Before she even opens her mouth, Judy Chicago draws her audience’s attention. Purple seems to be a theme for her: from her fuchsia hair to her purple scarf and purple glittery sneakers, Chicago looks like the kind of person you want to walk up to and talk to. However, if you do, don’t let her frivolous attire throw you off guard; beneath the sparkle there is a woman who has a great deal of serious things to say.
Last Sunday, she took the stage at Pomona’s Rose Hills Theatre to raucous applause, performing her piece “Conversations with Her Younger Self” for a more-than-full house.
Chicago created the piece to deconstruct a lecture she gave at Pomona in 1970 on the role of women in art. She sat in one chair to read excerpts from her 1970 lecture, and then walked across the stage to another chair to respond to the words she said so many years ago. Chicago’s responses to her own words were unscripted, stemming mainly from personal anecdotes and observations. Projected on the screen behind her were photographs of her artwork throughout the years, each with an accompanying story. “Conversations with Her Younger Self” was at moments hilarious, at others somber, but at all times deeply personal.
Chicago told of a time when female artists were not taken seriously. A gallery director once told her that even though she was producing art of a higher caliber than her colleagues, he couldn’t acknowledge this by showing her work. He refused to even look at her piece “Rainbow Pickett.” Chicago subsequently destroyed the art piece, although it was recreated in 2004.
The story about “Rainbow Pickett” was just one of many, and Chicago shared other difficulties of being a female artist in the sixties and seventies. At the time, people would openly tell her that she could not be an artist because she was a woman.
“They wouldn’t be so overt nowadays to say that you couldn’t be a woman and an artist,” Chicago said during the performance. “They just wouldn’t like your work.”
Chicago’s initial response upon facing this level of criticism as an art student was to pretend that she was one of the guys. She participated in their verbal abuse of women and the derisive use of gendered words to feel accepted, but eventually realized that this was “perverted, unhealthy, and destructive.” By the time she lectured at Pomona, she was a loud voice for feminist art.
One of her most famous works, “The Dinner Party,” which was created from 1974 to 1979, shows a triangular table set with placements for 39 women who have influenced the development of modern thought. Each placement is individually created to represent that woman’s contribution to history, with recurring motifs of vulvae, butterflies, and flowers that often appear in Chicago’s work.
“The Dinner Party” has caused a great deal of controversy in both the art world and the intellectual circles of feminism. It has been seen by over one million people worldwide—but after its creation, Chicago found herself in dire financial straits, receiving little of the profit museums were garnering from her work.
Since then, Chicago’s work has gained more appreciation and brought her more profit. However, Chicago is doubtful that the world has greatly changed since 1970. At one point, after speaking of the inequality she faced during the seventies, she turned to the audience, a wide-eyed and comic look on her face. “Hasn’t it all changed?” she asked in an incredulous voice. There was scattered laughter, and a few calls of “Some!” but most of the audience replied with a resounding “No.”
This is probably the most important question Chicago asked during the performance: has anything changed since 1970?
“Although there have been many changes, it is not nearly enough,” she said. In particular, Chicago wanted to address the fear that young women have today with associating themselves with the word “feminist.” Chicago said she understands where modern young women are coming from: “When I was young, I didn’t want to identify with all those old biddies,” she said. “Why would young women want to identify with us?”
Chicago ultimately encourages women of any age to reclaim the cause of feminism, even if they don’t reclaim the word. Men who support gender equality have a possibly even more difficult battle, and Chicago argued that historically “men who are sympathetic to the aims of feminism feel as low as we feel.” It is one thing to speak out as an underprivileged group, it is quite another to say the same things from within the privileged group itself.
The worst enemy of gender equality is ultimately silence, according to Chicago. “Silence is wielded to marginalize whatever the mainstream does not want to deal with,” she warned.