ArtWeekend

Filling Art History’s Feminist Gaps

The testimonies of Navjot Altaf and Judy Chicago speak to silence, as truth does to power.

Judy Chicago, “Virginia Woolf Test Plate (version 1)” from The Dinner Party (1975–1978), China paint on porcelain, 4 inches deep, 14 1/2 inches in diameter (© Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, photo: © Donald Woodman/ARS, New York, image courtesy the artist; Salon 94, New York; and Jessica Silverman Gallery, San Francisco)

The Modernist grid is, arguably, a perfect symbol of the industrialized world — where efficiency takes precedence over the imprecations of humanity — as well as a diagrammatic expression of male supremacy. In the #MeToo era, third-wave feminist artists, who have, among other means, used the formal and ideological dimensions of the grid to critique its express limitations as an agent for social critique, are starting to get the recognition they deserve.

Two museum retrospectives that opened this past December by women artists on opposite sides of the world — Judy Chicago in Miami and Navjot Altaf in Mumbai — offer further proof that histories have far too often suppressed less than convenient truths for art worlds patronized and dominated by men, whether they be the United States, India, or anywhere else. Both exhibitions address important feminist perspectives on history and language, systems of knowledge and formal issues, revealing the contemporaneity and urgency of these ideas.

A small but stirring exhibition of Chicago’s work, Judy Chicago: A Reckoning at Miami’s Institute of Contemporary Art stood out among the spate of exhibitions that opened during Art Basel Miami Beach. Spanning a period of 50 years, from the artist’s early experiments in abstraction to her later figuration, the exhibition comprises 36 works in various media, including ceramics and textiles, and 140 drawings that reveal an output that was way ahead of its time. Method, for Chicago, has existed within the constructs of social engagement, rather than the pursuit of a singular style — the latter could have fast tracked her commercial success.

Judy Chicago, “Sunset Squares” (1965/2018), acrylic on canvas-covered plywood; 4 parts: 108 x 108 x 12 inches; 84 x 84 x 12 inches; 60 x 60 x 12 inches; 36 x 36 x 12 inches (© Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, photo: Fredrik Nilsen Studio, image courtesy the artist; Salon 94, New York; and Jessica Silverman Gallery, San Francisco)

The exhibition begins with “Sunset Squares” (1965/2018), a group of minimalist sculptures made of plywood covered with acrylic on canvas. Four large freestanding volumetric squares of different sizes, painted in warm whites and pastels are placed at adjacent angles. Together, they form an open Cubist complex. In their imperfect alignments, they appear to propose a challenge to the formal prison of the Modernist grid, becoming instead, windows looking upon an imaginary landscape to conjure up a Freudian chimera of escape.

Organized by the museum’s Artistic Director, Alex Gartenfeld, and Associate Curator, Stephanie Seidel, this curatorial decision sets the stage for Chicago to blow apart the myth of perfection that this particular ideation of lines have come to represent in the art historical canon. The utopian-grid fantasy is later displaced by the architectonics of body politics and the anatomy of female pleasure in ceramics, works on paper, textiles and paintings.

Such a bifocal practice, which upholds the grid as a method of construction while exposing its ideological blind spots, is also evidenced in the work of the Indian artist and activist, Navjot. Close to 9000 miles away, Navjot Altaf: The Earth’s Heart, Torn Out at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Mumbai, is the first major museum exhibition for Navjot (who goes by her first name to distinguish from that of her late husband, Altaf, who was also an artist), and the public institution’s first dedicated to a living woman artist.

Navjot Altaf, “Palani’s Daughters” (1995), acrylic on wood (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Navjot was born in 1949, exactly a decade after Chicago, but their trajectories expose coincident artistic impulses to shed light on the injustices of their time. Trained both as a graphic artist and fine artist at the prestigious JJ School of Arts in Mumbai, Navjot imbibed the formalisms of Western Modernism, which were in vogue in the curricula at the time. Like Chicago, she critiques these structures, but has continued to carry forth principles of abstraction, reforming them to serve her political beliefs.

The turning point for Navjot took place in the early 1970s. As she was growing restless with the apolitical environment at her art college, she met her future husband and collaborator, the late Altaf Mohamedi. Mohamedi had been politically energized by his years as a student in London, and by the 1968 student uprisings in Europe against the Vietnam War. Together, they entered a life of art and activism, joining the Progressive Youth Movement (PROYOM), a group fueled by Marxist ideology.

