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Judy Chicago on the Beatles: ‘They represent things we have lost – hope and freedom’ | Art and design | The Guardian

Judy Chicago on the Beatles: ‘They represent things we have lost – hope and freedom’ | Art and design | The Guardian

Judy Chicago on the Beatles: ‘They represent things we have lost – hope and freedom’ | Art and design | The Guardian
May 25
10:18 2017

When American artist Judy Chicago accepted an invitation earlier this year from the Tate to paint a large-scale public mural as part of Liverpool’s Sgt Pepper at 50 celebration of the Beatles’ most popular album, she was amused to hear of an exchange between two of the curators involved in the project. One of them said, “What is Judy going to do? Paint a giant vagina?” The other replied, “I hope so.”

It wouldn’t have been out of character. Known as a pioneer of radical feminist art, Chicago’s signature image is of heavily stylised female sexual organs painted in vivid, almost psychedelic, swirling hues – like an op art Georgia O’Keeffe. She created these works by spray-painting canvas or hand-painting china plates; as she did for the place settings in The Dinner Party, her most famous and celebrated work. A large-scale installation that took five years, it sought to illuminate the contributions of 39 women who shaped world history and culture, from the goddesses Ishtar and Kali to Virginia Woolf and Susan B Anthony.

While her work is unquestionably single-minded and serious, in person Chicago is a riot; a small, tightly wired ball of energy, ideas and enthusiasm who laughs loud and often. With her puce hair, blue-tinted glasses and baby pink fleece hoodie, she personifies the vibrant colour palette of her art. Of all the participants in the Sgt Pepper at 50 project – which consists of 13 original commissions (one for each song on the album) and includes new work by Jeremy Deller, choreographer Mark Morris and a fireworks display by French pyrotechnics company, Groupe F – Chicago is perhaps the unlikeliest.

And that, according to Kasia Redzisz, senior curator at Tate Liverpool, was precisely the point. Chicago, says Redzisz, is “an artist who, in quite a subtle and sophisticated way, undermines what was happening back then”, as well as providing “a very strong female response to celebrate four male artists”. And the Beatles weren’t exactly feminists. Although, as Chicago points out, “John was radicalised by Yoko”; albeit resulting in the ham-fisted (if not outright offensive ) 1972 feminist protest song Woman is the Nigger of the World.

The Sgt Pepper song Chicago was assigned – Fixing a Hole – is an odd fish. So slight and inconsequential that fans and critics have worked overtime to fill it with meaning. It has been variously interpreted as a song about heroin, or about its writer Paul McCartney’s labours to fix the roof of the Scottish farmhouse on the 183-acre farm he had bought in the summer of 1966 as a tax write-off. McCartney told Beat historian Barry Miles, however, that the song was “about all those pissy people who told you, ‘Don’t daydream, don’t do this, don’t do that.’ It seemed to me that that was all wrong and that it was now time to fix all of that.”

And this is how Chicago connected with the song. She sees it as “about being discounted and wanting to give a voice – ‘fixing a hole’ of who counted”. That is what Chicago has been doing almost her entire career as an artist, says Redzisz: “Fixing the hole in art history with her works, to include women artists in art history.”

Given a choice of three possible locations, Chicago chose a large phallic building with a slit down the middle — the derelict White Tomkins and Courage Grain Silo, built in 1913 on the Stanley Dock, beside the Mersey. “So that solved my problem about the ‘hole’, right?” she laughs. She designed a mural that combined geometric shapes with four stylised silhouettes of the Beatles in their mop-top prime. She has been watching anxiously on a webcam from her home 4,800 miles away as Gary Jones, the Liverpool painter tasked with realising her design, scurries up and down a giant scaffold. When complete, the mural will be 60 feet by 40.

Chicago and her husband of 22 years, photographer Donald Woodman, live in the small New Mexico town of Belen, 30 minutes south of Albuquerque. Their home is a red-brick 1920s hotel that once served as a boarding house for railroad workers. The ground floor is split between their studios, while their living space is on the upper floor. Much of the wall space is given over to watercolours and porcelain statuettes of their six cats. The remote town offers her space and “a kind of psychic privacy”. All the more necessary since, after spending 50 years as the consummate outsider and “femme terrible” of the contemporary art world, Chicago suddenly finds herself feted as an elder stateswoman. Transparent creator Jill Soloway is currently developing a television series for Amazon around Womanhouse, the 1972 women-only art installation Chicago curated with artist Miriam Schapiro.

For most of her career, Chicago’s work has been self-generated. But now she’s getting commissions such as this one. One of the reasons Redzisz approached her, says the curator, is because, at 78, she is of the same generation as John, Paul, George and Ringo. But the Beatlemania surrounding the bands’ 1964 arrival in the US and their TV debut on the Ed Sullivan Show all but passed her by because, at the time, she didn’t own a TV. In any case, she deadpans, “I’m not the groupie type”.

Chicago hinted at her own taste in music with 1965 minimalist installation piece, Rainbow Pickett, titled after Wilson Pickett, but understands the significance of Sgt Pepper in that radical flowering of youthful invention that changed the culture forever. Not least, the way in which Peter Blake’s artful and iconic cover collage marked a merging of the music and art world.

That late 60s explosion in permissive creativity, however, did not automatically extend to women. “Absolutely not,” Chicago roars. Her prevailing memories of the Beatles in 1967 are from hearing their music on the radio. “I was in my studio in Pasadena, working 60 hours a week, trying to make a place for myself in an entirely male art scene.” She corrects herself. “Fighting for a place for myself in an entirely male arts scene.”

Source: Judy Chicago on the Beatles: ‘They represent things we have lost – hope and freedom’ | Art and design | The Guardian

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Martin Nethercutt

Martin Nethercutt

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