In a world saturated with uncertainty caused by social, political and above all climate upheaval, the end of the human civilization seems to be inevitable. Despite various calls to action and examples of responsible practices undertaken by individuals and groups, the future does not seem bright. Under those circumstances, the importance of a public dialog is mandatory no matter who its initiator is.
The contemporary art nurtures various critically engaged practices, but the loudest voices are the ones belonging to the notable artists such as Judy Chicago, whose entire practice is devoted to the precise gender-based articulation of the issues concerning, sex, birth, death, violence and the natural world. Although praised for her pioneering involvement in the Second wave of feminism, as an educator, author, and artist (best known for her iconic large scale installation The Dinner Party), Chicago never received proper critical recognition for her deeds until the recent times.
The upcoming exhibition titled The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction at The National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) in Washington, DC will not only show the continuity of Chicago’s socially inclined agenda by revealing her latest works dealing with the matter of death (in the late capitalism), but will promote a newly published monograph, the first in two decades, aimed to reexamine her impressive oeuvre and the major role she had on the later generation of women artists.
By questioning the current status of death in regards to her aging, Judy Chicago tends to examine the horrifying effects of universal human experience in the light of socio-political fragmentation happening on a global scale.
Namely, despite the fact that our world is dying, aging (especially of women) and death are still considered taboo due to the domination of youth as a highly profitable value. The decision to speak about the reality in which many old women find themselves discerned from the society and make a parallel with the dying ecosystems is based on the artist’s striking ability to dissect the capitalist mechanisms truly embedded in patriarchy.
A series consisting of thirty paintings on black glass, seven painted porcelain works and two large scale bronze reliefs, the artist questions not only her mortality but the mortality of all living beings on the Earth.
It is important to note that Chicago has been using painted porcelain since the 1970s while working on The Dinner Party. Sshe revived the old crafts traditionally associated with women by using materials such as porcelain, textiles, and glass to make a continuity of women’s work. Chicago stated:
In many ways, this series is the culmination of 50 years of studio practice, a practice that has taken me on a journey of discovery through many different topics expressed through a wide range of techniques. In a world in which women’s cultural production continues to be undervalued, discounted or marginalized, I am pleased to premiere this work for the first time at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the only museum in the world dedicated to ensuring that women’s art is preserved.
The first series to be displayed is called Stages of Dying, and it was produced in china paint on white porcelain. Chicago portrays a nude older woman passing through the five stages of grief on her way to the end. It is a universal, almost archetypal image of bald, old women suffering which makes it a precedent from the highly idealized representations of female nude throughout art history.
The second part of the series titled Mortality express Chicago’s concern with her death, a deeply personal and highly emotional statement for a woman on the brink of her ninth decade. Extinction, on the other hand, reflects more collective anxiety and concern for the dying planet through images of animals and plants harmed by human behavior. Both Mortality and Extinction feature Chicago’s signature handwritten notes (part of her practice since the early 1970s) and are made from kiln-fired glass paint on black glass.
The End series consists of porcelain and glass panels, as well as two large-scale bronze reliefs. The first one is a half-length image of Chicago on her deathbed (presented with her eyes closed and hands holding a bouquet of lilies). This self-portrait is a cast of the artist’s face and is reminiscent of ancient death masks. The second relief is an assemblage featuring creatures threatened with extinction, and it evokes the aesthetic of mounted hunting trophies, so it criticizes the ethics of killing other species.
The upcoming exhibition situates Chicago’s practice in regards to contemporaneity, but with the long-awaited monograph, it reasserts the attention to the full scope of her highly regarded oeuvre.
Under the title Judy Chicago: New Views the publication will encompass The End works along with the seminal ones such as the Birth Project, PowerPlay, The Holocaust Project and Resolutions. This grand fully illustrated volume will include an introductory essay by Sarah Thornton, writer and sociologist of culture, an an interview with the artist by Hans Ulrich Obrist, artistic director of the Serpentine Galleries, London, as well as other essays written by leading curators and scholars such as Manuela Ammer, Chad Alligood, Philipp Kaiser, Massimiliano Gioni, and Jonathan D. Katz, to name the few.
Furthermore, the book honors the artist’s 80th birthday and the announcement of the Judy Chicago online archival portal which will encompass the artist’s documentation gathered from three separate institutions: Penn State University (art education), the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America (personal papers) and the Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center at NMWA(visual). The portal will be launched on 17 October 2019.
Judy Chicago - The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction will be on view at The National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC from 19 September until 20 January 2020.
Featured images: Judy Chicago - Collected, from The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction, 2015–16. Kiln-fired glass paint on black glass, 12 x 18 in; Stranded, from The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction, 2016. Kiln-fired glass paint on black glass, 12 x 18 in; Bleached, from The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction, 2017; Kiln-fired glass paint on black glass, 12 x 18 in. Courtesy of the artist, Salon 94, New York, and Jessica Silverman Gallery, San Francisco; © Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Photo © Donald Woodman/ARS, NY. All images courtesy The National Museum of Women in the Arts.