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January 2019


N, a relationship in which a person or thing is linked or associated with something else.

To consider a landscape highlighted with a single colour has its roots in the conceptual Land Art movement of the 1970s, where artists like Richard Serra, Michael Heizer and Robert Smithson created large-scale interventions. But the colour aquamarine takes us to the environmentally sensitive and temporary Atmospheres of the then relatively unknown Judy Chicago.

An artist, author, educator, and intellectual whose career now spans five decades, Chicago is a leading figure of the Feminist Art movement who came to critical attention with her controversial The Dinner Party, a collaborative work aimed at restoring women to history (The Monacelli Press, 2014). Currently experiencing a long overdue critical revival, her retrospective;
A Reckoning at the ICA Miami stole the Art Basel show. It was beautifully complimented in the fair’s most-photographed work: Miya Ando’s Sora Versailles, 133 x103 ft of pink clouds printed on mesh - disappearing one of Miami’s most iconic buildings, and commissioned by Faena

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SORA VERSAILLES                                                                         Pink clouds printed on mesh, 133 x103 ft

In contrast to her male peers, much of Chicago’s work was ephemeral, and all that remains of her seminal Fireworks performances (1969, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1974, 2012, 2017, 2018) are photographic images. My first encounter with her work was via Chicago’s non-profit feminist art organisation Through the Flowers, an arresting image from Immolation: performer Faith Wilding’s whole body painted in aquamarine, sitting before a camp fire with clouds of coral smoke obscuring and revealing her naked form. Like a mermaid stranded in the cracked earth of the desert, immolation means a burnt offering, sacrifice, or victim. It was like a premonition for what is happening to the oceans today. 


Judy Chicago’s most recent body of work, The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction, will debut at the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) in Washington DC in the fall of 2019 to coincide with the publication of a major monograph by Scala in conjunction with NMWA, Salon 94, and Jessica Silverman Gallery.

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IMMOLATION IMAGE                                              Judy Chicago, Courtesy of Through The Flower Archive

Of her 1968 work Atmospheres, Chicago described using smoke machines in a Pasadena street: “It softened everything… There was a moment when the smoke began to clear, but a haze lingered. And the whole world was feminized—if only for a moment.” Much of Chicago’s work has vanished in a cloud of smoke, but the artist’s words and photographic records document a tipping point. Like Agnes Martin and Bridget Riley’s subtler colour palettes, these was a response to the male-dominated art world of her era. Interestingly Riley’s latest commission by the National Gallery, Messengers, is inspired by a phrase of the landscape painter John Constable, referring to clouds in the sky.


Chicago was openly critical of her macho, primary colour-using peers, blasting Richard Serra’s critically acclaimed 1970 show at the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon Museum), in which he cut down Redwood trees and piled them up in the gallery.

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PURPLE ATMOSPHERE, 1969, FIREWORKS  ©  Judy Chicago, Courtesy of Through The Flower Archive

“Using a colour system I had developed for emotive purposes, I did a series of dimensional domes, in which the colour was trapped inside the transparent shapes,” Chicago recalls. Her preference was for secondary and tertiary colours like purple, pink and aquamarine, the nature of which, and the subtlety of her work meant, like so much of women’s work across centuries, that it was largely overlooked. 


Since Newton first demonstrated how we see colour from light, and set out the colour wheel based on the seven colours of the prism, artists and thinkers from Goethe to Philipp Otto Runge, Kandinsky and Klee have outlined colour systems. As a photographer my work is largely light based, and there are important differences between pigment and light colour charts, no least that light mixes in an additive way: combining the light of different colours will eventually result in white light, while pigments combine in a subtractive way: the more you mix the closer you get to black.


To me, there is a certain irony in discovering Chicago’s works on screen and not first hand, in that whilst she was creating her Atmospheres, the digital age was dawning. “We are now in transition from an object-oriented to a systems-oriented culture. Here change emanates, not from things, but from the way things are done.” said Jack Burnham in 1968, in his Systems Esthetics. 

What neither Chicago or Burnham could have known then was how much limit what the eye sees through technology. For example the way designers today interact with colour – using the ubiquitous colour picker – leaves much to be desired. It uses a rectangular area to show a single hue at a time, it fails to provide a meaningful visual representation of the colour spectrum, so designers are left with no way to visualise the relationship between the selected colours. “The consequence is that this entire history of color theory is neglected in modern design tools, which means that it is lost on students too,” says Madsen. 

Artists working today are much more aware of their impact on the environment, but also of how transient their work is, much of which might vanish in the virtual stream (SENSE). The artist is constantly faced with a choice of what to save and what to throw away, to delete. As a consequence, much of my work involves archiving, which sparked my initial interest in developing my own comprehensive colour system. 

At the heart of this, is a celebration of nature and time, one I see reflected in land art works such as Doug Aitken, Altered Earth   In the tradition of land-art as a reflection of the dreams and aspirations projected onto the America West, Mirage presents a continually changing encounter in which subject and object, inside and outside are in constant flux.


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