Often we think of “reinventing” as a radical change in life style (and we are especially prone to associate it with geographical moves and relationship breakups) which may prove with time to matter very little.
With Judy, it’s her work she reinvents, while at the same time never discarding her devotion to the radical cause of self-discovery as it applies to women, and the even more radical cause of feminist activism.
The latest examples of her power of reinvention are here in Santa Fe: the extraordinary exhibit of the major phases in her work at the Museum of Art off the Plaza, and the smaller but equally significant show at the David Richard Gallery.
Walking into that bright, high, white gallery yesterday afternoon, I was assaulted—and this is the right word—by an array of skulls.
Some are traced in brilliant colors on shining glass panels. Two, “Tasting The Mortal Coil” and “Torn Up,” explicitly deal with death. The split faces show a half-skull paired with a half-face, all in the brilliant colors Judy so often uses. All four halves express the horror of dissolution.
She expresses the hypocrisy—another true horror—of this culture’s attempts at constant cheer with three pastel-colored faces, featureless blobs, rosy, lavender and orange, around boldly-outlined mouths and teeth, set in the perfunctory smiles we all know and practice to perfection. Hung next to the skulls, these smiles stand for avoidance and denial of the reality of suffering and death. The smiles remind me of those pink ribbons used to decorate appeals to do something about breast cancer.Again reducing faces to their essential feature, Judy shows in brilliant colors three versions of eyes: angry, fearful and grieving. It seemed to me that at some level these eyes were all expressing the same thing, a kind of numbed, insane bewilderment at the facts of life and death.
The rest of the gallery is filled with more faces—the show is called “Heads Up”—in the variety of materials Judy uses with the greatest expertise: glass, paint, ceramics, metals. Some of the materials are conventional, like the blue-flowered Delft of a staring white head. Four heads sprout flowers from their mouths, flowers as strange in their beauty as the idea of mouths sprouting stems, leaves and petals.
Or are the flowers screams?
Judy’s mastery of her techniques, her materials and her vision depend on a dedication that is more than rare, especially—dare I say it?—among women artists.
When we first met, more than twenty years ago here in Santa Fe, I was still reeling from divorce, problems with my children, and a radical move (as it seemed to me then, and now) from the suffocating softness of my birth state to wild (as it seemed to me then, and even now) New Mexico; I was in the midst of the conventional form of self-invention that involves a change in lifestyle.
Judy terrified me with her self-discipline. As I remember it, she was up at dawn and took a long run; then she settled in for a certain number of hours of work, after which she allowed herself a break to look at the mail, followed by a certain number of hours of more work. No telephone (as it was then, before emails), no drop-in friends, no lingering over long lunches. She worked as we must work if we are going to accomplish anything of value. And it involves—it always involves—not only iron self-discipline but the sacrifice of many of those treats and treasures we hold so dear.
Since then she has moved from our increasingly crowded and noisy little city—it was a town then—to a genuine backwater town, Belen, New Mexico, once a stop on the railroad, now deserted and forgotten.
With her husband and work partner—and here is another essential link to her greatness—Donald Woodman, the photographer, she travels for her work but does not travel (as far as I can tell) for any other reason.
Judy has no children. This may have been and may continue to be one of the necessary sacrifices.
Of course, without her vision, all the work would be simply insane. But I doubt very much if any artist embarks on this particular pilgrimage without a vision.
And she waited a long time, most of her life, in fact, to be recognized as she deserves, with the
Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum.
Since then I too have found the rough path to serious work; it has meant laying off a lot of the things I thought I had to have to enjoy life—the restaurants and dance floors and new friends and travel—which now only seem excursions into unreality. I don’t run, but I exercise hard and frequently, and I spend my allotted three and a half hours every morning at my desk, never eating lunch out, and returning to the work of emails, mail and business in the afternoon.
There is no other way to accomplish anything of lasting value.
I acknowledge that we, as women expected to do most of the ill-paid essential work of the world, do not have time. But we cannot depend on having time to do important work.
I sometimes remember how hard I drove myself as a teenager, writing and writing during hot summers when my forearms stuck to the paper with sweat, writing long lost and forgotten but which provided me with the apprenticeship I never found in school or college.
Then came all the delightful distractions.
Now, I know how to winnow them out.
“Heads Up” by Judy Chicago closes at the David Richard Gallery on June 26th.