Women artists’ London exhibition


This video from the USA is called Judy Chicago: A Conversation With Her Younger Self.

By Christine Lindey in England:

Judy Chicago, Louise Bourgeois, Helen Chadwick and Tracey Emin

Ben Uri Art Museum, London NW8

Friday 23 November 2012

Marked by feminism: An exhibition of leading women artists reveals different but equally challenging approaches to issues of oppression and liberation

Born in Chicago in 1939 Judy Cohen changed her surname to that of her hometown in 1970 as a feminist act rejecting “patriarchy.”

She had studied art in California in the early 1960s and by the end of the decade she was already the best-known West Coast woman artist.

Chicago pioneered feminist art there in the early 1970s through performances and installations. Her feminist work as a teacher in Californian art colleges was arguably more influential, not least because she published her experiences and struggles.

The publication of Through The Flower: My Struggle As A Woman Artist in 1975 was intended to spare young women artists from “the anguish of reinventing the wheel” as she and previous women had had to, partly due to the lack of role models.

This autobiographical account gave a generation of women artists the courage and sense of self-worth to take their ambition and intentions seriously at a time when art education, art history and the professional art world was dominated by men – most of whom seemed oblivious to this iniquity, while marginalising, undermining or denigrating women artists.

Chicago’s most famous work The Dinner Party (1974-79) established her international reputation. Monumental in scale and ambition this theatrically displayed installation celebrates 39 women from prehistory to the 20th century via their place settings at three long tables.

They are named on hand-stitched runners while three-dimensional “butterfly/vagina” motifs on their individualised dinner plates purport to characterise them.

Made in collaboration with amateur needlewomen and china-painters, The Dinner Party typifies Chicago’s strengths and weaknesses.

By making high art from the materials and processes traditionally used by women, it challenges the male- dominated hierarchy which had – and still does – relegate these to low art crafts and its subject matter rehabilitated women’s historical contributions to society.

Yet some feminists argue that Chicago overshadowed or exploited her craftswomen collaborators and that celebrating women such as Boudica and Virginia Woolf via their sexuality is a simplistic and ultimately reactionary form of feminism.

Representing four decades of Chicago’s output, the modestly sized Ben Uri Art Museum sensibly focuses on small-scale works. Bold and angry from the start, a biological and psychological understanding of women’s oppression by men underlies her output.

In calls to women to claim pride and control over their own bodies, they are often portrayed as victims of male physical domination and defined by their unique biological functions.

Male sexual desire is often linked with rape, as in the 1971 print Gunsmoke, in which Chicago’s agonised head has the phallic barrel of a gun forced into her mouth while the text-image piece Love Story 1972 depicts a male hand pointing a gun at a naked woman’s vagina.

Women’s bodily experiences feature large, from provocative works such as Menstruation Bathroom (1972) to her representations of pregnancy in her “birth” project, Birth tear/tear (1982), which depicts the agony of childbirth in crimson embroidered and embossed silk.

Women’s power is often represented by her signature “flower/butterfly” vaginal motifs, as in The Return Of The Butterfly (2012) from her Retrospective In A Box, which sums up her oeuvre.

Biographical and confessional works abound. An entire room is devoted to Autobiography Of A Year, a visual dairy of her life in 1993-94, in which 140 small drawings with text are presented as an art work.

These outpourings of anger, fear, anxiety, depression, confusion, fear and love of husband and cats are expressed with unmediated emotionalism and their formal qualities and trite observations echo those of a teenager’s private sketchbook.

Courageous, confrontational, sensationalist and defiant, Chicago’s pioneering works undoubtedly gave sustenance and confidence to later artists.

Sadly her later works remain stuck in the self-obsessed, 1970s radical feminism of white, middle-class women. This ignores the concerns of the mass of working women, for whom oppression and exploitation result from specific material and social injustices that go beyond the vagueness of “patriarchal” repression.

The exhibition includes a few works by three other women “to create a transatlantic dialogue.” Louise Bourgeois‘s 2007 Self-Portrait, a drawing of herself as a five-legged cat with a human face, upstages Chicago’s drawings of her pets in its poetic sensibility, imaginative breadth and sheer drawing skills.

Tracey Emin’s debt to Chicago’s development of confessional art is acknowledged with four sensitively drawn etchings about abortion and emotional vulnerability.

But documentation accompanying Helen Chadwick‘s In the Kitchen (1977) is the star of the exhibition.

It engages with the commercial, industrial and advertising worlds’ complicity in the suppression and exploitation of women through their equation of shiny kitchen appliances with social and emotional fulfillment.

Rooted in feminism which considers the wider world, Chadwick’s subversive critique is witty, visually inventive, technically accomplished and thus truly liberating.

Her untimely death aged 43 was a tragic loss for British art.

Runs until March 10. Free. Opening times: (020) 7604-3991.

“Elisabeth Louise Vigée-LeBrun, Mary Cassatt, Käthe Kollwitz, Frida Kahlo, Cindy Sherman — these were all women who resonated with me deeply during that first art history class. They’ve also landed on the AP’s revised list of required works, along with more women artists I didn’t learn about until much later. Still, looking down the list I couldn’t help but burst with questions, like a detective in search of missing persons. Where’s Artemisia Gentileschi? Louise Bourgeois? Yoko Ono? Eva Hesse? Glaring as these omissions may be, any attempt to encapsulate art history spanning all humankind will feel incomplete. According to The Atlantic, the College Board plans to periodically revise its image selection to align with the art being studied in college courses, with up to 10 percent of the works changing every five to seven years.” (Read more here).

ETHNIC minorities are significantly under-represented in organisations funded by Arts Council England, its own diversity report revealed. The arts funders found that, of the 663 organisations it finances, only 8 per cent of chief executives and 10 per cent of artistic directors are from ethnic minorities. At the highest level, women are also under-represented, making up just 35 per cent of artistic directors and chairs, despite being 46 per cent of the total workforce: here.

3 thoughts on “Women artists’ London exhibition

  1. Pingback: Early twentieth century women artists | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  2. Pingback: Painter Kerry James Marshall, United States exhibition | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  3. Pingback: London exhibition against Trump’s misogyny | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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