Los Angeles

Judy Chicago

Jan Baum Gallery

This show was a miniretrospective for Judy Chicago; it contained recent paintings and drawings, as well as works in some of the traditionally undervalued mediums the artist has championed by her use of them (including porcelain-plate painting, tapestry weaving, embroidery, and cloisonné). The show included pieces from all of Chicago’s major projects, notably such ambitious, collectively produced work as “The Dinner Party,” 1977–78, and “The Birth Project,” 1984–85. The show offered an accurate and balanced representation of her concerns over the last decade, as well as an exposition of one of the problems with her work: how many of her artistic choices contradict the work’s underlying ideology.

The nonsculptural pieces tended to be the weakest. Specifically, selections from “Powerplay,” 1982–87, grand-scale paintings and drawings of parts of men’s bodies, really missed their intended mark. In these works the artist presents muscle-bound torsos, contorted faces, and huge hands. The pieces are intended to refer to classical Renaissance paintings of the heroic male nude, and to subvert the tradition on which they are based. But the works don’t read as references to those paintings because they just don’t manage to evoke or even resemble them. If the paintings look like something we’ve seen before, with their exaggerated grimaces, writhing muscles, and weird rainbows shooting from their palms like gaily colored death rays, it is the figures of contemporary superheroes, lifted from the pages of DC comics, and presented sans irony or humor. Chicago’s portrayal of males as hell-bent, wrathful-looking creatures seems dangerously close to sexual stereotyping, which runs counter to the artist’s stated antisexist stance.

The sculptural pieces, on the other hand, show evidence of Chicago’s ability to work with clay and in three dimensions; this is where her strength seems to lie. The “Dinner Party” plates and other small sculptural works have the greatest impact and vibrancy because they are the most detailed and quirky. Their resemblance to the intricate constructions of insects and plants makes them seem lovely, wondrous, and strange.

In the drawings and tapestry works predating the “Powerplay” pieces, both sexes are most often represented as featureless outlines: figures yank on others, try to extricate themselves from strangleholds, or are sucked into other bodies. These figures, afloat in black backgrounds, risk losing even a sympathetic viewer, because they look so generic they seem little more than coloring book forms. Instead of being emblems for Everyperson, representing us all in the battle of the sexes, the figures are condescendingly shapeless, as though the artist assumed we would not be able to make the mental leap to relate to a figure if it had identifying features. When Chicago depicts human figures as mere outlines filled in with a little color, she is engaging in a practice similar to that of purdah (the Moslem custom of heavily veiling women and secluding them), which the artist rightly deplores in her piece Mother India, 1985: she robs the figures of personality and condemns them to helpless anonymity and powerlessness. Chicago seems to want to soothe and sting the viewer simultaneously, but the works in this show contradict themselves too frequently to have either effect.

Amy Gerstsler