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Art review: Judy Chicago: Revelations at Serpentine North, London

28 June 2024

This woman has helped to change the art world, says Jonathan Evens

© Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo Jo Underhill. Courtesy Judy Chicago and Serpentine

Installation view of “Judy Chicago: Revelations” (2024), Serpentine North

Installation view of “Judy Chicago: Revelations” (2024), Serpentine North

A FORMATIVE experience for Judy Chicago was attending a course at UCLA in the late 1950s and early 1960s, on an eminent historian’s “Intellectual History of Europe”, in which female contributions were flagged as being covered in the final session. When that session came, the historian told his students that there were none. Redressing that experience has been a key aspect of Chicago’s art ever since. This exhibition puts that focus of her work front and centre, while showing the breadth of her response and research.

She is best known for The Dinner Party, a monumental installation celebrating the achievements of 1038 women, which is now permanently on display in the Brooklyn Museum, New York. Her research for that installation led her to create an illuminated manuscript, Revelations, which forms the basis for this exhibition and has provided her with new themes throughout her career.

© Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo Jo Underhill. Courtesy Judy Chicago and SerpentineInstallation view of “Judy Chicago: Revelations” (2024), Serpentine North

In 1975, having already founded first Feminist Art Programme at Fresno State College, California, she met a “radical nun” who helped her to develop the foundations of Revelations, a manuscript “that would subvert the patriarchal Genesis myth from a female perspective” and “challenge the notion of a male God”. Revelations, now published for the first time, showcases Chicago’s “exceptional drawing practice”; and that strand of her work, together with the five chapter headings from the book, provides both the structure and content of this exhibition.

The exhibition opens with In the Beginning, a huge nine-metre-long drawing in Prismacolor pencils which reimagines the Genesis account of creation from a female perspective. Chicago’s research for Revelations led her to the belief that, as Chris Bayley comments in the catalogue, creation myths from numerous cultures charted the “changeover of matriarchal to patriarchal societies” — a change that was a “gradual transmutation from female to male deities”. Using goddess iconography to express “the divine” became part of feminist thinking in the late 1960s. Another of its artistic representations featured recently through a retrospective of Monica Sjöö’s work, “The Great Cosmic Mother”, at Modern Art Oxford.

© Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo © Donald Woodman/ARS, NY. Courtesy of the artistJudy Chicago, And God Created Life (detail) (2023), Prismacolor on paper

Chicago’s use of goddess imagery moves from abstract works of gradient-coloured boxes that fan out from a central slit, making them appear to open and close, through Birth Project, which addresses the “iconographic void” of birth in the Western art-historical canon, to apocalyptic visions that seek to make protest visible and create art that reflects our mutual commitment to stopping the climate crisis and protecting our planet.

This is both a reaction to male-dominated imagery, such as traditional images of the Last Supper (as with The Dinner Party), and a re-imaging of patriarchal uses of female imagery, as with her use of imagery drawn from Hildegarde of Bingen’s visions, or her note on images of our Lady, in which she writes: “The Virgin Mary as an extension of the Mother Goddess, she who contains all of life within her. But, Mary’s power was used to degrade women as well as to affirm them.”

With never-before-seen sketchbooks, films and slides, video interviews of participants from The Dinner Party, audio recordings, a guided tour of The Dinner Party by Chicago herself, an augmented-reality app, and a video-recording booth, this exhibition provides a multitude of ways to engage with and, indeed, contribute to Chicago’s images and ideas.

© Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo Jo Underhill. Courtesy Judy Chicago and SerpentineInstallation view of “Judy Chicago: Revelations” (2024), Serpentine North

Currently at Tate Britain and spanning 400 years of female artistic endeavour, “Now You See Us: Women Artists in Britain 1520-1920” is an exhibition that highlights women artists, such as Mary Beale, Angelica Kauffman, Elizabeth Butler, and Laura Knight, who cut a new artistic path for generations of women. Such exhibitions did not exist when Chicago began her art studies; but the impact of her work has helped to shape an arts establishment in which such an exhibition can be staged. That change in culture represents a significant response to Chicago’s early experience at UCLA.

A final recent drawing And God Created Life, sums up Chicago’s belief, as described by Martha Easton, that a “united humanity” through “the blending of genders in the very body of God anticipates the reclamation of Eden and the resultant peace on earth” as envisaged at the end of Revelations. This fascinating exhibition and Chicago’s body of work challenge us to consider how we might “imagine a more equitable and inclusive world”.

“Judy Chicago: Revelations” is at Serpentine North Gallery, West Carriage Drive, Kensington Gardens, London W2, until 1 September. Phone 020 7402 6075. www.serpentinegalleries.org

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