But Navjot remained troubled by the absence of language to address gender equality in Marxist discourse. The corresponding problem, as third wave feminist artists abroad encountered as well, was the lack of existing iconography and representation in the visual arts. It led Navjot, like Chicago, towards unconventional methods that broke with the form-making gospel of Modernism in order to confront the dearth of female-centered perspectives in art history.

The retrospective, curated by the independent curator and cultural theorist, Nancy Adajania, is structured around the formalist grid as an organizational device. The exhibition covers the significant phases of Navjot’s 50-year career — Marxist, feminist, and collaborative — with more than 200 works, many of which have never been seen before.

The conjunction of violence lies at the core of Navjot’s enquiries into the aesthetics of social critique. Charting a non-chronological trajectory through a complicated praxis of methods and means, including ambitious, unrealized community-based projects, Navjot’s body of work expresses a fugitive and dialectical approach to issues like infanticide, corporate mining, communal riots, and genocide.

Adajania, who has cemented a collaborative curator-artist relationship with Navjot, navigates detours and ambivalences that, at times, give way to rapture. Formal beauty, by way of technical skill and graphic elegance, is often a cloak for hidden messages.

Navjot Altaf, “How Perfect Perfection Can Be”(2016–2017), watercolor drawing on Wasli paper and PVC on acrylic, 32 x 22-1/2 inches (image courtesy the artist)

In a more recent work, “How Perfect Perfection Can Be” (2016–2017), Modernist architecture from around the world is abstracted as Constructivist forms, which are then finely painted in watercolor in graphic monochromes. Superimposed on these structures are chromatic emission graphs of carbon dioxide. They are pleasing to look at, both sophisticated and purposeful, until their sobering message is revealed. The subtle layering of visionary utopias, from New York and Munich to Beijing, with abstracted values of the planet’s demise through global warming draws ominous connections between modernity and hubris.

In her seminal essay The Originality of the Avant-Garde (1986), the art historian Rosalind Krauss claimed that:

The absolute stasis of the grid, its lack of hierarchy, of center, of inflection, emphasizes not only its anti-referential character, but—more importantly—its hostility to narrative. This structure, impervious both to time and to incident, will not permit the projection of language into the domain of the visual, and the result is silence.

She continues:

This silence is not due simply to the extreme effectiveness of the grid as a barricade against speech, but to the protectiveness of its mesh against all intrusions from outside. No echoes of footsteps in empty rooms, no scream of birds across open skies, no rush of distant water—for the grid has collapsed the spatiality of nature onto the bounded surface of a purely cultural object. With its proscription of nature as well as of speech, the result is still more silence. And in this new-found quiet, what many artists thought they could hear was the beginning, the origins of Art.

The silence Krauss evokes is the catastrophic blind spot of Modernism: the space within which injustices have recurred and repeated, like the oppressive delineations of a grid that has become overarching and systemic. Language, for third-wave feminists and beyond, was part of the problem. Artists like Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer appropriated language as a feminist strategy in the 1970s — using it as a weapon to fight their way out of the proverbial box.

Navjot Altaf, “Lost Text” (2017), digital print on fiber rag paper pasted on conservation board PVC transfer on acrylic (image courtesy the artist)

In her “Lost Text” (2017), Navjot turns a technical computer glitch that scrambled all her research into indecipherable code. The result is a series of abstract, monochromatic digital prints which resemble geological and archeological forms overlaid with scrambled typographies. The construction of knowledge requires language. But knowledge, deceived by language, becomes destabilized and illegible. This deceptively simple work identifies the existing chasm in translation and interpretation of female content. It reads as a kind of erasure, or at least, a displacement of knowledge and language.

Chicago asks critical questions about desire and agency. The correlation between nature and womanhood as sources of life is idiomatic and pervasive, with plentiful references to butterflies, flowers, and vulvas. In her major work, “Birth Project” (1980–85), the artist addresses the absence of images of childbirth in art history. Intricate embroideries created by more than 150 needle-workers such as “Birth Tear/Tear” (1985) and “Earth Birth” (1983) provide elementary, but provocative, images of childbirth that weave together an alternate narrative for the origins of art, and life.

