Judy Chicago and Louise Bourgeois, Helen Chadwick, Tracey Emin: A Transatlantic dialogue
You may not be familiar with the Ben Uri art museum, a small, slightly confused gallery located in the heart of St John’s Wood. They have one key thing working in their favour, stacked against the dismal, tiny physical space they occupy and the messy messages given out by their website. Their exhibition programme is lively and active, the curatorial team punch above their weight with their borrowing pitched towards national galleries and large name artists. With a mediocre collection (search online – proof that collections based largely upon the religious beliefs of the artist are limiting and populated by weak works), this programme is a lifeline.
The current display has four women to its name, but the main player is Judy Chicago. Readers may be familiar with Chicago’s 1970s work The Dinner Party, an iconic standout piece of feminist art from that era. In contemporary consciousness she has been overshadowed by contemporaries such as Marina Abramović, Yoko Ono, Louise Bourgeois, Kiki Smith and Nancy Spero, more recently Tracey Emin, Sarah Lucas and perhaps Sophie Calle. The Ben Uri exhibition positions Chicago alongside Bourgeois, Emin and Helen Chadwick, as a collective pantheon of feminist art, imagining a “transatlantic dialogue”. Chicago worked with the gallery in curating the show, had strong creative input and flew into London especially for the opening. From the split of the works on show it is clear that this is a one woman show, with some side acts for contextualisation. The implied suggestion is that the three other artists share some sort of link, either ideological or inspirational, with Chicago and her work. I find this misleading.
The main body of Chicago’s work is introspective, heavy on naked self-portraiture, female angst and difficulties arising from her marriage. A series of ink drawings, Autobiography of a Year 3, is crudely rendered and dripping with self-loathing, body image issues and despair at aging. You might think the similarities are striking between this series and some of Tracey’s work, particularly her scratchy monoprints. I wouldn’t jump to an immediate conclusion, however. Whilst Emin’s work speaks of loneliness, sexual promiscuity, betrayal and the body, it holds a hope; it has a silver lining of strength and female resilience. You feel that you are peering directly into her interior world, a unique childlike and often nightmarish place. Her work relies heavy on the relationships with those around her, her family, the men she has slept with, the men she has loved, her unborn baby. Chicago’s work, especially in tandem, feels very of a certain time and place, it’s feminism with a capital ‘F’, politicised and bubbling with anger and a desire for change. Emin derives from a post-modernist, post-Feminist world, the hope her work holds is for herself and the fact that she is a survivor, any belief in the power of political change redundant and defunct. I wonder how she feels about her work being staged in such a show.
Curated by Rachel Silman and Judy Chicago. On display until 10th March 2013.