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Her Story
Traveling Judy Chicago Show Spotlights The Identities That Shape And Inform Her Work
Judy Chicago: Jewish Identity
Judy Chicago: Jewish Identity

Judy Chicago. You've no doubt seen her name topping the rosters of 20th-century art luminaries. If only through photographs, you are likely familiar with her epic work "The Dinner Party," recently purchased and installed this past spring in New York's Brooklyn Museum of Art. But if you don't know much more than that about this remarkable, catalytic, activist artist--or even if you do--don't miss the opportunity the Jewish Museum of Maryland offers as an intimate look into her life work.

A traveling show, Judy Chicago: Jewish Identity emphasizes the impulses and inspirations of Judy Cohen Gerowitz's Jewish, socialist, middle-class upbringing, making it a site-specific argument for presentation at the Jewish Museum and its originating venue, New York's Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion Museum. But truly, the artist's more encompassing identity belongs to all women and their progeny. The show is laden with much more to explore, relating feminist subjects of creation or birth with male dominion, suppression, and violence.

The exhibition's time line is scattered about the installation, so pay attention. The show begins with an introductory work from Chicago's 1993 "Autobiography of a Year Project." A crudely executed self-portrait presents the artist in a somewhat Vitruvian Man stance, legs spread apart, arms extended, head pressing against the ceiling of the picture. woman and jew are crayoned in the ambient scribbled air of the image. Trouble always begins when someone thinks they are perfect, so Chicago removes herself from Leonardo's Pythagorean argument for the sacred geometry and perfection of man, to assume a sort-of Aline Kominsky-Crumb strong/vulnerable countenance. Unflattering, outlined cartoon in style, she is split up the center from vagina to the region of her heart, with a birth passage leading to the Star of David. It is emblazoned like a fiery wound on her breastplate. everyone was going to see who she really was is inscribed in red across her legs. And that basically holds for this entire exhibition.

This portrait, and others in its series, were created in anticipation of the public unveiling of Chicago's 1989-'93 Holocaust Project. Most of the works displayed on the Jewish Museum's aptly crimson-painted walls are from that group. They include spontaneous ink studies for a subsequent Aubusson tapestry titled "The Fall," a number of Prismacolor illustrations envisioning the camps, and a narrative mixed-media work conveying the humanity of the victims of the Holocaust that introduce renderings of the women captives amid photo transfers of familiar documentary shots from the men's camps. Also included is a video project that Chicago collaborated on with her husband, Donald Woodman, that elaborates on their preparatory journey into the Holocaust's dark story.

The most remarkable component of this series is the set of three-dimensional panels "Four Questions." The four paintings are actually eight, applied as they are to a vertical accordionlike surface constructed of sharply corrugated aluminum. This Victorian optical-illusion device allows you to take in one louvered image when standing to the left side of the accordion angles, while an entirely different image materializes with a step or two to the right. Chicago cunningly exploits this two-sides-to-the coin trick to contrast a scene of horrific Nazi atrocity with some contemporary injustice or cruelty. Her method in this intriguingly duplicitous vintage technique equates the terrible brand of rationalization leading to the Holocaust to the evils of human self-justification, objectification, and consequential abuses of power, making them so near they are just a step away from each other.

Chicago joined forces with Miriam Shapiro in the early '70s to create the first Feminist Art Program at California Institute of the Arts. Together they created Womanhouse and later, with two other colleagues, Chicago established the Women's Building. Both were early experimental art spaces for feminist performance and installation that would secure Chicago exposure and prominence in her new movement. Through this elevated consciousness about women's work, Chicago became involved with traditional materials: tapestry, needlepoint, appliqué, and ceramic painting. Many of these techniques show up through the years, including the Holocaust Project.

In 1979 her concept for "The Dinner Party" took form, evolving into a commemorative sculpture out of the group of mandalic Prismacolor works-on-paper she titled "Compressed Women Who Yearned to Be Butterflies." The butterfly vagina of the dinner plates appears to emerge at this point.

"The Dinner Party" is represented simply in the Jewish Museum show--through a photograph by Donald Woodman--of the place setting for "Judith." Chicago's namesake, Judith is the only Jewish guest with a place set at the table, although many other eminent Jewish women's names are written below on the tiles. "The Dinner Party" doesn't particularly mesh with the exhibition's theme, addressing the historical exclusion of important women instead of Jewish identity. But the work is so iconic and integral to the artist's own political identity that it couldn't be excluded. And, as Jewish Museum curator Karen Falk explains in an introduction to the show, the concept of tikkun olam, or repairing the world, is a significant guiding principle in Jewish culture.

Several remarkable, organic scrolls represent Chicago's subsequent Birth Project. The sinuous, volumetric airbrush style that she began to explore in earlier work is perfected in these hero(ine)ic scenes of women giving birth to the entirety of the world in its many advents and expressions of energy and life. Amniotic fluid pouring from clutched loins turns to rivers and oceans that engender fetuses or animal forms, as breasts become volcanoes in the distorted, upheaving landscape. These are great, resolved works. Aside from "The Dinner Party," these figure among her most mature artwork, with much of the rest of it taking its fundamental success from the sharp-edged social narrative conveyed often with surprisingly simple coloring-book naiveté.

Chicago's final series in the show is a very personal account of the sexual and emotional love she shares with her husband. Erotic, if sufficiently subtle, they are a satisfying conclusion to the adversarial encounters with wickedness, suffering, and inequities portrayed in her other themes. A happy ending is always welcome, even in contemporary art.


Reprinted from The Baltimore City Paper