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Body and Soul
By Dr. Kathy Battista
“I wanted to translate particular experiences into universal observations.” (Judy Chicago)
Judy Chicago’s practice has shown an abiding fixation on the body in the broadest of terms. Whether in abstracted metaphors, such as the butterfly vaginal imagery found in The Dinner Party plates, Pasadena Lifesavers, and some images from the Birth Project series, or more straightforward depiction as in PowerPlay or the Holocaust Project, the figure has played a central role in Chicago’s work. While the female figure was of paramount importance during her investigations into women’s experiences, the male body was given equal shrift in later series. In her new body of work at David Richard Gallery, she focuses on the head, the apex of the human body, in its most universal form. Departing from earlier series of Chicago’s that have embraced individual narratives, these recent creations are anonymous. They speak to general states of consciousness rather than individual histories. They talk—if sculptures and drawings could transmit language—of the emotions we all feel and observe: smiling through clenched teeth, crying from pain or grief, feeling fear of the known, or being silenced by someone or something.
The artist has arrived at this position of artistic and personal maturity after an impressive career spanning over half a century. From her earliest exhibitions in 1960s west coast US, Chicago has always demanded an attention to detail that demanded a high level of production; indeed, her work has always been characterized by an extreme mastery of materials and process. Since her earliest works in a more minimal, finish fetish style, Chicago’s Car Hoods and Pasadena Lifesavers saw her master techniques that required her to attend auto body school and learn complex procedures for working with fiberglass, resin and car paint. In the following decade her Dinner Party project required a multitude of skills including ceramics, china painting and a range of needlework techniques including ecclesiastical embroidery. It was during Chicago’s Holocaust Project that she became interested in working with glass. Her large-scale stained glass Rainbow Shabbat was hand painted after a detailed cartoon by the artist and fabricated with the help of a glass artist Bob Gomez. This epic finale to the project takes a medium associated with vernacular religious architecture and implants it into a gallery context, albeit an alternative space of secular sanctity.
Art has often been a collaborative process for Chicago and this new series is again indicative of her capacity to work with others. As Chicago says, glass is an inherently collaborative medium, and the artist refined her skills during a residency at Pilchuck Glass School outside of Seattle. Chicago’s Heads Up, like most of her previous series, consists of various stages and levels of production. The artist is a notoriously diligent worker, producing a multitude of sketches, watercolors, and test casts corresponding to each element of the series. A visit to her studio is a treasure hunt through piles of meticulously crafted drawings, test swatches of colors and materials, and various objects of inspiration.
For an artist whose work is most often associated with feminist art and the women’s movement, Heads Up represent a collective human experience rather than any demographic specificity. While the Heads are modeled on the physiognomy of real people, in some instances it is difficult to determine the gender of the corresponding sculpture. Chicago enjoys this ambiguity, which attests to an overarching theme of the series: a common understanding of emotions that are suppressed or released. What lies beneath the surface of the person, and that intangible uniqueness of each being which cannot be seen, is what Chicago explores here. Glass is the ideal medium for such investigation: its transparent nature allows the viewer to reach beyond the superficial and to get inside the structure. And as in every body of her work, Chicago’s technical prowess is astute: the sculptures bear witness to this mastery of her hand as well as the holistic approach to making art.
The body, mind, and soul exist simultaneously in Aristotle’s philosophy. A soul is what sets humanity apart from other species and is ascribed as a character of certain living things, including most importantly, defying the mortal condition. If the body is the base of this philosophical trilogy, the flesh and blood that we consist of that demands food, water, and sleep, the soul is the ethereal, intangible aspect that transcends mortal attributes. If the corporal form is understood to contain the body, and the head in particular is the seat of the mind, the soul transcends these physical attributes and exists beyond the endurance of the flesh. The duality between body and mind is a fixture of most philosophical epistemologies. Heads Up may be seen as representative of all three categories: the physicality of the titular heads, the ethereality of the glass; and the titles reflective of state of mind.
Chicago’s exhibition at David Richard Gallery echoes the ascending troilism of body, mind and soul in its tripartite form: 24 watercolors on paper may be read as equivalent to the corporal. In some cases the drawings serve as studies for the three-dimensional heads that form a sizable contribution to the new exhibition. These drawings, such as Study for Face Lift and Man with a Rose Mouth give insight into the artist’s methodical practice. Meticulously drawn and painted, they show the initial inquiries into forms that eventually were rendered in real, three-dimensional space.
Other watercolors—Smiling Through Gritted Teeth and Tasting the Mortal Coil—echo the works on glass slabs that form another part of the exhibition. Smiling Through Gritted Teeth shows the bottom half of an anonymous face. Its composition is binary: the right half of the drawing shows a face that is apparently grinning. On the left side of the work the interior of the person is revealed: sinews and muscle and most crucially, teeth, are exposed to the viewer. Chicago’s work here acknowledges a fascination with surfaces, but moves beyond what the eye can see. This recalls most overtly anatomical drawings of the early sixteenth century, including those by Leonardo DaVinci, who hid in morgues to understand better the human anatomy. Chicago’s drawings also represent the emotional surfaces that are much more difficult to navigate and comprehend. It is here—beneath the surface—that the viewer sees the gritting teeth associated with the title. The artist is referencing so many human experiences in this one image: a person who is hiding their true feelings, who smiles to the outside world but has a tumultuous interior life. We have all been there, both as the smiling person, as well as the observer who knows that all is not copasetic. Jealous lovers, grieving daughters, annoyed co-workers… Chicago delves deeper into the psychological state of her subjects than any physical particularity.
