There’s a point in every art-loving woman’s life when Judy Chicago’s gigantic 1979 installation “The Dinner Party,” with its 39 vulva-shaped place settings for women who’ve made history, suddenly becomes painfully relevant. It may be that moment when a woman realizes she has been overlooked for a promotion or “that corner office” because of her gender, or when she gets mansplained, or perhaps it happened at a very early age.
Produced at a time when women were fighting for a place at the table, “The Dinner Party” is Chicago’s most famous work. Lesser known, yet just as relevant, are the needlepoint and silkscreen pieces from the 1980s that make up “Judy Chicago’s Birth Project: Born Again,” on view at St. Catherine University through March 16.
Curated by Viki D. Thompson Wylder, the show focuses less on societal issues faced by women (let’s be honest, the dinner party was set for mostly white women) and more on the physical body and childbirth. Psychedelic-feeling works like “Birth Trinity” (1985), in which three bodies morph and blend together around a pair of open legs, with fingers melding into the shapes of an elongated vagina, magnify the power of birth.
These silkscreen-on-paper and needlepoint works are based on Chicago’s research into the history of birthing positions, particularly those outside the on-your-back tradition. A woman in labor being supported from behind by another woman, or her husband, and a midwife kneeling in front of her, used to be more common.
Needlepoint pieces in this exhibition, such as “Hatching the Universal Egg E5: Birth Power” and “Creation of the World” (both 1984), carry the symbolic connotation of being “women’s work,” reclaimed for artwork. (Many feminist artists continue to work with needlepoint, such as Stacia Yeapanis, who embroiders highly emotional scenes from popular TV shows — a meditation on slowness in a medium that moves fast, though obviously not as fast as social media.)
Visiting this show truly makes it feel as if Judy Chicago the artist has been born again. Her work has anyway, with the 78-year-old artist currently gearing up for her next big exhibition, “The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction,” scheduled to open in June 2019 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C.
But Chicago would not be who she is if it weren’t for all of the artists who are continuously inspired by her. Elsewhere at the Catherine G. Murphy Gallery, the exhibition “After: Birth” presents a variety of contemporary artists responding to the bodies and imagery that Chicago’s fantastical feminist imagination made visible.
Suzanna Scott plays with abstracted parts of the body, making each into its own vessel: “Festooned” (2016) is a collection of little blobby white boobs with pink nipples covering a paint grate, like a tiny overpopulation, equal parts bizarre and surreal. The sculptural work in this show makes the most visual sense, given its connection with the Chicago exhibit across the hall. Some of the photographic works are a bit too literal, like Andrew Leo Stansbury and Libby Rowe’s collaborative photographs of a woman dealing with what appears to be a man-child.
That said, the show makes a strong case for a meaningful contemporary parallel to Chicago’s work, though it would have been nice to better connect the two exhibits physically. After all, the journey from birth to post-birth is a continuous one, and the issues Chicago tackled are still occurring today, albeit under names such as #MeToo. Perhaps it’s something to contemplate as you roam from room to room through a hallway space that is not like a birth canal at all.