New York

Judy Chicago, Crippled by the Need to Control/Blind Individuality, 1983, acrylic and oil on linen, 108 x 72".

Judy Chicago, Crippled by the Need to Control/Blind Individuality, 1983, acrylic and oil on linen, 108 x 72".

Judy Chicago

Salon 94

Judy Chicago, Crippled by the Need to Control/Blind Individuality, 1983, acrylic and oil on linen, 108 x 72".

In one startling painting from Judy Chicago’s show “PowerPlay: A Prediction” at Salon 94’s Bowery space this winter, a proud nude—a muscled and hairless man with his dick out—pisses deep into the ground. Thanks to the psychedelic, multi-perspectival composition of the scene, we can see a cross-section of the earth and his amber stream of pee flowing and widening until it runs out of canvas. His silhouette glows as the sun sets on a strange desert. It’s almost as if he stands at the base of the viscous formation in Georgia O’Keeffe’s Rust Red Hills, 1930—as if, were we able to zoom in on that famous landscape, we might find him in the gravel, frozen in his Washington-crossing-the-Delaware stance. Chicago’s Pissing on Nature, 1984, though in possession of a lovely, distinctly airbrushed quality, belongs spiritually to that dusky, O’Keeffian realm of smooth volumes and sinuous abstraction. And the fantasy transposition of her urinating god is, I think, in keeping with her legacy. Best known for her monumental textile- and ceramics-based installation The Dinner Party, 1974–79, an austere and opulent mise-en-scène for a speculative, transhistorical summit of great women, the artist, you could say, is a master, or at least a supremely ambitious practitioner, of feminist fan fiction.

But this show, composed of selections from a series made between 1982 and 1987, was, despite its rich references, really quite different. As The Dinner Party toured the world, drawing record-breaking crowds to museums in six countries, inspiring awe and sparking controversy with its exquisitely painted china place settings designed to represent each banquet guest symbolically with a stylized mollusk, mandala, or flowerlike vulva, the artist pivoted from her herstorical focus and signature central-core imagery to explore, in visually startling terms, toxic masculinity avant la lettre. On the wall opposite the mythic Pissing  hung  Crippled by the Need to Control/Blind Individuality, 1983, a provocative companion to the former painting’s depiction of a territorial desecration of nature. This time, golden fluid shoots like a pyramid of light from the nipple of an open-mouthed naked woman. Shown in profile, she’s on her hands and knees. Another muscleman, blindfolded, rides her like a horse (or drives her like a car), steering with locks of her hair. His triumph is tempered not just by the indictment of Chicago’s pointed title, but by his left calf, which is, on closer inspection, elephantine in form and maybe scabby. The allegorical quality of the picture signals it’s about art—or more broadly, creative power—as much as sex. But if it can be understood in terms of gender clichés or suspect archetypes (the woman’s molten breast milk is symbolic of her generative capacity, suppressed by society or co-opted by male ego, for example), it’s a reading undercut by the angry, peacocking tour de force Rainbow Man, 1984. The wall-spanning triptych demolishes patriarchal grandiosity by outdoing it. In close, cropped views of a wizard character’s cosmic, rainbow-bending trickery, Chicago shows us who’s really magic, presenting, for our pleasure, the painting equivalent of a laser show.

It’s puzzling that this fearless work, produced in the wake of her immense and highly publicized magnum opus, received little attention at the time of its first exhibition, in 1986. But perhaps, as difficult as the squeamish found The Dinner Party, as pornographic as the Right deemed it, and as flawed as many feminists judged it for its white bias and essentialist premise, it was an apt as well as breathtaking monument for the moment, memorializing the achievements of the 1970s women’s movement and mourning its failures as the Reagan era dawned. “PowerPlay,” with its caustic, pastel beauty and cackling critique was, of course, billed as a show for this moment, when attacks on imperious, bellicose masculinity could not be more apropos. Prescient, perhaps, or simply observant of sadly timeless dynamics, Chicago’s depictions of men and manhood did feel relevant, as do the Martian plains and rainbow- or inferno-lit figures of her wildly imaginative world. In her storied career thus far, the artist has heroically added forgotten names to the historical record, elevated the craft traditions of women, and exposed the myths and machinations of patriarchy, but all would be for naught without her singular, radical, love-it-or-hate-it style.

Johanna Fateman