Each of the eight participants on the a-n Writer Development Programme 2019-20 was asked to submit a 600-word review of a current exhibition at Baltic, Gateshead. Half chose to review the Judy Chicago show. Here’s what India Nielsen thought.

Review #7: Judy Chicago at Baltic

Human emotion, when expressed through a female body, is rarely taken seriously. The experience of moving through the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art’s latest exhibition, spanning Judy Chicago’s 50-year career from the 1960s to the present, is endoscopic; it feels as though I’m taking a great voyage hitchhiking on the backs of tiny blood cells. There seems to be a constant play between the micro and the macroscopic as universal themes are dealt with through the singular, deeply personal narrative of one woman. Indeed, when viewed together, it becomes clear that what I am witnessing is female expression navigating and trying on different forms as it seeks ways of being heard. 

Chicago’s large-scale geometric paintings Heaven is for White Men Only and Let it All Hang Out, both 1973, flank the entrance to the exhibition. Made using paint-spraying techniques Chicago learned while taking a course on vehicle body painting, they demonstrate her early attempts to navigate the masculine linguistic structures of the art world, first, by co-opting them. Mimicking the hard-edged, geometric forms of abstraction, a notoriously male discipline and the dominant aesthetic of the time, Chicago imbues them with an emotional intensity that seems to vibrate through these rigid male forms, almost threatening to bust them open. The title, Heaven is for White Men Only, emphasises this action as a form of painterly drag – elevation, transcendence and respect can only be bestowed upon male forms. 

My Accident (1986) is a series of works incorporating graphic photographs with text, comic-book sound effects and vibrantly-coloured pencil drawing, narrating the aftermath of Chicago being hit by a truck. The decision to focus our attention on what came after concentrates all the ‘action’ of this story on her emotional and psychological processing of the event – the accident being a mere trigger. Perhaps a typically masculine way of framing the same narrative would have been to focus on the moment of the accident itself. Chicago’s emphasis, far from being self-indulgent, highlights the importance of legitimising our internal life and our responses to external forces. The female voice here is an active participant, not a passive subject. 

Autobiography of a Year (1993-4), moves this into more mundane terrain as Chicago documents her life in one year, again through the microscopic lens of her own personal psychology. Rapidly made on A4 paper, this collection of some 140 drawings and watercolours often depicts fragmented female forms presented alongside diaristic thoughts in the form of slogans such as ‘Instead of feeling proud of what she’d done with her brush, she felt like she’d laid a turd’; ‘March: Anxious and aggravated’; and ‘Rage at her husband’s impotence’. These are diaristic pages presented as political posters, again exploring the emotional angst of living daily life and the presented ‘skin’ of the woman, expected to contain it in a respectable form. This tenacious insistence on taking female angst and projecting it outward through typically macho, painterly forms is reminiscent of the autobiographical, body-conscious works of Austrian painter Maria Lassnig, a contemporary of Chicago, albeit in a different part of the world. 

Like Lassnig, Chicago succeeds in showing us the biased, white-male superstructures that choreograph our behaviours as women by zooming in on her own intimate psychological narrative. Specificity here lends itself to universality. However, rather than simply railing against unseen oppressive forces, Chicago seems to illuminate a way forward through her own journey. The courage to speak out and express oneself repeatedly throughout one’s life, in spite of social reaction and embarrassment, may be the most effective way through. 

India Nielsen

‘Judy Chicago’ continues at Baltic, Gateshead until 19 April 2020

Judy Chicago installation view, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art 2019. Photo: Rob Harris © 2019 BALTIC


As a follow-up task from the second a-n Writer Development Programme workshop at Baltic in January, the eight participants were tasked with filing a 600-word review of one of the current exhibitions are Baltic. Four of the writers chose the Judy Chicago show, curated by Irene Aristizábal, Baltic’s head of curatorial and public practice. Here’s what Orla Foster thought of the exhibition.

Review #6: Judy Chicago at Baltic

It sounds rather solemn to say that Judy Chicago’s work encapsulates the human condition. It’s true that this new selection of her works at the Baltic takes on such weighty subjects as childbirth, death, genocide, the destruction of the environment and the subjugation of female voices, but what really strikes you about her art is its introspective quality; her shrewd, idiosyncratic humour. Hers is a voice with many textures, as likely to take on the fall of civilisation as to pay tribute to the perfect cappuccino. 

Since the show spans 50 years, it covers plenty of ground – from sweeping epic to handwritten journal. As you arrive, you see Heaven is for White Men Only (1973) glower from the entrance. Her masterpiece, The Dinner Party (1974-79), a dining table laid out for pioneering women throughout history, is also represented – but only as a video at the back of the room. In another context these pieces might have been showstoppers, but instead it’s the diary-like works that suck in your attention: the artist lifting her brush to canvas, needle to yarn, pen to flood a page with spiky black letters asking: “WHY IS THERE SILENCE? WHAT SHOULD I DO NEXT?”