The exhibition underscores the extent to which Chicago is more than just her magnum opus, “The Dinner Party” (1974–79). This monumental and groundbreaking work, which has been on permanent display at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum since 2007, honors real and mythical women who were erased from history by virtue of their gender. Powerful women including Sappho, Georgia O’Keeffe, Sojourner Truth, and Susan B. Anthony are represented by elaborate place settings on a large, triangular table made through traditional “female” labor like needlework, ceramics, and china painting.

Judy Chicago, “Earth Birth” (1983), quilting by Jacquelyn Moore Alexander; sprayed Versatex and quilting, 60.75 x 132.25 inches, Collection of Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn and Nicolas Rohatyn (© Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, photo: © Donald Woodman/ARS, New York, image courtesy the artist; Salon 94, New York; and Jessica Silverman Gallery, San Francisco)

The ICA Miami presents a group of rarely exhibited “test plates” for the place settings that adapt Chicago’s butterfly and flower motifs into vulval forms. A particularly stunning porcelain evokes a lotus flower with radiating crimson petals, which is dedicated to Virginia Woolf. Although “The Dinner Party” has bestowed Chicago with legendary status in the annals of feminist art history, it has also overshadowed the rest of her oeuvre — which, according to A Reckoning, is thorny, entangled, bristling with anger — and incisive in its condemnation of patriarchy and its dismissal of female subjectivity.

Navjot also addresses childbirth in a painful and powerful work, “Palani’s Daughters” (1996), by turning her gaze on the issue of female infanticide in India. It’s so widespread in rural parts of the country that sex determination in India has been illegal since 1994. A sculpture of a woman, painted bright red, lies splayed out on the ground among vaginal-shaped seed pods, her physiognomy contorted in pain. The interchangeability between ‘Earth’ and ‘Mother’ is obvious, with the Mother as the bearer of fruit and the primary agent of life. The work’s power is heightened by the color red, denoting the violence by which female agency, even in childbirth, is pried away in a patriarchal society.

Neither Navjot nor Chicago has pursued “the masterpiece” fallacies of art-making — but if Chicago has “The Dinner Party,” then Navjot has “Lacuna in Testimony” (2003), which is a symphonic intersection of High Modernism and contemporary social critique. The three-channel video installation, which was made in the aftermath of the genocide in the western Indian state of Gujrat, in 2002, addresses the communal clash between Hindus and Muslims that left thousands of Muslims dead or homeless. The event has been a minefield for Indian artists, as it marked a crucial turning point away from secular politics to the rise of religious fundamentalism in the country.

Navjot Altaf, “Lacuna In Testimony” (2003), 3-channel video installation, duration: 7.26 minutes (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

The video starts with footage of large ocean waves, a lyrical, meditative scene reflected in the columns of mirrors placed in a grid in front of the projection, transforming the display into a kind of theater. Gradually, a grid of boxes starts to appear across the scene, like windows into micro-verses. On closer inspection, these boxes reveal blurred still and moving images, which turn out to be low-resolution newsreels of calamitous events, both recent and historical. At the end of the loop, the grid disappears, and the blue waves turn red, summoning a coda of violence and bloodshed. The use of the grid to comment on the abstraction of violence — and violence as an abstraction — is sublime, recalling Krauss’s lines evoking “This structure [the grid], impervious both to time and to incident, will not permit the projection of language into the domain of the visual, and the result is silence.”

What struck me the most in viewing these exhibitions across a short span of time in distant nations, is the underlying and prevailing possibilities of a universal language that foregrounds the female experience. Chicago and Navjot may be artists from vastly different cultures, but their practices feel more synchronous and aligned than disparate, evoking more than ever before, causes that still lie concealed beyond the barricades of patriarchy and religion. It also raises hopes that the feminist lacuna within art institutions is being filled, slowly but surely.

Navjot Altaf: The Earth’s Heart, Torn Out continues at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai (Sir Cowasji Jehangir Public Hall, M.G. Road, Mumbai) through January 25.

Judy Chicago: A Reckoning continues at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami (61 NE 41st Street, Miami, Florida) through April 21.

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