Chicago Is In Brooklyn

Posted on Tuesday July 17, 2012

Before you say “Wow, the summer heatwaves in USA have finally got to him”, I’m not talking about that city that’s famous for its mobsters in the 1920s, 30s, 40s and more, but Judy Chicago, the feminist artist.

My last stay here in the US has been in the depths of Brooklyn. I caught the subway from the bus terminal, and by the time I reached my destination station in Flatbush, I was the only white person on it. And when I got off, I was the only white honky in the street. All this came back to me the following morning, when I walked down to the Brooklyn Museum, because the museum specializes in works about and by minorities.

The Brooklyn Museum building is a reminder that Brooklyn has a glorious past. For a long time now, it’s been run down (some might say ‘characterful’), although urban renewal is happening, spreading up from the yuppified DUMBO area by the river, where T-shirts are fifty bucks.

Grand entrance of the Brooklyn Museum speaks of past glories

Inside, the building is palatial. This is good, because it gives the artworks space. And the curators respect this, and instead of putting every work in the collections out on show, they’ve made a set of shows that you can take in and not feel overwhelmed.

The museum has a gallery devoted to feminist art, and that’s where Judy Chicago comes in. When I studied art history, much was made of her work The Dinner Party. I thought it was just a feminist, we-girls-have-finally-made-a-significant-artwork thing (thereby confirming that I was a reactionary male oppressor of the sort typically found in the art world).

But it isn’t the feminist thingy, and seeing it there in the flesh – ceramic and textile flesh – was truly inspiring. Not just because of the conception behind it – imagining a dinner party where the guests are historically significant women: real, mythical and archetypes – but also because of its magnificent scale and execution.

It’s in the form of three long tables arranged in a triangle, which called to mind an altered (un-ending?) version of the three-table arrangement depicted in various ‘Last Supper’ paintings, which, of course, are men-only affairs. The whole rests on a bed of glazed white tiles on which are written in gold the names of 999 other key women.

The Dinner Party

Each of the 39 guests’ places is carefully laid, with a glazed ceramic plate upon which is painted a stylized representation of that woman’s vulva. The plates rest on cloths that are also decorated individually to represent the historical significance of each woman. The sheer scale and careful working attest to the six years spent making it, with Chicago directing a team of up to 400 contributors. The table is accompanied by a set of banners in the walkway into the gallery, and a set of screens with more detail about each of the key figures and their impact.

The Artemisia Gentileschi setting

The Emily Dickinson setting

A befits a work that set out to make a (feminist) political point, since its first showing in 1979 it’s attracted a large share of criticism, including from other feminists and interest groups, for failing to include enough black women, lesbian/bisexual women, etc (and therefore perpetuating the standard white/Western/patriarchal/heterosexual viewpoint); for failing to be historically accurate (and therefore perpetuating the white/Western/patriarchal approach to writing history); for failing to be small enough (and therefore perpetuating the white/Western/patriarchal idea that big = significant); for failing to be ‘art’ as distinct from ‘craft’ (and therefore perpetuating, simultaneously, the white/Western/patriarchal notions that ‘craft’ is women’s work and that women can’t make ‘real’ art); for using a passive image of the vulva (and therefore perpetuating the patriarchal notion that men ‘do’ and women are ‘done to’); and for … well, you get the gist. I’m sure that Chicago must have ended up thinking “Thanks for all the support, sisters”.

It’s definitely one of those works that photos don’t do justice to. If you’re ever in NYC, get yourself over the East River to see it, and make up your own mind.

The museum also has a temporary show combining various Rodin bronze sculptures with responses to them by British artist Rachel Kneebone. They’re ceramic works, in white-glazed porcelain, with individual or massed small figures of women on fractured ceramic pedestals – possibly a comment on Rodin’s depiction of the male figure, all solid, lumpy, sturdily mounted. Again, there’s a strong female genitalia quotient. I was particularly moved by The Descent (2008), a circular pit about two metres across. On the edge are hundreds of her trademark female figures, and inside, descending to who knows what hell, are hundreds more.

Rachel Kneebone’s ‘The Descent’

Another show about minorities that sticks it up the artistic establishment is the small group of works by black American painter Kehinde Wiley. These paintings on shaped canvases are done in the typical historical/devotional style from the middle ages onward, and there’s a large ceiling-mounted work reminiscent of the Sistine Chapel. But wait, those aren’t white saints and cherubim, they’re black guys in contemporary street gear. Yes, it sounds a bit obvious, but I found it amusing, and it does make a point about who gets to be represented in an artwork, and how.

Detail from Kehinde Wiley’s ceiling

It’s not all contemporary work by and about minorities here. There’s also a good collection of old Near Eastern art, and a swag of Monets and so on, so whatever your tastes, you’ll find something to enjoy. And you’ll have the elbow-room to enjoy it. Stick it on your ‘must see’ list now.