My Accident (1986) is one such work, a vast grid of storytelling that weaves together sketches, text and photography to describe the aftermath of being hit by a truck three weeks into her marriage. She unfolds the tale line by line in panels which somehow manage to be both spare and as ornate as a mediaeval manuscript. Images of Chicago’s exposed body underscore the vulnerability and lack of agency she felt as cactus needles were picked out of her skin. For all its trauma, there is a warmth to this retelling; not simply medical documentation but moments frozen in time such as early days with her husband lovingly tending to her needs. (This is where the cappuccino comes in.)

Pain and love are also inextricable in the labyrinthine Autobiography of a Year sequence (1993-94), but instead of magnifying one incident it chronicles the highs and lows, comforts and insecurities of a single year. Chicago’s approach is especially intimate here, projecting internal anxieties rather than revelations about the universe. Just as you mentally file the drawings alongside Aline Kominsky Crumb, that famously confessional cartoonist, you spot a panel demanding to know “why people say my drawings are like CARTOONS?”. Another panel rages against the sneering critical reception to her ambitious Holocaust Project (1985–93). 

Elsewhere, Chicago enlists the voices and craftsmanship of others. Struck by how little representation of childbearing exists in Western art, Chicago embarked on the Birth Project (1980-85), a collaborative painting and needlework installation surveying the experience of giving birth. Far from being folksy, this part of the exhibition is text-heavy, with essayistic fragments outlining precise embroidery techniques, defying the notion that childbirth (or art) is some mystical, uncommunicable, out-of-body experience. Birth is a “respectable important aspect of everybody’s life”, she points out, and one she wanted to articulate and make more tangible.

Death, on the other hand, cannot be made more tangible: those best placed to talk about the experience aren’t available for comment. In The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction (2015-17), Chicago instead pairs her own reflections with those of famous philosophers. Sinuous pastel outlines evoke the fragility of the human body, in coffins, urns, or rising to their next destination, but also those of endangered animals – creatures being poached and polluted to oblivion. Yet even as she watches the world crash and burn; even as she charts the fear of physical decline, and the void, and dreads the drip she may one day find herself hooked up to, you hear her voice ringing out still: “WHY IS THERE SILENCE? WHAT SHOULD I DO NEXT?” 

Orla Foster

‘Judy Chicago’ continues at Baltic until 19 April 2020

Judy Chicago installation view, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art 2019. Photo: Rob Harris © 2019 BALTIC


Following the second workshop in the programme, led by frieze deputy editor Amy Sherlock, three of the participants chose to write about British-Nigerian painter Joy Labinjo’s exhibition at Baltic, ‘Our histories cling to us’, her first major solo show. Here’s Joanna Byrne’s 600-word take.

Review #5: Joy Labinjo at Baltic

Where is home, when we find ourselves caught between two worlds? Exploring what it means to belong is central to ‘Our histories cling to us’ at Baltic, Joy Labinjo’s first major solo show. A young painter of British-Nigerian heritage, Labinjo draws upon her own diasporic identity and personal history. Her starting point is photographs of family, friends and ‘unknowns’ captured in the UK, Nigeria and places in-between.

Walking amongst the paintings, set out over two rooms of the gallery, feels like wandering through scenes from a colourful family scrapbook, recomposed as large-scale, graphic canvases. Like the family album – or social media feed – which compresses space and time via photographic montage, Labinjo’s vibrant compositions flatten out decades, time zones, geographic and spatial locations. 

The lo-fi aesthetics of the snapshot are reflected in the jarring colour combinations and off-kilter compositions of Come Play With Us? and Everything Will Be Alright (both 2019). Bodies are cut off at awkward angles, while the stark flash of a disposable camera freezes faces, distorts colours and muddies backgrounds. The graphic patterning, striped folds and colour-blocked shadows of garments and fabrics flow into Labinjo’s rendering of her subjects. Hovering between the figurative and the abstract, faces are mapped in flattened daubs of pure colour; a myriad of skin tones that in Maya Angelou’s words, “confuse, bemuse, delight…” 

In works such as The Final Portrait, Family Portrait and Jane and Mary Jane (all 2019), Labinjo invites us into the performative, more harmonious space of the formal studio photograph, often used by families to communicate togetherness, commemorate special occasions or rites of passage. Family Portrait (2019) depicts a mother wearing a loose crimson dress and patterned traditional headcovering, her young child sat in her lap, while the father, in a dark suit, stands behind them protectively. The Final Portrait – of whom, we wonder? – appears to be constructed from several snapshots; cut-out figures of all ages perch atop mid-century furniture cribbed from adverts and mail-order catalogues. This is painting as montage. 

