by Sue Hubbard
Until 10th March 2013
I remember seeing Judy’s Chicago’s The Dinner Party (1979) in a rundown Islington warehouse. It was 1985 and I had just arrived in London; a young single parent mother, newly divorced, and a fledgling art critic. The year before that the work had been shown at the Edinburgh Festival. The huge crates had crossed the Atlantic by boat, and then travelled by lorry to Felixstowe, to be carried up two flights of stairs in a 19th century building without a lift. Arranged on a triangular banqueting table, each arm of which measured some 48 feet, there were a total of thirty-nine place settings commemorating women from history. Each setting was laid with a china-painted porcelain plate on which there was a raised central motif – vulvae and butterfly forms – created in a style appropriate to the woman being celebrated. There were also embroidered runners, gold chalices and utensils and the names of another 999 women inscribed in gold on the white tile floor below the table. Disparaged and misunderstood by many at the time I was bowled over by its ambition and emotional reach. I’d never seen a visual art work that spoke so directly about female experience. There was nothing ironic, nothing deliberately sensational about the work. This was a female aesthetic based on the lives of important women, and on the oppression and devaluation of the feminine that had been the norm for centuries and was still current in contemporary society. The art historian, Griselda Pollock, suggested that the piece created “a feminist space of encounter”, where new explorations and new ideas about femininity, modernity and modes of representation could be examined. Its daring helped to open the door for women’s self expression on both sides of the Atlantic and gave permission for women to become real contenders in the art game.