SAN FRANCISCO—While in the Bay Area late last month, I had the opportunity to see an exhibition by fellow New Mexico-based artist, Judy Chicago. Judy Chicago’s Pussies solo exhibition at Jessica Silverman Gallery (San Francisco, September 8 – October 28, 2017) features the faux-naive oeuvre of Chicago’s paintings, drawings and ceramics works spanning from 1968 to 2004. Her works explore feminine agency, sexuality and the long association to femininity and felinity.
“It wouldn’t have been feasible to call an exhibition “pussies” before a generations of young women reclaimed the power and humor of the word.” -Chicago
Featured image: Judy Chicago, Hrosvitha Test Plate #2, 1979, China paint on porcelain, Diameter 14 x Height 2 inches
The gallery, situated in a corner storefront, appeared empty and stark, a traditional white box. Though once inside, for a few moments en face, I felt alone with Chicago’s work—a warm intimate meeting. I quietly took it all in before exploring the individual works, finding comfort in a feeling of being seen and heard.
I found myself drawn to one of three of Chicago’s ceramic pussy plates from her 1979 The Dinner Party exhibition at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which served as a female reinterpretation of The Last Supper. It is the first time any of the plates have been on display since.
The plate, a Hrosvitha test plate, sat at the center of the gallery; its vaginal form gaping in perpetuity. Like its namesake, the medieval German poet and dramatist, the plate serves a constant reminder of female power, agency and autonomy, as Chicago explains in her book ‘The Dinner Party: A Symbol of our Heritage.’
In developing these dramas, she looked to the Roman playwright Terence, whose plays all turned on the fragility of the female sex. Hrosvitha challenged Terence’s misogyny, and the keynote of her work was its celebration of women. In her plays, men embodied paganism and lust, while women were shown as strong, steadfast, and representing the purity and gentleness of Christianity.
Forming an equilateral triangle from this plate were two other Hrosvitha test plates; one, a pure glossy white, the other, vibrant and lush. Like the Iroquois creation myth of the three sisters, each plate elevates the next in a closed loop. Round and round I kept returning to each plate to take note of the subtle beauty in the variations: fleshy labia, clasped hands embracing the circumference of the vaginal form and even absence of identity.
Chicago, who founded the country’s first Feminist Art Program at Fresno State College in 1970, created the works at a time when second-wave feminism mobilized women to take charge of their own sexual and reproductive control and it fought for and enabled support and services for women affected by domestic and sexual violence; her work delivered a loud and clear message.
One of Chicago’s assistants on the dinner plate project Ann Isolde said she found strength and power in creating them.
“I’d been criticized by some people (men more often than women) for being “too serious” and working too hard. Ironically, in the studio I got messages to do more. So I had to come to terms with feminist values, to do a lot of reading and discussing, to fight a lot of resistance in myself from my earlier conditioning. Then for the first time in my life I felt really comfortable calling myself and artist.” -Isolde
Ever-relevant, Chicago’s process and artwork resonates powerfully with the feminist movement of today, the gallery writes, as women across the country seek to reclaim their identity, foster solidarity, like in the Women’s March on Washington, and a solid resistance to the misogynist Men’s Rights Movement.
Her courage and originality have fostered a powerful and distinctive oeuvre. With a new generations of women committed to reinvigorating the feminist movement, the wisdom and relevance of her work is impossible to ignore.
Along the gallery walls hang several of Chicago’s pulsating abstract paintings and drawings. Morning Fan, a monumental minimalist painting comprising a grid of effeminate pinks, yellows and turquoise where flesh merges with landscape, “a sublimation of sexual desire through abstraction, and political content through formal concerns. Some of her early works, like Dome Drawing (1968) and 3 Star Cunts (1969, and one of my favs), combine color studies and abstract vaginal forms.
While the artist was investigating the optical and emotive effects of color, she was also exploring the question: what does is mean to have a body built around a central void?
Chicago eventually moved from abstraction to more figurative territory with her core imagery explorations aligning with her love of cats.
“The association between women and cats dates back to the inquisition when cats were seen as witches’ familiars and the church encouraged people to burn them at the stake.” -Chicago
Despite the Chicago’s euphemism, she did not grow up with cats. Only when she moved into a house in Santa Monica after the sudden death of her first husband when she was 23, a black kitten, who she later names Little Puss, showed up on her door step and won over her affection. Over the decades, Little Puss and Chicago’s other cats became muses and ciphers for mystery of feminine identity.
“Feminist Art is all the stages of a women giving birth to herself.” -Chicago
About the artist: Judy Chicago is an artist, author, feminist, educator, and intellectual whose career now spans five decades. Her influence both within and beyond the art community is attested to by her inclusion in hundreds of publications throughout the world. Her art has been frequently exhibited in the United States as well as in Canada, Europe, Asia, Australia, and New Zealand. In addition, a number of the books she has authored have been published in foreign editions, bringing her art and philosophy to readers worldwide. Read more on her artist page.
Images Copyright Judy Chicago/ Courtesy of the Jessica Silverman Gallery.
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