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Judy Chicago’s latest exhibition explores the intimacies of identity and existence

“I want to make work that looks as if it were made by a woman”

By Matilda Neill

Judy Chicago is a feminist artist and writer, mostly known for her large collaborative pieces exploring the concept of birth and the celebration of female heroes. She approaches art as a means to affect intellectual and social change, specifically for women, and to reflect on gender norms within larger societal structures. In the early 70s, Chicago launched the first-ever feminist art programme at California State University. Alongside her female students, she experimented with form and performance, trying to figure out what feminist art practice was and what it should (or could) look like. Chicago has influenced artists, writers, and performers, and evidently holds female community close to her heart.

Chicago’s work responds to, and informs, her immediate and personal surroundings, as well as the wider world. The current exhibition at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead is a collection of works by Chicago that spans 50 years of her life and is the first time her work has been showcased in this way, outside of the US. I am incredibly excited that a gallery space in the North East is hosting this wonderful exhibition and participating in this significant moment.

Judy Chicago, Let it All Hang Out, 1973 © Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Photo © Donald Woodman/ARS, New York

On entering the exhibition, we are immediately met with an extensive and beautiful tapestry entitled The Creation. It depicts a woman during childbirth, her legs spread and appearing from them, the stars, the land, and everything in between; a not so subtle suggestion that Chicago’s ideas are both universal and timeless. The colours and shapes are magnificent but it is the vaginal pink that the other colours bleed from I was drawn too most. The choice of form – weaving – is also highly significant. Often considered a ‘minor art’ and associated with domestic settings, Chicago reclaims this art form to make something that is by no means ‘minor’. The domestic and the global are inextricably linked. Chicago is fascinated by women’s roles – the traditional, the subversive, those selected for them, and the ones they choose themselves. A bold proclamation that continues to resonate for me is Chicago’s: “I want to make work that looks as if it was made by a woman.”

“Chicago is not just capable of doing something a man can also do, she is doing something only a woman can.”

It is evident from the forms, colours, and themes of the exhibition that Chicago has achieved her wish. The abrasiveness of the photographs, the naked self portraits, the weighted textual references, and the explicit sharing of her darkest, innermost thoughts creates a forced intimacy that is certainly in keeping with this; Chicago is not just capable of doing something a man can also do, she is doing something only a woman can. She lays bare private and exclusive information about herself and connects it to the outer world in a way that is almost self-sacrificing.

In her autobiographical novel Beyond the Flower, Chicago frequently mentions the paths and behaviours women are expected to follow, particularly in relation to motherhood. Chicago comments it is a “woman’s lot in life to be a mother.” This imposed expectation needs to be fought, as women should have the right to choose to be a mother or not, but what Chicago explores here is the conflict within ourselves when desire aligns with alloted fate. Can we fight patriarchal norms while still fulfilling our ‘predisposed’ female role? Do we need to be childless to be truly radical? Her identity is being constantly shaken as she follows this thought process and in Birth Project, a collaborative effort in which she worked with other female artists, she researches these same questions that have been pondered throughout history. The answers remain to be found but what does become explicitly apparent is that the most important thing we need to remember – that we can choose how to be defined as a woman.

Judy Chicago installation view, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art 2019. Photo: Rob Harris © 2019 BALTIC

Chicago’s identity as a woman and as an artist are often at odds. Chicago often talks about the start of her career, where in order to be respected and considered in the art world she assimilated male techniques, mannerisms, and subjects. In Beyond the Flower she details a striking conversation she had with writer Anaïs Nin, where she desperately searches for a way to integrate her ‘female’ and artistic selves, as the world in which she worked viewed them as contradictory entities. In this exhibition, we see that the reverse is true; Chicago’s art is as much a part of her as her femininity is. Art also becomes a therapeutic tool to help herself, and to teach, comfort, or shock others, but it also taunts her and preys on her anxieties, constantly asking herself and her peers: “am I good enough?”

The overall tone of the exhibition remains melancholy. It is dark and often painful, grotesque and depressing. Chicago reflects heavily, and unashamedly, on her own suffering and her approach to death. In Autobiography of a Year, she details over 140 drawings and scribblings, and the variations in her mood during this time. Similarly in The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction, a series of nude drawings depict Chicago experiencing each emotion from Stages of Grief. These highly reflective works are deeply rooted in Chicago’s personal thoughts and fear, and almost slip towards self-indulgent at times, yet there is comfort and commonality to be found in the deliberate choice to retain hopeful messages among them: the final stage of grief, as Chicago aptly reminds us, is acceptance.

“Chicago is constantly considering her influences – including all the female artists she has studied and admired – as well as the immediate and tangible world around her.”

The same acceptance arises in the end of Cartoon for the Fall, the journey moves from the darkness of the Holocaust into a lighter and more agreeable world. The image she attributes to ‘acceptance’ in The End is one of great strength. The colours are neutral but distinct, her arms and teeth are bare, each line and expression is a deliberate choice and an amalgamation of all that has been expressed before it. Heritage and interconnectivity are evidently important to Chicago is constantly considering her influences – including all the female artists she has studied and admired – as well as the immediate and tangible world around her.

Judy Chicago, Purple Poem for Miami, 2019 Fireworks performance © Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Photo © Donald Woodman/ARS, New York

Amidst the truthful and raw personal expression in Chicago’s work, the piece that felt almost out of place in the exhibition was Extinction, a selection of neon pencil drawings on black sugar paper that featured endangered animals and their plight. In light of recent events and the rapid acceleration of the climate crisis, a piece made two years ago already feels like its not capturing the full extent of the issue. The curatorial decision to place it by the exploration of her own approaching death, however, suggests they are of equal measure and we should consider the climate crisis with the same severity as we view our own deaths.

Personally, Chicago’s older works felt more current and resonant than the more recent pieces. Perhaps this is because, in my own timeline, I can associate more with what she was expressing nearer to my age and to see a 50 year span of an artist’s work it is no surprise you are drawn to matters close to heart. There is beauty in that; the expanse of decades the work covers and the clear developmental stages she explores, means that what you experience in the present will differ on recollection, continually answering questions or blurring distinctions as you grow away from your first visit.

Judy Chicago’s work is on display at the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art until 19 April 2020.

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