ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Mention the name Judy Chicago and most people flash on “The Dinner Party,” her monumental 1979 feminist tribute to women, permanently installed in the Brooklyn Museum of Art.
But the artist has lived in New Mexico for the past 30 years, producing a continuing series of artwork using everything from glass and embroidery to bronze and oil. As Chicago celebrates her 75th birthday, the New Mexico Museum of Art is honoring this landmark with a retrospective exhibition “Local Color: Judy Chicago in New Mexico 1984-2014. The exhibit focuses both on the artist’s large-scale public projects as well as smaller, more personal works.
Chicago’s art has long confronted issues of gender, injustice, inequality, the atrocities of war and the environmental cost of nuclear dependence. These themes resonate throughout the exhibition from the “Power Play” series (1982-86) and a large free-standing stained glass “Rainbow Shabbot” from “The Holocaust Project” (1985-1993). Preliminary works and early studies for them as well as painting and photography combines made in collaboration with her husband, photographer Donald Woodman, from “Nuclear Waste(d)” (1988-1989) will also be on view.
Like the trail of artists before her, from Georgia O’Keeffe to Agnes Martin, Chicago visited New Mexico several times before buying and rehabbing the old Belen Hotel with Woodman in 1992. “She’d been coming to Santa Fe quite a bit while ‘The Dinner Project’ was traveling,” Museum of Art chief curator Merry Scully said. “She began working in a studio off Canyon Road.”
Chicago would remain here longer than her namesake home city, as well as Los Angeles, where she taught at Fresno State College and the California Institute for the Arts.
“It’s the first place she’s bought property,” Scully said. “It gave her the time and space to work independently.”
“Power Play” (1982-87) is a series of drawings, weaving, paintings, cast paper and bronze reliefs replacing the male gaze with a feminist eye.
“It explores gender and masculinity,” Scully said, ” – a complete reversal” of her earlier work.
The series germinated from a trip to Italy, where Chicago studied large-scale High Renaissance paintings and decided to work in traditional oils on linen, woven textiles, cast paper and bronze.
“She wanted to explore masculinity – how it’s a socially created construct. It’s about dominance and power and this kind of hidden emotion.”
“Rather Rage Than Tears” (2012) is part of a suite of lithographs that includes “The Return of the Butterfly” (2013). “Aging Woman/Artist/Jew” (2012) reveals Chicago’s current interest in aging. Its naked figure literally reveals all to the viewer as the word “truth” emerges from the artist’s mouth. Chicago’s “Holocaust” series with Woodman began with intensive, emotionally searing research across German and Europe. Raised by two secular Jews, Chicago began exploring her religious roots after marrying Woodman in a traditional ceremony, Scully said. The series features photo combines and stained glass, as well as drawings and paintings.
“It was the first large-scale project they worked on together,” Scully said. “It was also physically and emotionally grueling.”
Chicago and Woodman created “Nuclear Waste(d)” as a commentary on the construction of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in southeastern New Mexico in the late 1980s. The series of painting and photographic combines includes nuclear sites throughout the state, including the Trinity Site, where the first atomic bomb detonated, as well as uranium mining sites in Grants.
The exhibition also shows her more personal works, such as objects she made for use in a Passover Seder and porcelain sculptures memorializing her cats in “Kitty City.” Chicago constructed “Women of Valor/The Female Face of Pesach” with fabric paint and embroidery on linen to depict significant women in Judaism.
In “Kitty City” Chicago created a series of watercolors and pencil studies detailing the daily life of the felines in the Chicago/Woodman household. Rather than anthropomorphizing the animals as four-legged humans, Chicago conducted her usual painstaking research, basing her series on a traditional Book of Hours (medieval devotional books). She also made ceramic sculptures in their likeness to permanently reign over the entrance of her home.
“She tried to understand them on their own terms,” Scully said.
“Local Color” is one of a series of exhibition, events and publishing activities marking the artist’s 75th birthday across the country.