‘Star Cunts & Other Attractions’ is a fittingly lurid title for this exhibition of Judy Chicago’s early works on display at Riflemaker in Soho. The show includes test plates from the now (in)famous The Dinner Party, alongside cooler, abstracted works from Chicago’s early flirtation with minimalism – the exhibition is a welcome spotlight on the American multi-media artist, who at 75 years old is still going strong.
Judy Chicago has – perhaps rather surprisingly for non-specialists – been described as America’s most important living artist. Her influence on the feminist art movement of the 1960s and 1970s is indeed huge, though not without a good deal of controversy. Chicago’s enormous multi-part collaborative work The Dinner Party (1979) featured personalised place-settings for 39 important women from history, alongside the names of 999 more minor female figures. This work still over-shadows the artist’s entire oeuvre; its obscenity versus artistic value was debated hotly in American Congress thanks to its use of explicit vulval imagery, while arguments raged in intellectual and artistic circles as to whether representing female historical figures via decorative genitalia was feminist at all. However, after this frenzy died down and the work found a permanent home in Brooklyn Museum, Chicago has been a comparatively rather neglected figure. This is reflected in the modest size of Riflemaker’s exhibition and the comparative lack of buzz surrounding the show. This is not to say that it is not worth visiting: in fact, quite the opposite.
The works on display in ‘Star Cunts & Other Attractions’ include the unapologetically kitsch Butterfly Test Plates (1973), which chronicle Chicago’s experiments in painting china, and important test plates for The Dinner Party. Historical women commemorated include Empress Theodora of Byzantium, Pharaoh Hatshepsut, and twentieth-century composer Ethel Smyth. Studies on paper for the famous airbrushed car hoods are startling in their effervescent colour and general air of joie-de-vivre. Four of Chicago’s airbrushed car hoods (which attempt to fuse ‘masculine’ forms and skills with ‘feminine’ imagery) are included in Tate Modern’s excellent current exhibition, ‘The World Goes Pop’. Seen as a group, these works exemplify Chicago’s championing of traditionally female craft skills and imagery, as part of a wider commitment to overcoming the erasure of women’s cultural achievements in society at large.
These graphic works sit alongside lesser-known examples of Chicago’s earlier abstract practise, including the titular Star Cunts (1968-1969), a series of colourful groupings of geometric forms, or the unexpectedly cool Model for Fresno Fan #5 (1971), in which acrylic paint has been sprayed on to clear plastic to create pleasing grid-like gradations of light and shade.
Though it is easy to roll one’s eyes at the plethora of ‘goddess’ imagery for both its conceptual simplicity and vulgarity (the 1970s faux-prehistoric ceramic statuettes on velvet are particularly naff), issues raised by Chicago’s early practise remain as current as ever. Ideas of femininity, masculinity, and the social versus the biological are particularly topical at a time when transgender celebrities face unprecedented media coverage, and issues of gender roles and sexuality provoke widespread discussion. Whether or not you agree with the polemical Chicago’s strategies and conclusions, a visit to this concise exhibition is a surprisingly contemporary – and thought-provoking experience.
Review by Isabella Smith
Judy Chicago is at Riflemaker, 79 Beak Street, London, W1F 9SU, from 15th September – 31st October 2015.