After a break of over 20 years, an exhibition of works by Judy Chicago was way overdue. Chicago is an artist who has never shied from controversy: her seminal work entitled The Dinner Party caused critical outrage in the 1970s. This enormous installation utilised and celebrated the skills and influence of women throughout history, embracing craft processes such as embroidery and ceramics and daring to use imagery of the vulva.
Such notoriety can be hard to escape, especially as the piece now holds permanent residency at The Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art in Brooklyn, sealing its status as one of the most important pieces of western feminist art to date. It is a testament to the curatorial team at Ben Uri then, to successfully uncover the broad and varied career of Chicago whilst intelligently contextualising her practice within that of a series of other influential European artists.
On entering the street level gallery space, an enormous selection of publications relating to the artist and themes in question are piled by the doorway, dispelling any myth that such an exhibition is not relevant. Taken from her personal archive and public collections, Chicago's pieces still appear fresh, and often still shock. The works showcase the historic span of a 40-year career as well as evident ability in a large range of mediums including printmaking, photography, performance and painting.
Recent lithographs such as The Return of The Butterfly (2009) have a beautiful hypnotic quality, as vaginal imagery is abstracted in a sea of stunningly vivid colours. In more controversial instances, the full force of Chicago's pioneering, unabated feminist context is astounding. The Red Flag (1971) lithograph depicts the first ever modern, western image of menstruation: printed in vivid red, a hand pulls out a used tampon.
It is examples of works like these that cement Chicago's career as a truly pioneering artist who changed the face of contemporary art forever. In addition, the curatorial selection displays not only her hard-hitting and aesthetically controversial works, but also more abstract performance pieces such as Smoke Series, which convey a more subtle experimentation with ideas of identity and gender.
On mentioning identity, it must also be noted that Ben Uri is the London Jewish Museum of art, and thus a connection is drawn to Chicago's own provenance. I was previously unaware of Chicago's Jewish heritage, yet her recent epic Holocaust Project unearthed a lineage that she and her husband Donald Woodman both shared. Dealing with such an extremely difficult subject matter once again displays Chicago's unabating desire to fight persecution and injustice at every turn. Perhaps surprisingly, Ben Uri does not place specific focus on this religious connection, but rather presents a successful all-encompassing survey of the artist.
On entering the lower floor of the gallery, connections begin to be drawn between other contemporary European artists. A photograph of Tracey Emin wearing a t-shirt bearing the slogan "This is what a feminist looks like" in 2007 is an interesting choice, as the artist has famously avoided any alliance with a political cause stating "I'm not happy being a feminist, it should all be over by now".
This image is coupled with a "CV" Emin produced, painfully laying bare her troubled life in her all-too-familiar cathartic and self-deprecating style. This acts as a precursor to Biography of a Year, a series of painted works by Chicago that fills an entire room. This is perhaps the only unsuccessful facet of the exhibition. The works lack aesthetic merit, which is unexpected given her evident technical ability. These pieces depict bouts of paranoia, depression and self-loathing, and yet seem pitiful and weak: these aspects are not usually associated with Chicago's strong, defiant character. Where Emin's work has a harrowing and thought-provoking context, these pieces seem rather disingenuous, more aligned with art school affectations than an innovative viewpoint.
It is in the final space then, that the narrative harks back to a relevant consideration of the common themes that these four artists share. Helen Chadwick's Piss Flowers address the issue of sculpture as a male-dominated medium and traditional notions of beauty, whereas the self-portrait of Louise Bourgeious as a five-legged cat is slightly cryptic. This choice again presents a slight stumbling block: is the depiction of these pets the only contextual thread that could be drawn between two of the world's greatest living female artists? I would hope not.
Despite slightly tenuous links in some instances, it is interesting to see Ben Uri present the little-explored context to Chicago's works. The period dubbed "feminist art" in the 1970s is all too often only considered within an American context, and is often seen as a specific decade that holds no contemporary relevance. This exhibition has successfully shown a much larger breadth of influence, beginning in the 1960s and continuing right up to the present day.