JUDY CHICAGO AT BALTIC 

Tess Charnley, March 2020 

Judy Chicago’s retrospective at BALTIC explores the human condition through a feminist lens. Plumes of pastel coloured smoke erupt in the Californian Desert opposite an embroidered painting of a baby crowning from a woman’s vagina. On the other side of the gallery, grief and death wait, both for the individual and for collective society in a time of ecological crisis.

 Judy Chicago, Let it All Hang Out, 1973

© Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art 2019.

Photo: Rob Harris © 2019 BALTIC 

Judy Chicago, Heaven is for White Men Only, 1973

© Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art 2019.

Photo: Rob Harris © 2019 BALTIC 

A poem by Sonia Sanchez, Kwa mama zetu wabotuzaa (For our mothers who gave us birth), is included in the accompanying book for Judy Chicago’s Birth Project (1980-1985), pages of which are displayed in her retrospective at BALTIC. The last line of the poem reads ‘at the centre of death is birth,’ a fitting summary of this important exhibition which deals with the pinnacles of human experience, birth and death, bookending the mundanities that interweave them. Through the individual works by Chicago and also through their presentation (the show was curated by Irene Artistizábal), we see that not only are the subjects of birth and death inseparable from one another but they are coloured by the minutiae of daily life. This is not to say that Chicago diminishes the momentousness of these experiences or our anticipation of them, but she normalises them and shows them to be inescapable in their humanity.

The exhibition, marking Chicago’s eightieth birthday and the first major UK survey of her work, spans fifty years of the artist’s career. Its content is varied, surveying her work not only as an artist but also as a feminist and a facilitator of projects involving hundreds of people, such as The Birth Project and The Dinner Party. Early works include Chicago’s paintings Let It All Hang Out and Heaven is for White Men Only (both from 1973), in which she used the technique of auto body painting and a vivid colour palette to create her own version of minimalism, imbibing it with a celebratory and feminine energy, subverting its typical monochrome masculinity. The show ends with her most recent series The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction (2013 - 2018), works on black paper in which the artist illustrates her thoughts and fears around her own mortality with portraits of herself in various deathly states accompanied by questions such as ‘Will I die in my husband’s arms?’ and ‘Will I die as I arrived?’ The series also moves from the individual to the collective, with drawings of polar bears stranded on melting ice and finned sharks flung back into the ocean, accompanied by text addressing the mortality of our planet in this time of impending ecological disaster.

Judy Chicago installation view, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art 2019. 

Photo: Rob Harris © 2019 BALTIC 

Many of the works in this show are preparatory drawings or documentations. As The Dinner Party is part of the permanent collection at the Brooklyn Museum, instead we see a film of Chicago giving a ‘tour’ of the work. Similarly, a preparatory painting Cartoon for The Fall from the Holocaust Project (1987) is displayed. But this does not diminish the exhibition’s quality or its richness. There is something intimate about seeing these preparatory works, aligning with the intimacy and confessional nature of Chicago’s work as a whole. In the case of the Atmospheres series, the documentation of the work is imperative to its existence. These photographs, displayed on a multicoloured wallpaper designed by Chicago, document a series of ‘actions' and performances using pyrotechnics that occurred in the Californian desert between the late 1960s and last year. This is Chicago’s version of land art but entirely unlike the extractivist, intrusive land art that leaves its mark upon the environment. Chicago’s work is ephemeral here; it is a blinding moment that vanishes as it arrives, leaving no trace other than its photographic imprint. Chicago shows the importance of women taking up space and the power in doing so without leaving a mark upon the earth.

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

The piece that, for me, had the most impact is Autobiography of a Year (1993-1994). Comprising 140 drawings, this diaristic work catalogues a year of Chicago’s life when both her mother and her brother died, when she had very little money, and there was little interest in her work. The series begins with a colour coded chart, ‘all the colours of the year’; Chicago’s own visual language of mood. Yellow is ‘happy’; orange is ‘anxious’; red is ‘angry’; purple ‘calm’; blue ‘sad’; green ‘aggravated’; multicoloured ‘confused’; grey ‘depressed’; black ‘suicidal’. Stepping back from the individual works and considering it as a whole, we see a visual map of the mood that overtook her year. The landscape of this work is soaked in grey and orange, smatterings of yellow, a strip of blue for when her mother died. The discipline of this recording is impressive.  A hallmark of Chicago’s work, which is also visible in My Accident as well as her most recent work, is the interweaving of text and imagery, so her year is diarised not only through colour and imagery but also through words and sentences; almost fragmented diary entries. From ‘She felt utterly drained’ to ‘And why did she think that the drawings that came out of her hand were shit?’ to ‘Basically she preferred her cats to most people,’ often Chicago expresses sentiments that defy the act of making this work. She worried that her work was no good, yet she continued; she felt 'black with despair’ at times, yet she documented this feeling; she sat with it in the time it took to make this drawing. There is a sense of relentlessness throughout this exhibition. A sense of Chicago experiencing the world with her eyes pinned open, absorbing the joys and mundanities, the grief and despair in equal measure; turning away from none of it - recording all of it.

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

Judy Chicago installation view, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art 2019. 

Photo: Rob Harris © 2019 BALTIC 

Tess Charnley

www.tesscharnley.com

Judy Chicago at BALTIC

baltic.art/whats-on/judy-chicago

Exhibition currently closed until further notice, open digitally

© 2020 by Assemblage Magazine.

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