A key section of Heads Up is a series of fifteen paintings on glass. As in Chicago’s previous series, these are notable for their sophisticated use of color and form. Draftsmanship has always been a skill of Chicago’s, since her childhood when she would take weekly art classes. Drawing is a practice that she does obsessively, and these here take the form of three-dimensional, painted glass slabs.1 As in the drawings on paper, the colors and line are scrupulous and reached with painstaking trial and error. Chicago had to find particular paints that could withstand multiple firings that lasted up to a week in the kiln.
Chicago refers to these objects as “images that exist in space”. Painted from behind and fired, these are as precarious to create as any of her other glass and ceramic works.
Under the Skin shows a man of African descent, with the right half of his face flayed. The model for this work is actually the artist’s FedEx delivery man Mike, who saw the heads being produced in the studio and offered himself as a model for the work. The title and its corresponding composition indicate that we are all the same under the surface—that we are all flesh and blood and all suffer the same traumas—despite the color of our skin. This is a longstanding political position for Chicago, who lived as an activist through both the women’s and the civil rights movements.
Torn Up is another of the glass paintings that features a flayed face. One half of it shows a person crying with tears spilling down and beyond the face. This piece is exquisite in its level of detail and combination of colors. These glass works are fired repeatedly and requires almost twenty-four hour attention. The titles, which are painted on to the lower left hand corner of the glass slabs, feature Chicago’s signature cursive writing, an abiding feature of many of her artworks. This is metonymic of her practice: her hand—as seen in the signature—is everywhere throughout the work. There is no part of the work that has not been labored over by the artist. While she works with collaborators to be technically proficient, she is always completely engaged with the process.
A series of eighteen heads made of glass, ceramic and cast bronze forms the most physically substantial section of the exhibition. The heads may be considered as an outgrowth of Chicago’s earlierwork in glass, which focused on hands as primary subject matter.2 These sculptures, each resembling life size busts shown on a presentation base, capture a haunting quality that is simultaneously elegant and unsettling. While they are the largest works in the exhibition, they are also the most ethereal. They move beyond the physical world to that of the everlasting: they seem to hover like ghosts from previous generations. Busts of great men are strewn throughout the history of art as memorials to powerful and significant figures. I challenge a viewer to name a bust of a woman in the history of art. Chicago’s Heads are a welcome alternative to this male-dominated genre. Her heads are of ambiguous gender and identity: while in some there is the hint of the male or in others the female, they are never directly attributed to a man or woman. While they were modeled on real people, the most important aspect of her series is the lack of naming individuals. Again, they speak to the universal that moves beyond a geopolitical specificity.
Bronze Flowering Head is a sculpture that that appears masculine in its countenance and form. Indeed, the hairline3 indicates a male figure. Its mouth is open, a large glass flower protruding from its lips. At once the figure is both silenced and gagged, suggesting a form of comical or sexual violence. In Chicago’s vocabulary, flowers have come to be understood as stand-ins for female genitals. Is the flower indicative of the artist herself, silencing her critics who have so often denigrated feminist practice? Is she suffocating her male adversaries with beauty, so resisted by the henchmen critics of feminist art? Again, the material precision of the work is laudable: the bronze head is combined with a glass and lacquer flower, this breathtaking combination of techniques is no simple technical feat.
Face Lift is one of the most disturbing of the series, comprising of a head that is sliced through on one side, intersected with a slab-like profile. The wedge resembles a bookend that holds up the face, which appears to grimace as if distressed. The ‘lift’, or sliver section, suggests the smile or countenance that we put on for the outside world and recalls drawings mentioned earlier in this text. On a more literal level, the title also recalls the prevalence of plastic surgery in today’s society. Medical advances have enabled humans to resist the aging process; this may be seen as the physical equivalent to the emotional sublimation we experience. It is also a form of oppression, especially for the female of the species: even more pressure is exerted to stay young, resist aging and appear as an eternally desirable object rather than to age gracefully.
Weeping Head with Golden Lips is a poignant work that again is paradigmatic of a universal human experience. Crying may be associated with both tears of sorrow and joy. Here one sees what appears to be a male figure with tears cascading down his left cheek. The slick white of the delicate porcelain surface contrasts with both the black, mask-like eyes as well as the golden lips and tears. The work conflates the precision of Delft ceramics (see also Delft Head #1 and #2)4 with the ethnic masquerade of a Mexican luchador. The artist suggests that the masks that we wear everyday hide many significant emotions and personal pain. Like the luchador masks, our behavior is constructed, an act that we perform. In this sculpture the tears spill beyond the mask, penetrating through to the real emotions of the situation. These shared emotional responses —performing a role, breaking down to tears—cross any cultural boundaries or generational divides. The early decades of the twenty-first century have witnessed advances in technology and information processing that have changed the way that we live as well as the forms of art practice. While many of today’s leading artists work in a removed, executive manner, Chicago is hands-on, in the studio, singlehandedly producing an enormous body of drawings, paintings and sculptures for each project. Her physical energy is matched only by the plethora of ideas that spews forth from her imagination. It is almost as if the hand cannot keep pace with her prodigious mind. This leads us back to the philosophical musings on the body, mind and soul. How does an artist reconcile the physical manifestation of art practice with the ideas and inspirations that flow through her thoughts? For Chicago it is a simple solution: she produces thoroughly researched, exquisitely executed bodies of work that will remain a legacy long after her physical body expires. The soul of Chicago will live on in the legacy of artwork that she has produced. From her earliest forays to this newest series of work, her ability to transcend time and place and speak to universal human experiences is as important as any Renaissance master.
1 These vary from 3/8 to ½ inch thick glass.
2 See David McFadden, ‘The Voice in the Veins’, Chicago in Glass, LewAllen Contemporary.
3 The artist creates the waves in the hair by hand before it is cast in bronze. From a discussion with the artist in her studio, January 2014.
4 Chicago studied china painting and Delft ceramics as early as the 1970s in her research for The Dinner Party.