This large John Gaw Meem-designed adobe manages to be graceful although it’s enormous by historic adobe standards (adobe is mud, meant for small domestic structures that eventually melt back into the earth); it is built around an open courtyard with a fountain, flowers, and a bronze plaque to a forgotten woman donor on one wall.
The large galleries traditionally house foundational displays of late nineteeth and early twentieth century art by New Mexico painters. They are often somewhat predictable, accomplished landscapes, fruit of the overwhelming impression our light, our skies and our mountains make or made on the trained eyes of newcomers, often refugees from the East Coast.
How astonishing, then, is the contrast between that esteemed work and Chicago’s, hanging in four large adjacent galleries, representing the major projects of her last thirty years.
Not all of the work in the show is enormous, but it is all challenging as it confronts our benign avoidance of the root cause of violence.
The rage expressed by some of the female faces, tongues extended, foreheads contorted, is still unacceptable by many who may unconsciously expect or hope to be soothed or lulled by art. One of the notes left for the artist by a visitor expresses dismay at the rage and calls it “preachy” rather than the visceral scream we all know, even if it is a deeply submerged knowledge, as we make our way through a violent, sexist culture.
The show is also evidence of the long domestic and artistic collaboration between Chicago and her husband, the photographer Donald Woodman, most clearly seen in their Holocaust Project. These depictions of the unthinkable rests on their study of Judaism before their marriage and later, a trip to Israel. Here, as in all her projects, Chicago makes use of traditional feminine skills, needlepoint, embroidery, painting on china, exploding their gentility.
I met Donald and Judy years ago when we were all living here in Santa Fe. As the city burst its limits and became unaffordable, they moved to an old hotel in the abandoned railroad town of Belen, buying it, renovating it, and establishing an outpost for Judy’s not-for-profit, Through the Flower, across the street.
Both travel extensively, but their lives here in New Mexico are centered on and devoted to their art. Success has finally come after many early difficulties, its centerpiece the Elizabeth Sackler wing at the Brooklyn Museum of Art where Judy’s “The Dinner Party” has found a home after many years in storage. Success has come because of their courage, their talent and their persistence as this show and many others, nationwide, prove.
I find it touching to remember that Judy and Donald met here in Santa Fe, years ago, when he hoisted Judy to his shoulders so she could see over the crowd at the annual burning of Zozobra—Old Man Gloom.
She is, physically, a tiny woman, but one whose vision and accomplishment are enormous, as is her impact on all of us.