PRINT Summer 1990


THROUGHOUT HER CAREER, Judith Shea has placed the female form—more accurately a series of its surrogates—at the center of her practice. If the work is feminist, however, it is neither overly theorized nor polemically bound to the direct critique of representation as it engages other, more ideologically minded female artists of her generation. Mary Kelly, for example, comes immediately to mind.1 Shea’s art affirms, instead, certain aspects of art history and tradition in part to assume the weight of their authority, even as it may reverse or undermine their terms.

Shea’s artistic development may be read as evolving from a closely reasoned dialogue with Minimalism—the reigning esthetic at the moment of her entry onto the art scene. In her early work, the purposeful reversal of many of its key tenets was conflated with a former fashion student’s interest in clothing, its structure and history. A short performance work of 1976 is exemplary. This “living color study,” as she termed it, consisted of a nude dancer who, at the artist’s direction, took off and put on varying layers and combinations of sheer silk clothing—a vest, long shirt, and trousers—that Shea had constructed in the colors of the spectrum. As the clothing had been cut in progressively shorter lengths, the color composition of the top layer could be determined by consulting the band formed by those at the bottom, thus providing a structural “key” to its composition. The finale formed a rainbow.

The rigor of the Minimalist esthetic, with its systemic logic, was here both softened and humorously subverted, subsumed to the specular erotics of a kind of fashion show cum striptease (presented, incidentally, to an almost-all-male audience). This debut marked, as well, the last appearance of the body itself in Shea’s work until 1989, when it reemerged in the guise of recreated artifacts in two works, Venus and Apollo. The clothing fragment, however—the shirt, vest, and pants—she retained, and it remained the signature element in her production throughout the late ’70s.2

Shea’s early dissatisfaction with and ambivalence toward what she perceived as Minimalism’s hegemony and macho toughness is worth emphasizing, as she addressed its formal aspects to both acknowledge and undermine them. The clothing constructions, for example, render a quite literal “materialist” presence, but one that insinuates rather than overwhelms. Shea’s use of ephemeral, often translucent, hand-sewn fabric contrasted deliberately with Minimalism’s archetypally hard, impenetrable, industrially fabricated surfaces, as she constantly reiterated the extension and coincidence of object and body rather than forcing their dichotomy.

If Minimalism represents the anonymous, authoritarian “face of the father,”3 how might we read Shea’s desire to animate and anthropomorphize Minimalist forms through the by-products of a stereotypically feminine activity? To a patriarchal model—exclusive, reductive, abstract, anti-historicist—Shea opposed an inclusive, referential, quasifigurative, tradition-conscious one. I would argue that such a practice might be characterized as matriarchal4 and that this aspect of Shea’s work is clarified as her career develops.

In formal terms the late ’70s witnessed an increasing three-dimensionalization of the initially flat constructions, although the Minimalist methodology lingered. At this time the artist was still investigating the systematic juxtaposition and progression of elements within a single piece. She had also begun to make her jackets and vests of silk-screened or chalked felt, a material that, while still relatively soft, allows for more “body.” By 1980 she was inserting darts into the vests and jackets, making of them a highly refined form of gender-specific relief. In the work of this period we see the transformation of the heretofore androgynous garments into distinct personae, initially signaled by titling them after family members or friends. There is also an almost taxonomic interest in depicting a variety of human stages and ages.

Tank, 1980, a flat organza swimsuit, began the lexicon of clothing pieces whose preferred abbreviations were the shirt, coat, skirt, and sheath, all pared down and iconicized but recognizably associated with the ’50s and ’60s. These vernacular presences had also been refracted through the prism of popular culture and included the folded, black canvas overcoat of I Like Ike, 1980; and Inaugural Ball, 1980, an attenuated red organdy variant of the dress Jackie K. made synonymous with ’60s glamour. However elegant or humorous these pieces may be, some of them contain a subtle feminist subtext. The burlap sheath Exec. Sec’y, 1980, evoked for Shea the image of the quintessential “corporate nun,” its scratchy fabric transmuting the “tasteful” dress worn by these members of the business world’s servant class into a kind of “hair shirt.”

