Culture | Vulvas and rainbow Shabbats

Judy Chicago brings female anatomy into the picture

Internationally known for her groundbreaking piece “Dinner Party” (1979), Judy Chicago remains an iconic contributor to the contemporary art world. The work – which features a literal banquet table set with place settings commemorating important mythical and historical women (Celtic Queen Boudica and Susan B. Anthony, to name a couple) and plates decorated with vulva-like patterns – was particularly bold for its time and received strong criticisms. Deemed vulgar, crude, and kitschy, “The Dinner Party” was rejected from multiple museums and art venues before it found a permanent home in the Brooklyn Museum. A provocative artist and persona, this tough criticism hasn’t deterred Chicago’s work yet. Her new show “Chicago in Glass” is showing at Montreal’s Musée des maîtres et artisans du Québec this month.

The show begins with a glass re-visit of a plate from “Dinner Party” as well as 16 glass sculptures of arms, hands, heads, and the final centerpiece, Chicago’s “Rainbow Shabbat.” The product of an eight-year research project entitled “The Holocaust Project”, Chicago’s stained glass triptych presents an idealistic world where men, women, and children of all different religions and races follow a Shabbat prayer in harmony.

Along with the exhibit, former McGill Religious Studies professor Norman Cornett facilitated a discussion with the artist herself. When I met with Cornett before the discussion, he explained the “uncensored, unedited, and unplugged” nature of the session, expressing that a non-scripted format would induce creativity and a “no-fear zone,” and, as I would soon find out, the perfect and only format for Chicago.

Chicago’s appearance matched her personality all too perfectly. With bright red hair and a matching jacket, Chicago was fiery and to the point. The session began with a viewer commenting that she had felt a “bit uncomfortable with the vulva flower, as it felt too obvious, explicit, to have a strong sensuous quality.” Desensitized to this sorts of criticism, Chicago immediately retorted, “What about all the phallic towers in the urban landscape…do those make you uncomfortable?” She explained that as women, “we don’t see our bodies extended into physical space.” It is precisely this that Chicago wishes to change by making women and their symbolic representations visible in art.

The discussion covered the debate between art versus craft, new mediums in Chicago’s work, and the politics of the contemporary art institution and the strong male-narrated history of art that Chicago feels women are excluded from. Chicago described her work as quite “tame,” and as not simply vaginas on plates, but pieces for women who were erased from history due to the fact that “they had vaginas…Duh!” Chicago’s new work suggests further feminist ideas, with glass cast hands conveying both female power and fragility. Quite shockingly (or quite Chicago), the artist said she felt that “there was nothing to see” at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal. The more meaningless the art, Chicago argued, “The easier the institution absorbs it.” “The structure is fucked!” she announced, explaining that she was tired of “all the boys” (Picasso, Matisse…) being portrayed as the forerunners in art history in museums, with female artists only appearing as “disruptions” to the male-dominated tradition.

In addition to her work’s feminist art-historical critique, Chicago also focuses on issues of religious harmony, as featured in the wall sized “Rainbow Shabbat.” As people in the crowd questioned the naive optimism of the idealized world presented in this piece, Chicago challenged them: “Just because something is unobtainable, does it mean we shouldn’t strive for it?” Her closing statements then forced the audience into a subjective consideration of this problem: “Interesting to me is the discussion about a lack of hope or lack thereof, idealism…I heard a lot about the fact that Quebec and Montreal transformed [themselves] peacefully, threw off the oppression of British domination, threw off the oppression of the church, created [themselves] a heterogeneous, multiple, diverse, secular society…and you’re telling me there is no basis for hope or idealism?”

Unscripted, unedited, and unplugged, Chicago places us as the proprietors of the harmonious, idealized society her artwork so beautifully encapsulates.