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ART REVIEW

More Famine Than Feast : Focusing on the Flawed 'Dinner Party' Undermines 'Sexual Politics'

May 02, 1996|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | TIMES ART CRITIC

"Sexual Politics: Judy Chicago's 'Dinner Party' in Feminist Art History" is the worst exhibition I've seen in a Los Angeles museum in many a moon. It's a shame, too, given the significance of the show's subject.

Arguably, feminism has been the most influential and momentous social movement for American art since the 1960s. One reason for its pervasive influence is a matter of affinity: Contemporary feminism began as an insurrection within the middle class, which in our century has also been the locus from which most Modernist artists have come.

Whatever the reasons, though, the success of feminist thought as an operative engine within current artistic discourse is inarguable. Feminist principles are today fundamental to the very idea of a Postmodern culture, which means to up-end the established and confining hierarchies of the patriarchal past.

And recent feminism, despite the caricatures offered by its conservative and reactionary enemies, has never been monolithic. This show rightly acknowledges that in the 1970s the movement searched for a unified female identity that could describe the essence of woman; in the 1980s it shifted to a complex analysis of how gender has been socially constructed; and today it seeks a more polymorphous understanding, which can accommodate the widest possible range of differences.

Still, "Sexual Politics" is a fiasco. And not only because it uses a failed work of art as its fulcrum.

Judy Chicago's notorious sculpture of a big, triangular feast table set for a gathering of 39 celebrated historical women famously began an international tour in 1979 that enjoyed great popular success, while enduring nearly universal Bronx cheers from art critics and feminists alike. Now the work has been foolishly trotted out at the UCLA/Armand Hammer Museum of Art as the catalyst for a look at feminist issues from the last quarter-century.

What a blunder.

As art created as an educational or didactic tool for political reform, "The Dinner Party" (1974-1979) is agit-prop. Chicago's work took its place in a venerable 20th century lineage that began around 1917 with the agit-prop kiosks, trains, posters, banners, broadsheets, festivals and such designed by El Lissitzky, Kasimir Malevich, Liubov Popova, Alexander Rodchenko and other well-known and anonymous Russian artists.

Yet an unbridgeable gap separates Chicago's work from such extraordinary predecessors. Agit-prop is fervently anti-institutional, but "The Dinner Party" was conceived to be a monument. Monuments represent the opposite of anti-institutional ideals--they mean to establish for posterity a political perspective. Chicago's "agit-prop monument" is a crass and self-important oxymoron, which partly explains the horrible divisiveness of its reception.

Chicago's sculpture has long been denounced as politically retrogressive, for merely replacing men with women in its exaltation of Heroic Cultural Ancestors. Rather than a typical legacy of Plato to Picasso, "The Dinner Party" gives us a lineage from the Primordial Goddess to Georgia O'Keeffe. But the institutionalized power of enforcing a hierarchy remains intact.

Guest curator Amelia Jones, associate professor of contemporary art and theory and the history of photography at UC Riverside, is certainly careful to hedge her bets about the work. She refuses a wholehearted embrace of it in her catalog essay and she further cautions against making "The Dinner Party" a touchstone for feminism. She seems to want it both ways--a historical presentation in which Chicago is, and is not, the fulcrum.

In truth her show is overwhelmed by Chicago's work. In addition to the monumental sculpture, which occupies its own makeshift space on the museum's ground floor, the upstairs rooms feature 28 Chicago sculptures, paintings and mixed-media works, scattered among just 71 by other artists, most of whom are represented by a single example.

Five of the seven catalog essays are also devoted to Chicago's art. (The best is Laura Meyer's illuminating look at Chicago's pre-"Dinner Party" painting and sculpture in the context of 1960s finish-fetish art.) Curatorial caveats aside, Chicago is the inescapable centerpiece.

*

Given the notoriety of "The Dinner Party," not to mention that it has never before been shown in L.A., where it was made, it was probably curatorially naive to think all eyes would not be riveted on the sculpture, at the expense of the work by the 56 other artists in the show. (One artist--June Wayne--withdrew her work after the catalog went to press but before the show opened because she disagreed with the focus of the exhibition.) The other art covers the waterfront in terms of interest, but overall the checklist is a mess.

Two absences are most shocking. There is no sculpture by Lee Bontecou and no video art by anyone.

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