In material terms Shea’s development has proceeded from soft (silk, canvas, felt) to hard (bronze and cast stone) to a combination of the two in her newest work. In 1981 she was teaching a class entitled “History and Construction of Clothing,” which included a lecture on armor. Her interest in these disembodied metal carapaces provided the crucial means for negotiating a major shift from the stiffened felt to metal, although she worked alternately in both felt and metal before switching permanently to the latter—particularly bronze—in 1984.5

Shea’s sculpture of the early ’80s has been viewed largely against the backdrop of the decade’s revival of interest in figuration. What is crucial in Shea’s move toward depiction of the figure, however, is her specific concern for rapprochement with sculpture’s figurative tradition. It is the longevity and historical weight of this tradition relative to abstraction—the potency of which Shea nonetheless still feels constrained to address—that becomes the overriding theme of the work of the mid ’80s.

The figure in Shea’s practice is so thoroughly identified with the female form that its position vis-à-vis an abstract element (synonymous with a male-dominated practice) suggests that in some profound way, for Shea, the struggle between figuration and abstraction reflects a sexual as well as a formal power struggle. It is the central paradox of her works, which evoke presence through absence, that as they acquire more volume they simultaneously become more empty, often hollow. What had been previously suggested as veiled—the body—is now completely fugitive. Such a strategy insists upon the external package—the “look”—as the chief container of meaning and refers to the difficulty of describing any internal reality or experience. By also positioning the female body as primary but refusing to picture it, Shea allows that ubiquitous object of desire to escape the reification of the (male) objectifying gaze.

Standing There, 1984, a strapless, fully volumetric bronze sheath, consolidates much of the formal and conceptual growth of the previous years. Here, the dress is contemporary, but its mottled black surface renders Rodinesque homage to the texture of late–19th-century sculpture. Its overall formality and subtle but sensuous contrapposto body it forth as a contemporary Kore. As such it is an important initial avatar of the columnar form that will metamorphose into the high-necked, sleeveless sheath—Shea’s version of the ancient Greek chiton—that is identified with a universalized female presence in Shea’s oeuvre. In many instances this form functions as a placeholder for the artist herself and is reminiscent of Antony Gormley’s recurring lead male surrogate. Moreover, Standing There’s elevation upon a cube base standardizes what comes to be one of Shea’s ongoing methods of distinguishing figurative and geometric elements within a single work. By this means she emphasizes their respective usage as emblems of both the historic and the Modernist tradition. It has also permitted Shea, who has carefully studied Brancusi, to recuperate the base as a viable sculptural element.

The works of the period from 1984 to ’87 are usually dyadic, pairings of figure with figure, or figure with a variety of complementary abstract elements or supports, all exemplifying Shea’s critical effort to express and reconcile the figuration/abstraction dichotomy, and extending the range of her depictions of the female form. Significantly, several works depict this form in restricted, confined, or precarious situations. Shelf Piece, 1984, for example, in which a fragmented form lies uncomfortably on its side atop a high wooden shelf, offers a telling revision of the traditional female odalisque. Here the notion of woman as a “piece,” an object for display, is aligned with the idea of the female form as discard, “on the shelf,” no longer wanted.