Recurrent motifs of lush green tropical plants, bright stencilled leaves and boldly patterned fabrics – visual shorthand for ‘Africa’ – are culled from Instagram and pasted into Labinjo’s multi-layered compositions. Allusions to doors and windows – often rendered in solid rectangles of unadulterated colour – alert us to spaces beyond the here-and-now of the assemblage, a desire that exceeds the boundaries of the canvas. Is this a visualisation of homesickness, of nostalgia – “painful homecoming” – that might permeate experiences of diaspora? While Labinjo cites artists such as Sonia Boyce, Lubaina Himid and Claudette Johnson as influences on her representations of black subjects, comparisons may also be drawn with Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s tactile and sensual multi-layered paintings of diasporic subjects in domestic spaces.

Labinjo’s painting-as-montage occupies a transitional space, the somewhere ‘in-between’ space of an emerging artistic practice. Her vibrant canvases commingle spaces and places, past and present, the ‘real’ and the virtual; converging, almost merging into a unified whole. This sense of being in-between, Stuart Hall says, is an important part of the experience of diasporic identities: not just “being”, but “becoming”. Always in the process of becoming.

Joanna Byrne

‘Joy Labinjo: Our histories cling to us’ continues at BALTIC until 23 February 2020

Joy Labinjo, ‘Our histories cling to us’, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art 2019. Photo: Rob Harris © 2019 BALTIC


Four out of the eight writers on the a-n Writer Development Programme 2019-20 chose to review the Judy Chicago exhibition at Baltic, curated by Irene Aristizábal. To follow is Kitty Bew’s 600-word piece.

Review #4: Judy Chicago at Baltic

Is every man a rapist at heart?” This is just one of life’s many eternal questions put forward by artist Judy Chicago in her exhibition at Baltic, Gateshead. In this first major UK survey of her work, Chicago demonstrates the political self-awareness that has bared its teeth throughout her five-decade career. In part determined by the space, curator Irene Aristizábal presents a summary of a vibrant and vital artistic practice that veers from 1970s First Wave feminism to more recent reflections on the global climate crisis. 

Throughout the gallery we’re faced with an autobiographical brooding of one personal life experience or another. In My Accident (1986) Chicago documents the occasion she was hit by a truck while out running, detailing not only the incident but the lasting emotional trauma. Grim photographs of her naked, bruised body are accompanied by illustrations in pencil depicting the more prosaic details of the accident and aftermath: the croissant she would have eaten that morning, her legs in mid-sprint, a fat pet cat reclining.

Chicago and her partner Donald Woodman worked together to create My Accident, reflecting a career-defining impulse to collaborate. The Birth Project (1980-85), for instance, is the result of a joint-effort between Chicago and 150 female needleworkers. Made up of interviews, personal testimonies, educational panels, painting and needlework, it is a body of work that is rich in colour, craft and research, although disappointingly just seven out of a potential 85 artworks are shown here. Included is The Creation (1984), a monumental tapestry that simultaneously glorifies the exact moment of birth as well as the plush colour spectrum afforded by textiles. What stands out here are Chicago’s efforts to universalise the ubiquitous yet neglected human experience of childbirth. As the artist says, it is “a subject worthy of attention of the entire human race”. Forged by the hands of women, Birth Project is one of Chicago’s most feminist artworks – rivalled only by The Dinner Party (1974-79), of which we are sadly only given a pared down video version rather than the full, spectacular mixed-media banquet.

Chicago shines brightest when drawing directly from the personal, and artworks that fail to do so seem muted in comparison. The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction (2015-17) is a three-part reverie conveyed through a series of drawings, each part dealing with an inescapable aspect of the contemporary human condition: grief, ageing, and the deterioration of the natural world. Musings on the causes of animal extinction speak to a shared, contemporary insecurity about the state of the world, but what we are offered here are preparatory sketches that provide little more than an inventory of endangered species and their human-made causes of endangerment: polar bears stood on melting ice caps, choked sharks washed ashore – images that have become the go-to emblems of wildlife extinction. The omission of the final painted glassworks, along with the decision to present an abbreviated version of both The End and The Dinner Party, results in a selection of work that fails to convey the artist’s unique sculptural range, at times leaning too heavily on the two-dimensional.

The best thing about this exhibition is its vulnerability. Chicago’s deepest insecurities and her most banal pleasures are unpacked. In Autobiography of the Year (1993-94) a series of 140 drawings chronicle singular moments in a year of her life, echoing the frank intimacies of The Accident. Tender thoughts about her partner and the eccentricities of her pet cats are interwoven with darker reflections on the validity of her own artistic practice, the sexual aggression of men, and the death of her mother. Chicago conflates the poetically prosaic and intensely depressing realties of everyday life. It is in these moments that her artwork truly resonates.

Kitty Bew

‘Judy Chicago’ continues at Baltic until 19 April 2020

1. Judy Chicago, My Accident, installation view, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art 2019. Photo: Rob Harris © 2019 BALTIC
2. Judy Chicago installation view, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art 2019. Photo: Rob Harris © 2019 BALTIC