SANTA FE, N.M. — Artist Judy Chicago says she wasn’t sure she’d live long enough for people to ever identify her with anything besides “The Dinner Party.”
“It’s very thrilling to me that it’s finally happening,” she said during a recent media tour of an exhibit at the New Mexico Museum of Art that marks her 75th birthday and shows examples from the past 30 years of her work.
True, “The Dinner Party” made quite a splash when it was unveiled in 1979. The long table, arranged in a triangle with 39 table settings honoring mythical and actual women, was designed to add “her story” to history.
But that obvious intention, along with the vulva-like pattern on many of the plates, had some critics calling it “preachy” or “vulgar,” while others were deeply moved by the wide-ranging scope and artistically expressed message of the piece.
In some eyes, it stamped Chicago as a feminist artist with an ax to grind.
But while she remained a feminist and continued to be unafraid to express her opinions through her work, her explorations have ranged beyond women’s place in society to encompass the Holocaust, nuclear weapons and their waste, concepts of masculinity, her Judaism, trees near her Belen home, Los Lunas Hill in different lights – and her cats’ daily lives.
Yep, her cats.
“I lived with cats since I was 21, but I didn’t know that much about them,” she said.
As is her habit with all of her subjects, Chicago plunged into studying them – to the point of waking up at every hour of the night to investigate what they were doing and taking pictures for later illustrations.
The illustrations went into “Kitty City,” a book based on medieval devotional books – “we’re devoted to our life with our cats,” she said of herself and her husband, photographer Donald Woodman.
“They have their own lives,” she said of her six cats. Only two of the ones represented by the ceramic figures she made are still alive: Pete and RePete. “The others weren’t happy when (the two new additions) moved in,” she said. “All the cats collectively moved to the other side of the house.”
But don’t get the idea the artist has gone soft. A petite dynamo, with shiny silver sneakers on her feet and red-tinted curls on her head, Chicago had plenty of acerbic observations on the world.
Looking over some of her works that incorporate trucks hauling off radioactive waste to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, she noted the recent news of a leak at that southern New Mexico site.
“If women worked on the Manhattan Project, they would have thought about the garbage,” she said of questions that continue to this day on what to do with it.
Working on the Holocaust Project, she began to see an entire structure of oppression and to question the meaning of the admonition “never forget.”
“Never forget what? How to do it and how to do it better?” she said, noting that a repetition of ethnic cleansing was occurring in Rwanda as she was finishing that project.
She targets a “hear no evil, see no evil” mindset with a picture of a dad grilling, mom lounging and kids playing in a subdivision cul de sac at the foot of the Manzano Mountains, with nuclear warheads hidden within.
Looking at heartless experiments performed on humans by Nazi scientists, she questions what makes it OK to do parallel research on our distant simian cousins. “Why is it OK to do it to other sentient creatures?” she asked.
Her empathy extends to trees, which she studied for one series of paintings. “Without trees purifying the air, human beings can’t live,” she observed. “Does a redwood that has been growing for 400 years have the right to exist?”
As long as she keeps asking questions, she’ll keep doing her art.
The latest works, which involve the exploration of emotions and faces in heads in cast and painted glass, bronze and ceramics, will be shown at David Richard Gallery, 544 S. Guadalupe St.
“Heads Up” opens Saturday at 2 p.m., and you can hear from Chicago herself when she participates in a gallery discussion with Kathy Battista from 3:30 to 5 p.m.