Also at this time, emotive qualities are heightened in the increasing embodiment of specific moments of psychological resonance. Two floor works address different dimensions of a recurring maternal theme. In For Mom, 1984, a bronze tubular sheath protectively encloses a wriggly baby bunting and all is tenderness and shelter. The incestuous implications of Acting Out, 1984, however, with its boy legs astride a recumbent female form, are inescapable, despite the artist’s protestations to the contrary, making this one of the more disturbing mother/child depictions in art history.6

What of the adult male/female relationship? Male figures do, of course, appear in Shea’s sculpture, but less frequently and generally in a position complementary to a female character; they never embody epiphanic moments and their sexual identity, furthermore, is at times ambiguous. He and She, 1984, is paradigmatic. Here, in its first appearance, is the Dana Andrews–like bronze overcoat that typifies the mature male presence in Shea’s cast of characters. It lies on the ground, half open, half embracing a tightly wrapped full-length female sheath that twists slightly inward toward its embrace. Curiously, the male coat is softer, more fluid and vulnerable, than the rigid, self-contained dress. Shea’s deployment of formal disjunctions—open/closed, outer/inner, rough/smooth—reverses rather than reinforces stereotypical male/female conventions, even as the totality formed by the “outfit” expresses a reconciliatory longing.

By 1984 Shea’s presentation of the figure as an antique artifact, in part the result of trips to Greece and Italy, becomes more emphatic. Custom Angle, 1985, for example, inspired by Shea’s fascination with the triangulated design of Greek pedimental sculpture, encloses a recumbent, heavily draped, rather heroic wax female form within a wooden pediment. (This pediment had initially been intended as a Judd-like rectangular box that Shea wished, literally and figuratively, to “open up” to the insertion of the figure.) With Shea, the antique artifact offers a species of romantic readymade whose accumulated historical weight can be employed to lend added symbolic resonance to the formal dramas enacted in her work.

Shea’s almost obsessive desire to embody the relative importance and meaning of the Modernist tradition in relation to earlier art history was given further impetus by her reading of George Worringer’s Abstraction and Empathy, 1953, a book that posits the mutual exclusivity of the sentimental and the ideational. Shea illustrated her response to this dictum through a group of 1986 sculptures, such as Memento Cubi, Enduring Charms, and The Balance, that paired figurative presences, in contemplative or tentative attitudes, with small, geometric forms. All three pieces acknowledge an ambivalence toward the geometric (here again, the symbol of Minimalist abstraction), which is seen as diminutive in relation to the large garments, but exerting nonetheless, in its condensed preciosity, a mesmeric appeal. That this essential valorization of the figurative is depicted in The Balance as a species of Madonna and Child asserts, yet again, the identification of the mature figural progenitrix with the female realm, the “youthful” modern offspring with the masculine.

Che Cosa Dice? (What does she say?), also 1986, while chronologically a work of this group, relates more directly to those earlier pieces such as Custom Angle in which the female figure is confined within or oppressed by its geometricized support. Here, however, Shea assimilates a religious model—the crucified Christ—into the canon of female experience, an interest in a mythologized portrayal that will emerge more strongly in the next few years. In this work the bronze gown is literally “cornered,” held at the shoulder by an L-shaped oak beam: the victimized “figure” is pinned by the abstract element. It remains unclear whether she is struggling to bear its weight or to cast it off.

By 1987 the bonds of this historically grounded conflict are broken in the triumphant The Christening, a pivotal work described by the artist as embodying a moment of “breakthrough and panic.”7 Here, in a symphonic arrangement of formal dichotomies, a sleek,black, full-bodied sheath strides confidently forward like a wingless Nike, rising up between the cleanly severed pieces of a classical white column that lie on the ground at her feet. The Christening marks the full-bodied ascendance in Shea’s work of the feminine heroic; the pillars of abstraction’s patriarchal temple have been torn down, the female figure stands victorious and self-empowered.

Shea’s insistence on a primarily formal reading of her work, and her closely considered, almost programmatic development of its conceptual bases, have encouraged an overly simplistic, rather sentimentalized reading of her production. They have also obscured the possible interpretation of its assertion of, yet ambivalent relation to, an absolute authority of its own. Without overemphasizing a psychoanalytic reading, Shea’s apotheosis of the feminine in this work—and the transformation of the female body from soft and yielding to hard, steady, firm, “phallicized”—does suggest it as a representation of the Phallic Mother. But this “assumption of the phallus,” characterized by the erection of the rigid columnar dress form, is disturbed on the one hand by the sculpture’s actual emptiness and on the other by its fragmentary status. The claim to esthetic correctness—to power—is thus both laid and oddly subverted.

