Consistently miles ahead of the curve, the uber-feminist Judy Chicago has been so prescient that it has, at various key moments, worked against her. It sometimes seemed—and certainly must have felt—that despite presaging much of our current predicament, she was, unfortunately, pissing into the wind for entirely different reasons than the super-hero-sized malevolent male in her series, PowerPlay: A Prediction, shown at Salon 94. This evil-looking, nearly headless giant boasts a six-pack and a relatively small member, which he sprays like a brainless hose, heedlessly poisoning the hills and valleys of our planet. The painting, done in 1984, is called, appropriately enough, Pissing on Nature.
This and the three other wall-sized works on display, including an enormous triptych, look like they were done yesterday, but were in fact created in the mid-80s, making them, chronologically at least, relics of the past. Entering the gallery to encounter these massive canvases is like being unexpectedly sucker punched. Not only have these pieces not lost their relevance, they have now become far more relevant than they were when they were made.
Painted in advance of the ever-rising fears regarding climate change, painted long before the daily round of headline-making revelations of sexual harassment by powerful men of all stripes, from Hollywood to Capital Hill, these iconic visions could be contemporary protest banners, brandished during the first Million Woman March (and its sequels), or proudly unfurled in the surging #MeToo movement.
By now Chicago must be accustomed to having her work recognized in retrospect. Her most famous work, the once notorious and now celebrated “The Dinner Party” had a brief moment in the art-world spotlight—just three months at San Francisco’s Museum of Art, where it was seen by more than 100,000 visitors—before, after being eviscerated by critics and colleagues alike, its tour was cancelled and it was banished to storage. Although it resurfaced about a year later and was sent around the world on a grass-roots-funded alternative tour, it soon again returned to storage where it remained, unseen, for over a decade. Now ensconced as the centerpiece of the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, where it has been permanently installed since 2007, it continues to be one of the museum’s biggest draws, its multi-layered message as timeless and powerful as when it was first shown in 1979.
From an art-historical perspective, Chicago was certainly going against the grain when she created the PowerPlay series between 1982-87, the peak of the Neo-Expressionist movement made famous by Julian Schnabel, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and David Salle, among others. Stylistically these retro-looking works resemble Depression Era murals or Soviet propaganda posters, with their oil paint thinly applied over an airbrushed background (the weave of the canvas can be seen through the paint.) They have little in common with other art—even feminist art–of their time.
Having recently travelled to Italy for the first time, Chicago consciously chose to emulate the form and scale of Renaissance painting. She also chose to make the male—rather than the female nude—her subject, thereby reversing the traditional male gaze. In these pieces, Chicago turns the conventional notion of male as hero neatly on its head. Her testosterone-loaded male is depicted not as a hero, not even as a romantic anti-hero, but unabashedly as the villain.
In Driving the World to Destruction, (1985) a muscle-bound male, here at least given a head, clutches a steering wheel which seems to dissolve into a ragged patch of sky. Above this furious image looms a flame-like arch. In Crippled by the Need to Control/Blind individuality, (1983), the male, half his head once again obscured, towers over a woman whose hair he is strenuously pulling. The two ropes of hair, tightly bound in his hands, resemble reins—or marionettes strings. A luminous flow issues from her breast, paralleling the flow from the penis in Pissing on Nature.
And finally, in the huge triptych, Rainbow Man (1984), Chicago has endowed a headless man with a rainbow—which, not surprisingly, he doesn’t know how to handle. In the first panel, he can be seen as either receiving it or offering it. But in the next panel he resists and pushes back, vainly trying to deflect it. In the third, last panel, he grimaces as the rainbow surrounds and possibly entraps him.
The PowerPlay series also includes a number of painted headshots of the unheroic male, none of them flattering—picking his nose, sticking out his tongue, vomiting, etc. The historically dominant gender of our species has all too frequently engaged in seriously execrable behavior. As Chicago’s PowerPlay pieces testify, this is not exactly news.
Phoebe Hoban has written about culture and the arts for a variety of publications, including The New York Times, New York Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Vogue, Vanity Fair, GQ, Harper’s Bazaar, ARTnews, and The New York Observer, among others. She is the author of three artist biographies: Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art, (1998), published as an e-book in May, 2016; Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty, (2010) and Lucian Freud: Eyes Wide Open, (2014).