power” of womankind. Helen Chadwick’s In the Kitchen (1977) dealt with issues of domesticity and confinement, reputing the idea that women should be confined within the home. Next to Chicago’s  expressive and free nude figures dancing in the mountains, it seemed impossible to disagree.


Immolation IV from the Women and Smoke Series, 1972

As I walked down the steps to the lower floor, it felt like moving into a more private, personal space. At the top of the staircase, a photograph of a pouting Emin wearing a ‘This is what a feminist looks like’ T-shirt stood alongside Chicago’s piece What is Feminist Art? “Weren’t art and life separated?” the text read, “Like men and women, good and evil, body and mind.” 


I kept this question in mind in the first downstairs room. The space was smaller, more intimate and slightly cramped. Four walls were covered with A4 autobiographical drawings, expressing the moods and emotions of Chicago during a year of her life. A lot of these diary-type accounts seemed negative and  hyper-judgmental; dark holes, wounded trees and swathes of despair in black, blue and ruby red watercolours. It was a sharp contrast to the bold graphic prints on the first floor but it was interesting to see a different side to Chicago. Much of her popular work is so strikingly strong, this softer and more personal side was somewhat easier to interact with, to relate with despite its extremity. Sometimes, the pressure of fighting for what you believe in is draining. I felt that the pictures seemed cathartic, a release of daily pressures and tension. I am  no artist myself, but it appeared like a healthy means of expression that I could consider trying out in my  own life.  A way of clearing a sometimes muddled head.



The final room included work by Emin and Bourgeois and it seemed to bring all the main themes of the exhibition together.  Chicago’s sensual and erotic side was depicted brilliantly and beautifully through her intricate work Nine Fragments from Delta of Venus (2004) and the “Cat-erotica” pieces were playful  and funny, a trait not often associated with feminism. On the last wall hung two nude portraits, one of Emin called Love is What You Want (2011) showing her running away from the viewer in a moment of vibrant spontaneity alongside a portrait of Chicago taken for her 70th birthday, as  a triumphant Eve  holding up her apple and laughing in a contemporary Garden of Eden.  Again, it felt like the two portraits were in dialogue with each other, two confident and creative women exposing their own skin. It seemed like Chicago was handing her feminist mantle down to Emin in a proud and confident manner.  A celebratory and positive ending.


Tracy Emin Love is what you want, 2011

It was so refreshing to go to an art exhibition as a young woman and a feminist and be instantly included;  in a space where women’s experience is expressed and celebrated, where their bodies  and sexuality are explored honestly and openly.  Often with art, I can appreciate it, I can  understand it, I can read and research and learn about the Old Masters or the marvels of the Renaissance  but I never really truly felt a part of it.  My friend had never heard of Judy Chicago before yet we both left feeling like we knew her. And learnt a little bit about ourselves along the way.

Judy Chicago and Louise Bourgeois,Helen Chadwick, Tracey Emin: A Transatlantic dialogue is at the Ben Uri Gallery until the 10th of  March 2013. For more information see:  http://benuri.org.uk/public/?event-details

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A FEMINIST INTERVENTION- Analysis of Two Works; PART TWO by Ruth-Eloise Lewis

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

Womanhouse: http://womanhouse.refugia.net/

Clips of Judy Chicago speaking: http://judychicagoandthecaliforniagirls.com/judychicago.html



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