In The Christening, Shea permits doubt to enter literally through the openings—the neck and arm holes—in the closed body formed by the metal container. These holes—long-acknowledged signs of the feminine—operate as spaces of vulnerability as well as of transition/revelation. Jane Gallop notes that “for a woman as woman to assume power is to introduce a crack in the representation of power”;8 in Shea’s sculpture this fissure is, arguably, expressed by a void. The privileged signifier—the phallus—is shown, after all, to be empty, in ruin.

There remains as well something paradoxically androgynous in Shea’s phallicized Kore, for all their sensuous modeling and voluptuous swell of buttocks and hip. That these containers can read as both shield and sheath, armor and urn, does problematize the initial perception of their overriding declaration of absolute feminine presence. If, as has been argued, “the androgynous ‘position’ represents a denial, or a transgression, of the rigid gender divide, and as such implies a threat to our given identity and to the system of social roles which defines us,”9 then the “conservative” nature of Shea’s practice—as expressed through the reclamation of the figurative tradition—may be more subversive and less straightforward than it is usually claimed to be. I would certainly argue that such work does contain the conceptual ironies implied in its formal dichotomies and contradictions and that such contrarieties are metaphoric expressions of women’s (and women artists’) experience of themselves.

This work seems to have settled a major question for Shea, freeing her to explore fully the conjunction of her esthetic interests. These are encountered in pieces that concomitantly address what Shea calls the “emotional reality of the female experience,” and the condition of art and artists. To this end the sculptures—both indoor and outdoor—become increasingly allegorical. At this time, too, a third component is introduced into Shea’s symbolic tableaux that stands in for the larger idea of “art” and is usually presented out of life scale, either bigger or smaller. In many of these familial groupings, over several of which hover the specter of Henry Moore, the art object assumes the place on the female lap conventionally reserved for the male child, which it seems to have supplanted.

The Art Lover, 1988, for example, situates a somewhat miniaturized, white, freestanding Hellenistic male torso on the lap of Shea’s familiar black sheath form, itself seated on a pale stone fragment of a horse modeled on an existing Greek ruin of a mounted Nereid. This work expresses the appreciation of art on a continuum from past to present as it offers a metaphor for the cyclic nature of both life and art.

In Between Thought and Feeling, 1988, the same bronze sheath form—more clearly than ever identified with the artist—again sits Madonna-like on a large cube, holding an antique head of Alexander the Great that springs up like a phallus from her lap. This once-powerful male ruler is decapitated, however, reduced here to an item of display subordinate to the maternal figure. Here it is the artist/mother who has both mastered and assimilated the past, which can now be offered lovingly but somewhat poignantly as a kind of trophy.

The interest shown by Shea in incorporating art within art, and her preoccupation with the past, has extended in the last year or so to her own artistic productions.10 In Play, 1989, for example, a full-scale recumbent gown encloses two facing figures, the miniaturized female dress- and male coat-forms from an earlier work of Shea’s entitled Eden, 1987. This title encapsulates a double metaphor: art as theater/spectacle and as pleasure/play. Shea has described the smaller figures as “thought bubbles” emanating from the larger, which in turn may be understood as a dreamer against whose body the male and female offspring enact some dramatic moment of confrontation. In its assimilation of Shea’s own earlier sculpture the work also seems to position itself as a metaphor for the larger body of history against which the efforts of contemporary artists must be measured.

Shea’s classicizing, mythologizing impulse, which continues to figure prominently in her newer work, is, of course, not unique. Anne and Patrick Poirier, and even Jannis Kounellis, share with Shea a similar image vocabulary. Yet her love affair with Western and Eastern antiquity differs from theirs. Shea desires neither to construct an archaeology of the unconscious in her work, nor to convey a sense of cultural dislocation or historical loss. Shea’s tropes do not operate as iconoclastic or critical devices. On the contrary, the poeticized, classical fragments offer a means by which Shea can articulate an esthetic whole, even as they lend plangency to such an enterprise.

