Judy Chicago, 'Mary Wollstonecraft, Gridded Runner Drawing from The Dinner Party', 1975-1978. © Judy Chicago, Ink on Vellum, 56” x 30” Photo © Donald Woodman. Ben Uri Gallery holds approximately 1300 works by artists mainly of Jewish descent – including Marc Chagall, Chaïm Soutine, Sonia Delaunay, Mark Gertler and Sandra Blow RA – making it London’s Jewish Museum of Art. At present its St John’s Wood exhibition space is the size of a small shop; plans are afoot to move to a bigger and more prominent venue in the centre of the city. In the meantime, it continues to hold impressive temporary exhibitions by Jewish artists or on Jewish themes – and the subject of its current exhibition, American artist Judy Chicago, would certainly be worth a presentation in a larger space.
Chicago is one of the world’s most celebrated feminist artists. This is surprisingly the first UK museum survey of her works, which remain highly relevant, especially in the context of the art world, when one considers the woeful under-representation of woman artists in the country’s collections.
The artist’s crowning achievement is her highly popular installation The Dinner Party (1974–79) on view in New York’s Brooklyn Museum. The work comprises a triangular table, 15 metres long at each side, which features 39 place settings that represent in ceramics and textiles mythical and historical women, from Hatshepsut and Isabella d'Este to Mary Wollstonecraft and Margaret Sanger, whose achievements had been misrepresented or written out of the history books in favour of male role models.
Helen Chadwick, 'In the Kitchen', 1977. 1 of 12 colour photographs, Copyright David Notarius. As Chicago’s typewritten work on paper What is Feminist Art? (1977), on view at Ben Uri, explains, feminist art ‘reaches out and affirms women and validates our experience and makes us feel good about ourselves’, and exposes how ‘our culture is grounded in the pernicious fallacy’ of patriarchal dominance and divided sexes. Chicago was born a Cohen, but changed her name to the city of her birth partly to disavow the tradition that a child takes their father’s name. The exhibition contextualises Chicago’s work with that of three other female artists: Louise Bourgeois, Helen Chadwick and Tracey Emin RA.
Judy Chicago, 'Ablutions', 1972. Archival pigment on paper, Copyright Judy Chicago, Through the Flower archive, Belen, NM.
The upstairs gallery features photographs of performances from the 1970s, when Chicago often used live art to examine female experience. For her performance work Ablutions (1972), for example, in collaboration with Suzanne Lacy, Sandra Orgel and Aviva Rashmani, she collected testimonies of rape victims at a time these were rarely heard. The recordings were broadcast by a sound-system in a studio space as two women bathed in egg, then blood, then clay, before being bound in white cord. Photographs of this event are set next to those of Chadwick’s body art photographs In the Kitchen (1977), in which the British artist inhabits as coffin-like clothes replicas of kitchen appliances.
Other highlights of the exhibition include the contrast between Chicago’s autobiographical works and those of Tracey Emin RA. Tracey Emin CV (1995), which lists in roughly remembered chronological order the ups and downs of her life, preludes a room dedicated to the American artist’s Autobiography of a Year (1993–94), a visual diary of 140 drawings that reveal unflinchingly her day-to-day anxieties and desires during a single year. Elsewhere photographs of Chadwick’s Piss Flowers (1991–92) – casts of the interior spaces formed by the artist urinating in snow – flank Chicago’s weird and wonderful drawings of genitalia, which are rethought as flowers, fruit and mouths.
Sam Phillips is a London-based arts journalist and contributor to RA Magazine