Mom’s dinner plates were never like these: Reckoning with Jewish feminist artist Judy Chicago

    D id you ever wonder what Virginia Woolf’s private parts would look like as a dinner plate? What about Georgia O’Keeffe’s? No, me neither.

    Natalie Barney Test Plate #2,

    Evidently, artist Judy Chicago has given this much thought. Two pieces representing these famous lady bits are included in a retrospective exhibition of her work entitled Judy Chicago: A Reckoning, on display at Miami’s Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) until April 14, 2019.

    Who is she?

    Judy Chicago (real name Judy Cohen) is a Jewish feminist artist born in Chicago in 1939. She took the name of her native city to distance herself from the patriarchal nature of her maiden and married names.

    Though she comes from a line of twenty-three generations of rabbis, including the famous eighteenth-century Lithuanian rabbi known as the Gaon of Vilna, her father rejected Orthodox Jewish life. As she got older, Chicago developed an interest in her heritage, which ultimately inspired her to create a haunting series called The Holocaust Project (1985-1993). In 2007, the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion Museum highlighted the Jewish values and activism influencing her work in an exhibit entitled Judy Chicago: Jewish Identity.

    The iconic plates and hoods

    Chicago is best known for her iconic 1970s installation, The Dinner Party, now permanently housed at the Brooklyn Museum. Seen by more than one million people, this piece features a triangular dining table set with 39 dinner plates, each depicting a vulvic form representing a famous woman in history.

    In addition to the test plates for the Woolf and O’Keeffe forms on display at the ICA exhibit, the complete installation features individualized vulva-shaped plates of such historical luminaries as Margaret Sanger, Susan B. Anthony, and Sacajawea.

    Throughout her career, Chicago has been famous for her outspoken feminism, evident in an early piece called Car Hoods. After learning spray painting in an auto-body shop in the 1960s (the only female in a class of 250 men), she created these parodies of macho car culture, painting phallic and vulvic shapes on auto parts.

    Continuing her interest in gender issues, in the 1980s she produced the series Birth Project, including more than 80 fabric pieces, ten of which are on display at ICA. Produced in collaboration with 150 volunteer needleworkers, these works depict graphic and often violent images surrounding conception, pregnancy, and childbirth.

    Birth Trinity, 1983

    Themes of power and nature

    More violent images, combined with themes of power and domination, are on display in her series The Power Play. Her first works to feature male figures, these monumental depictions of bodies with overdeveloped muscles are examples of what we now call “toxic masculinity.” Their titles speak for themselves: Pissing on Nature, Driving the World to Destruction, and In the Shadow of a Handgun

    Expanding on what Chicago calls “the macho tendency of male land artists to destroy nature,” she debuted a new site-specific piece, A Purple Poem for Miami, on February 23, 2019. Called a “smoke piece,” this performance work ignites the museum’s sculpture garden with colorful smoke bombs, dry ice, and other pyrotechnics. If nothing else, the display highlights Chicago’s reputation for explosive feminist art.

    Nancy Kalikow Maxwell, an award-winning writer, is a frequent contributor to Jewish media and the author of six books. Her latest book, Typically Jewish, will be published by the Jewish Publication Society in March 2019.