Judy Chicago’s (b. 1939) pioneering career expands over half a century. She is perhaps best-known for the feminist monument Dinner Party, which celebrates women’s history and accomplishments by giving them a literal place on the table. The work comprises a triangular banquet table, fitting 39 ceramic plates with corporeal motifs representing 39 women. Chicago completed this installation in 1979 after years of crowdfunding and co-working with hundreds of people. At the UK’s first major survey of her work, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, presents a test plate and a film about this ground-breaking piece. However, this innovative show, in the words of Curator Irene Aristizábal, is about extending beyond this piece of work, claiming a space for some of the artist’s lesser-known projects – providing a lens on our world today.
The exhibition follows like an autobiography. It provides an exclusive insight into Chicago’s mind – offering a refined and intimate understanding of land art performances from the 1960, such as Atmosphere, right through to an abstract spray paint series from 1970s, such as Heaven is for White Men Only, to the recent lightbox triptych of Purple Poem for Miami.
Across each of these decades, Chicago connects the dots between birth and death in a very powerful way. The works deploy great empathy and sensitivity to human conditions at large, with a strong collective voice. For Chicago, every ordinary experience has great importance – every single voice is worthy of being heard.
In this respect, it is not too surprising to see drawings depicting her own death accompany works on animal extinction (The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction (2013-2016). The artist builds a strong identification with other species and the landscape, as if she feels the aging of the earth as imminently as her own mortality. The climate crisis is wholly prevalent, personalised and holds the body to account. BALTIC’s show is a timely and necessary celebration of Chicago’s contribution to contemporary art. It is an imaginative and poignant survey on the different stages of life in a female body – that are both intense and powerful. Photographs of childbirth are raw and deeply physical, with colourful needlework permeating black and white. These are paired with smoke screens stretching across a beach, pluming into the air.
In a time of increasing awareness about the planet – today the EU parliament has declared a global climate emergency – Chicago’s works tell a universal story about living, breathing, stretching, dying on the earth as it is today.
The exhibition runs until 19 April at BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead. For more information, click here.
Lead Image: Judy Chicago Smoke Bodies from Women and Smoke, 1972. Fireworks performance. Performed in the California Desert © Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo courtesy of Through the Flower Archives. Courtesy of the artist; Salon 94, New York; and Jessica Silverman Gallery, San Francisco.
Gallery Images: Judy Chicago, Purple Poem for Miami, 2019. Fireworks performance. Commissioned by the Institute of Contemporary Art Miami in conjunction with the exhibition Judy Chicago: A Reckoning, 2018-2019. © Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo © Donald Woodman/ARS, New York. Courtesy of the artist; Salon 94, New York; and Jessica Silverman Gallery, San Francisco.
Third Image: Judy Chicago, Purple Atmosphere, 1969. Fireworks performance. Performed at Santa Barbara Beach, Santa Barbara, CA © Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo courtesy of Through the Flower Archives Courtesy of the artist; Salon 94, New York; and Jessica Silverman Gallery, San Francisco.