I was a little surprised to encounter a capacity crowd at last Wednesday’s lecture at MCAD by artist Judy Chicago. A diverse crowd at that—young and old, male and female, hip and conventional. Chicago is, after all, synonymous with Feminist Art, and supposedly we’ve moved on to a post-feminist era. Chicago pointed this out herself by way of introducing the topic, noting that many people, especially young women, consider feminism and feminist art passé. And she’s here to tell those people how wrong they are.
Chicago started by pointing out that the National Gallery collection in Washington D.C. is still overwhelmingly made up of the work of white males, a sobering fact for young women leaving what she describes as the “protective womb” of art school. She also noted that a million people have viewed her seminal work, The Dinner Party, over the years.
Chicago’s Dinner Party, which she completed in 1979, is the subject of a new show at Flanders Art Gallery. The actual piece—a triangle-shaped banquet table with thirty-nine settings—remains on permanent display at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. The table’s sides each represent a chunk of time from prehistory to the present. We start with “Primordial Goddess” and end with “Georgia O’Keefe.”
The show at Flanders consists of a large color photograph of the permanent exhibit and drawings of the design of each plate, along with illuminating text and a color photograph of the place setting. The Dinner Party draws you in with a feast of symbol and detail. For example, the Susan B. Anthony place setting features a crazy quilt border, a nod to a popular folk style of the time, and a red, fringed triangle representing both the symbol of the women’s movement and the red shawl Anthony often wore. The plates themselves echo the artistic style of the period—the plate devoted to Theodora, the empress of the Byzantine Empire, incorporates mosaic.
During her talk at MCAD, Chicago offered an abbreviated history of her career and of the evolution of Feminist Art that touched on some of the in-fighting among feminist scholars, which ironically relegates her own work to the margins for a period in the 1990s when, she says, women’s studies scholars got very, very confused. Chicago makes the case that Feminist Art encompasses far more than the work of a handful of women artists in the last few decades. She points to recurring compositional tendencies and visual motifs such as mirrors to underscore her claim that there is a specifically female point of view in art.
“I was told I couldn’t be a woman and an artist, too,” says Chicago. She first internalized this message, she says, but eventually rejected it wholesale and devoted her career to carving out a place for women in art history. With Feminist Art, Chicago and her contemporaries set out to create a counter iconography, to bring women to the table, so to speak. What better way to do than a dinner party?
Judy Chicago at Flanders Contemporary Art continues through June 14.