A Solemn, Intimate Experience Viewing Judy Chicago's “The End”
Review by Norah Vawter
Walking through the National Museum of Women in the Arts’ new exhibition, The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction, is a solemn, intimate experience. This series of paintings and reliefs by feminist icon Judy Chicago is on display from September 19, 2019 to January 20, 2020. The rooms for this particular exhibition are kept fairly dim, in contrast to the rest of the museum, with light illuminating the individual pieces of art.
The mood in the room during the preview of The End exhibit was quiet and contemplative. Not a lot of chatter. But definitely a lot of interest. People standing close and staring at individual images, seemingly transfixed. I felt that the overall ambiance combined with the small scale of the paintings (which make up the majority of the pieces in the series) created a specific effect, to draw one in closer, making me focus on these images, which are all (not surprisingly given the title) about mortality and death. The images in Chicago’s new series are incredibly vivid and compelling, but they’re also disturbing. And that’s the point.
Chicago has arranged her series in three parts. First part: “The Stages of Dying,” china paint on white porcelain, of a woman going from denial to acceptance (the five stages of grief experienced by the terminally ill, which Elizabeth Kübler-Ross first observed in 1969). Second part: “Mortality,” kiln-fired glass paint on black glass, examines specific and vivid ways that a person can die. Third part: “Extinction,” also kiln-fired glass paint on black glass, moves from the contemplation of individual human mortality to focus on the effect that humans have on the environment in the form of animal and plant extinctions. Two bronze reliefs are also integrated into the series
Judy Chicago, herself, led us through this haunting series. She’s eighty years old, though she doesn’t look it. She has purple hair, and she struck me as a particularly self-possessed and bad-ass woman. She’s been active in the art world since the 1970s, and she has a long history of provocative work that pushes the boundaries of what a woman can do as an artist. Two of her earlier projects that you might see as particularly relevant to this new one are Birth Project (1980-1985) and Holocaust Project: From Darkness into Light (1985-1993).
Though Chicago is best known for large installations like her seminal work The Dinner Party (1974 – 79), the artist said this new series on mortality needed to feature smaller pieces, partly because the subject matter demanded intimacy, and partly because they took such an emotional toll to create. She found the “Extinction” panels especially grief-inducing, because of the harm humans are wreaking on other creatures. In looking back at some of her old work, Chicago realized that she had been thinking about this impact on animals, and trying to process it in her own work, since the 1970s. She told us, “Every creature on the planet must be hoping that our time of awakening comes soon.”
Chicago spoke about her exhaustive research into how humans have thought about death going back to the “early philosophers;” the slow and meticulous process of creating this series, dictated by the subject matter; and how carefully she chose her materials. The materials themselves were important to getting the theme and contemplation right. For instance, she chose black glass not only because the color seemed appropriate but also because “glass is strong and fragile” and so the glass itself is a metaphor for the human experience before there’s any paint on it. And the process of kiln-fired painting on the black glass is interesting—three rounds of painting and firing are needed to build up enough color.
She talked about how so many people are afraid of death, or in denial of their own mortality. When I asked what we could gain by looking at these vivid and often disturbing images of mortality, Chicago turned the question back on me. “What do you get out of them?” she asked. “I don’t want to control the experience [of people viewing the art].” Fair enough. So here’s what I got from the tour. I think it’s about demystifying death. I think it’s about facing the inevitability of the end and finding some control and power in that act of looking, of not turning away.
When it comes to “Extinction,” the artist is clearly asking us to not just face the truth but to do something about it. Extinction of these species is not inevitable. Chicago spoke about the need for empathy for these creatures, who have no voices and have no choice about whether to live or die. However, human beings do have a choice about how to treat the rest of the planet.
Chicago has a longstanding friendship with the National Museum of Women in the Arts and has expressed her excitement about having this exhibition shown at this museum for the first time.
From the NMWA:
Judy Chicago is an artist, author of 14 books, educator and humanist whose work and life are models for an enlarged definition of art, an expanded role for the artist and women’s rights to freedom of expression. Born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1939, she attended the Art Institute of Chicago and University of California, Los Angeles. Chicago is best known for her role in creating a feminist art and education program in California during the early 1970s, and for her monumental work The Dinner Party, executed between 1974 and 1979, now housed at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art in the Brooklyn Museum. Over the subsequent decades, Chicago has approached a variety of subjects in a range of mediums, including the Birth Project; PowerPlay; The Holocaust Project: From Darkness into Light; and Resolutions: A Stitch in Time. Chicago’s work has been exhibited widely in the United States and internationally, and her continued influence has, in recent years, been increasingly acknowledged.
Norah Vawter is DCTrending’s Local Authors editor. She earned her M.F.A. in creative writing from George Mason University. She has published articles, op-eds, and essays on parenting, politics, and lifestyle topics in The Washington Post, OtherWords, Posh Seven, Scary Mommy, JustBE Parenting, among others.