Aside from yesterday afternoon, I honestly can’t remember the last exhibition I went to. Working at Significant Seams, I am somewhat (almost literally) cocooned in the comforting, cosy world of craft, and could at times almost forget that I have a background in conceptual art, and would indeed primarily consider myself a conceptual artist.
Of course, the line between art and craft is forever permuting. In A Transatlantic Dialogue, the exhibition I visited at the Ben Uri Gallery, the exhibition notes explained that projects directed by artist Judy Chicago involving craft aimed to elevate this “woman’s work” to its rightful place as art.
Chicago’s career spans more than 5 decades and encompasses a multitude of media, but she is perhaps best known for her work The Dinner Party, first exhibited in 1979, and (in part as a product of The Dinner Party) as a feminist artist.
The Dinner Party, which has remained in residence at the Brooklyn Museum since 2007 and visited London only once, was a project on a grand scale of both skill and imagination. Chicago asked master craftswomen to execute her designs for place settings for an imaginary dinner party which famous historical and mythological women were “invited” to. The craftswomen included potters, ceramicists, embroiderers and seamstresses. In inviting these women to honour women “erased” from history, I feel that Chicago was honouring both the foremothers of modern women, and female craft traditions which have a long lineage and continue to be practised today, whilst placing them in a contemporary art context, thereby forcing society to take a second, much longer look at “women’s work”.
Chicago has been accused by critics of reducing all women to “just vaginas”; that her paintings, drawings and sculptures use the hackneyed female forms of flower-as-butterfly-as-female sex organ. And indeed, there was little subtlety on display here, and this was as much evident in the work of the other transatlantic “speakers”, Tracey Emin, Louise Bourgeois and Helen Chadwick, as Chicago’s! However, there was no doubt that here were four strong, gutsy, fearless women, as vulnerable as their diaristic artworks betrayed them to be.
Reading Emin’s “C.V.” of her tragic early life leading up to her gradual acceptance into the art world and her career gaining momentum was moving, powerful, and inspiring. I was equally touched by Chicago’s Autobiography of a Year, a catalogue of the highs and lows, the mundanity and the ecstasy, of an ageing, but successful, woman artist. In Autobiography, Judy Chicago worries about her husband finding her unattractive, and her ability to make “good” art, amongst other things. I found her emotional honesty deeply endearing and comforting; if this icon of a woman is sometimes weak and fragile (or worse), and yet simultaneously so strong and driven, then I reason that I too can succeed!
Chicago’s line in Autobiography reflects her emotional mood and urgency; intricate yet delicate sketches of trees and flowers accompany texts of calm, and her anger at “the hand that makes bad art” is slopped on to the page with blood red ink. Her sense of colour and its symbolism, and the way this runs through the ebb and flow of the year, is astounding (and I would certainly agree with Chicago that orange is the colour of anxiety!)
The exhibition was so multi-layered and comprised so much of a whistle-stop tour of four prolific artists’ work that it will all take me some time to digest (and I must do some more research on Helen Chadwick’s work!)
On a less cultural note, on our way to the gallery we met a new friend, who was very interested in my boyfriend’s Skittles; a pygmy goat in a school garden! I was adamant that she (I was convinced it was a she; perhaps this had something to do with the exhibition we visiting?) was coming home with me.
Unfortunately I didn’t get my goat; maybe next time.