The artist’s curatorial stance, indeed her almost 19th-century, antiquarian’s delight in the past, was evident in a recent exhibition, entitled “Forefront,” at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. Here she placed six sculptures on a raised white platform, arrayed frontally, and quite theatrically, as if on display in a combined costume institute/archaeological museum. (They drew a curious parallel to Freud’s desktop antiquities, in the show of his collections that has been traveling around the U.S.) The distancing effect of this staging made it seem as if we were reviewing Shea’s present work from some future vantage point, an experience heightened by the rusted or patined surfaces of even the more contemporary pieces.

Of these recent sculptures Different Destiny, 1989, is based on a statue of the Egyptian Pharaoh Hatshepsut, a female Ozymandias whose images were defaced by her successor, Thutmose III. In this wood and cloth version11 Shea presents the ruler’s hieratic lower torso seated on the traditional stepped throne over the top of which a black canvas overcoat (the resurrected I Like Ike) has been draped. In a manner similar to Between Thought and Feeling, this work addresses the capricious, often leveling operations of time’s passage on the art object, its context, and its ultimate reception. It is a parable of artists’ lack of control over the manner in which their work is received and used by history. The overcoat’s casual placement also symbolizes the offhand manner with which contemporary artists have utilized history, a practice of which Shea is keenly aware and disapproving.

In Venus, another work of the last year, the long absent, continually invoked body resurfaces, although in a doubly mediated, artifactual form. This gleaming white cast-marble torso, displayed slightly above eye level on a stone base, derives from a small Aphrodite that belonged to Charles Sheeler and appears in a photograph of his studio. Shea conjoins her Venus with a white organza short sheath pinned to the wall behind it, thus shadowing the ancient goddess with her symbolic contemporary counterpart. The nudity associated in the ancient world with purity and ideality is seen as replaced in present culture by the elegantly but chastely clad body.

Venus is partnered by another 1989 piece, a fragmented, weathered bronze Apollo, whose modern doppelgänger is the folded, one-sleeved black canvas coat. Images of the feminine and masculine “ideal” are thus offered in these combinative recreations of ancient sculpture and Shea’s own earlier work. The flat, uninhabited garments in both these works seem tenuous and ghostly in contrast to the stone and bronze fragments whose greater corporality Shea very definitively foregrounds. With increasing confidence she seems to have invented another means to assert what for her has always been the enduring presence of the past, even as she establishes her present relationship to it.

In Shea’s portrayal of the goddess in Demeter, 1990, a gowned, green-patined bronze, with right hand and foot intact, sits pensively holding a length of pink tulle—symbol of the fugitive Persephone but inspired by the tutu on Degas’ Petite Danseuse de quatorze ans (Small 14-year-old dancer, 1880–81)—that falls over its lap and onto the floor in a cascade of netting. In a preparatory drawing, this tulle cloud is envisioned as her signature dress pattern, rendering the notion of recuperating her past within her present work more explicit. Shea has indeed referred to this piece as an “allegory of myself working,”12 and it is interesting that the lap, always an important site for the artist, has now become the locus for the display of Shea’s own art. Not content merely to remake tradition to her standard, Shea is here arrogating the privilege of placing herself within the body of that tradition. This historical “body,” not surprisingly, is a maternal one.

Demeter, of course, is the mythological Great Mother who embodies all women; Persephone, originally called Kore, is but another of her aspects. Certainly this mother/ maiden, old work/new work pairing, as it attempts to integrate past and present, suggests that we are an accumulation but not the sum of our past experiences. Demeter’s evocation of the eternal woman, moreover, reflects the elevation in Shea’s work of a new paradigm—the maternal sublime—whose nature expresses a dream “toward the erection of woman as the unique being . . . capable of the ‘impossible dialectic of two terms.’”13 Have we reencountered the transmogrified but still powerful Phallic Mother? Shea’s recent sculptures may point to the possibility of—indeed desire for—the existence of this goddess/queen/mother/artist, but again, by virtue of their fragmented and ruined status, they equivocate, casting doubt on her ultimate reality. Even so, the dream of the mythic, of its poetry and authority, persists, haunting Judith Shea’s work.

