Judy Chicago and friends bring autobiographical art to Ben Uri

Judy Chicago exhibits in London for the first time since 1985

“Some artists inspire neutrality, some intimidate viewers into silence, some are passed over with polite nods. Judy Chicago is not – by any stretch – any kind of these artists. She arouses in her public passion, feeling that seems to emerge not just based on her works but on her character.” This is art historian Judy Batalion’s spirited introduction to an essay on the nature of memoir in the American artist’s work for the excellent catalogue of the new exhibition at the Ben Uri Gallery in St John’s Wood.

The focus is on Chicago, who made her name on the West Coast art scene in the 60s and 70s, and explores recurrent themes including feminism, issues of masculine power, birth, motherhood and erotica. She was born Judy Cohen into a left-wing politically active Jewish family in Chicago in 1939 and changed her name to liberate herself from the perceived male dominance in the art world.

Her best known work is the large-scale installation The Dinner Party, a celebration of women’s achievements through representing the attributes of 39 historically important women in place settings for a triangular table. It is a collaborative piece, using arts or crafts associated with women, such as needlework and china painting, and was shown in Islington in 1985 on its world tour.

But the Ben Uri exhibition, Chicago’s first in London since then, concentrates on works on paper and aims to examine similarities and differences between her work and that of three European-born artists for whom autobiography is also a key element of their practice: Louise Bourgeois, Helen Chadwick and Tracey Emin.

It’s an ambitious venture and includes works that may shock and delight, such as Chicago’s infamous lithograph Red Flag – a close-up of a bloody tampon being withdrawn. This “indicts the taboo of menstruation as a patriarchal instrument of oppression which instils self-hatred within each human female” according to Alexandra Kokoli in her catalogue essay Sisters.

Look out for Chadwick’s documentation of her 1977 performance work In the Kitchen, in which the artist used her naked body – bedecked with cables - for a series of storytelling tableaux utilising costumes representing kitchen appliances. Also fascinating is Chicago’s Self-Portrait as My Six Cats.

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