Judy Chicago: A Retrospective @ the de Young museum

My art muse and not muse this week is Judy Chicago, who has a retrospective of her work up at the De Young in San Francisco until January 9th, 2022. I learned about her site specific performance piece: Womanhouse, initiated by her, but made by a collective of art students in Los Angeles, when I took a feminist art history class in college. I loved the work then and I loved the work now: a domestic play set in a physical house, using the rooms, themselves, to bring up gender issues.

In one room there are two people dressed in black with puppets as genitals: a penis and a vulva. The vulva is saying to the penis that they would like some help with the dishes. And the penis says back: but I have a cock! And the vulva says back, quite fairly: I’m not sure what that has to do with the dishes. Then they fuck on the floor and have a continued conversation, about who deserves to have an orgasm. It’s so brilliant in its simplicity: the age old fight about the dishes and desire that is as relevant now, 50 years later, as it was then: at least at my house, but that’s another essay.

Another scene is an interview with three men in suits who have just come out of the period bathroom; a tiny room with a trash exploding with tampons that are bright red with paint. “A lot of the house is amusing,” one says. “And this is not amusing.” All three seem equality mystified about how this room could have any possible overlap with their world despite the fact that it is THIS VERY THING THAT BROUGHT THEM INTO IT!!!

Later there’s an interview with another man, this time in casual clothes, sitting down and holding a young toddler in the way that I, now, have really only ever seen a woman hold a young toddler: talking while also navigating a small person climbing on various parts of his body, around his shoulders, over his knees, holding his neck, and still wanting to be present to share some thoughts about the performances, which he agrees are art. “It’s not a place to come to live, although what it does is work a series of revelations about the conflict between the person who lives in the house and the house itself. And it reveals those conflicts in a way that makes them clearer to me,” he says.

I can not express as much joy for the rest of the retrospective, save the gorgeous masterful photos of women painted in the desert wielding ritualistic smoke in vibrant colors. Before that, there are rooms and rooms of just, well, bad art. By bad I mean just they are conceptually interesting but not visually striking: images of birth stitched in blankets; large scale airbrushed like painting of godlike man figures wielding various symbols of power, and even the very well regarded Dinner Party dishes, which so interestingly address the issue of why there are so few women at the proverbial table, when there are so many creative and powerful women, just did not move me.

I can’t help but think it is because many of these works are fabricated after the concept and made by artisans and therefore lack the exact immediacy of the artists own body: the conflation of spirit and body. In these works, I felt that the spirit of Judy Chicago was not there, even though her mind so clearly is when what I want is her whole self, body included. Of course, you could say that tons of male artists are famous for things they did not craft themselves and do not receive much criticism for it; in fact Jeff Koons made a career based on work that was predicated on that process. But I don’t really like that work either.

The gem of the exhibit, for me, are the Women and Smoke photos, which by Chicago’s own account are, really, her under acknowledged works. I think it’s because they are perfect, timeless and insanely instagram-able but taken at the time when even a document of the performance was, maybe, an afterthought. I worry that a more deep analysis will make these photos less enjoyable so I will leave you with this image of a woman, painted in green, in the midst of colored smoke, in a barren landscape. I hope you feel this conjure something in your gut, that kind of power and knowing and magic that leads you to make your own creative brew to blow shit up, but in a nice way. 

LA people: Treat yourself to a bender of Faith Wilding’s work. She’s the woman in green above, and an eco-feminist artist with a show up in LA @ ANAT EBGI until November 20th.

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