Paula Marincola is the gallery director at Beaver College, Glenside, Pennsylvania. She contributes frequently to Artforum.



1. As dissimilar as their practices are in many respects, Shea and Kelly have both felt the need to transform Minimalism’s “ground,” in part by a literal repositioning. Shea, for example, places the female figure atop geometricized supports symbolic of Minimalism; Kelly, as evidenced particularly in the Historia section of her INTERIM project, overlays the texts of women’s stories onto steel pages of books decidedly Minimalist in feeling. The implied reversal of relative importance is I think conscious, deliberate. and meaningful.
2. The relationship of these abstracted, primary-color “shaped canvases” to Modernist and Minimalist works by Pict Mondrian, Ellsworth Kelly, Sol LeWitt, et al., has been elsewhere and rather thoroughly remarked upon (see Lynda Forsha’s essay in Judith Shea, exhibition catalogue, La Jolla, Calif.: La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art, 1988, p. 8), as has the close resemblance of the early pieces to ethnic, particularly Oriental, clothing. The use of textiles accounts, as well, for her inclusion among the Pattern and Decoration artists.
3. See Anna C. Chave, “Minimalism and the Rhetoric of Power,” Arts 64 no. 5, January 1990, pp. 44–61, for a persuasive discussion of Minimalism’s relationship to the “master discourses” of our culture.
4. Matriarchal in terms of the primacy given to a conventionally feminine activity (i.e., sewing); in terms of the early and ongoing interest in depicting a wide variety of female aspects and “types”; and in terms of the later insistence on the power and centrality of the female figure.
5. Shea continues, however, to model her sculptures out of stiffened felt, which is then cast through the direct burn-out method. The emphasis placed, in the metal pieces, on “seams” and places of juncture shows a persistent concerts with the generative process of dress-making.
6. This particular work bears an uncanny and telling similarity to a baked clay statuette of the son/lover of the Great Mother, found at the Neolithic site of Hacilar, a matriarchal community in Turkey; it is illustrated in William Irwin Thompson’s The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light: Mythology, Sexuality, and the Origins of Culture, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1981, p. 148.
7. All quotations of Shea are from a conversation with the author, 26 February 1990. I am grateful to Shea for her time and generosity.
8. Jane Gallop, “The Phallic Mother: Fraudian Analysis,” The Daughter’s Seduction: Feminism and Psychoanalysis, Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1982, p. 120.
9. Francette Pacteau, “The Impossible Referent: Representations of the Androgyne,” in Formations of Fantasy, ed. Victor Burgin, James Donald. and Cora Kaplan, London and New York: Methuen. 1986. p. 63.
10. See Helaine Posner, Forefront: Judith Shea, exhibition catalogue, Washington, D.C.: National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1990, in which Posner notes Shea’s powerful response to Gustave Courbet’s L’Atelier du peintre (The painter’s studio, 1855), which “inspired her to reflect upon her artistic life, specifically the development and meaning of the figure in her work and her relationship to the continuum of art history” (n.p.).
11. There is an earlier bronze and cast-stone version of this piece. Shea’s renewed interest in the use of cloth was stimulated by her 1988 retrospective at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art which enabled the artist to see her early work again for the first time in years. There has been a revival of interest in the utilization of textiles as a form of painting or in conjunction with sculpture among other artists, as may be seen in recent exhibitions by Meyer Vaisman, lzhar Patkin, and Robert Gober. Gober, incidentally, was at one time Shea’s assistant.
12. Posner, n.p.
13. Gallop, p. 122.