Back in the day, as an eighteen-year-old baby dyke and budding feminist, I thought myself something of a vagina aficionado. Somewhere along the way between adamantly denying queerdom and speaking at the Socialist Feminist Philosophers In Action (SOFPHIA) conference, I discovered the allure of vagina-art. Before I even had a theoretical framework in which to insert my fascination (no pun intended), I began to create what I called “vaginally centered art.” As a freshman college co-ed, I passed time in my droning and completely academically useless gen-eds by sketching a clit here, a labia there; sometimes a flower or some little hearts were included. A bit embarrassed, I kept most of my drawings hidden from classmates, but at the same time I felt like I was involved in a somewhat revolutionary act.
It wasn’t until my sophomore year when I begged a feminist art history professor to be my advisor that I was introduced to the work of Judy Chicago and other second-wave feminist artists. Recognizing in my doodles the core imagery that was popular amongst this group in the 1970’s, my new mentor decided to slowly ease me into the jarring reality that I was not the first female artist that had a fascination with empowering her knish.
The first piece, and perhaps the most influential, that I was introduced to was Chicago’s “seminal” The Dinner Party. One might think that my reaction would have been negative being as that I just found out I was, essentially, unoriginal, but I actually felt as though I were viewing the most important piece of art I would see in my lifetime. It is an installation that not only validated my nearly obsessive interest in vaginal images, but broadened the content and meaning of using such forms.
Consisting of thirty-nine place settings of historical women, both real and mythological, the triangular installation spans an area large enough to challenge any modernist male artist’s preoccupation with size. The collective effort of many highly skilled female artisans features porcelain plates painted and sculpted into vulva-like shapes. Recently added to the Brooklyn Museum’s collection, it permanently resides in a custom-designed gallery in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art.
This summer I finally had the experience of viewing The Dinner Party in person. As with most art, the piece is undeniably more complex and beautiful in the flesh. As I entered the room, I felt as though I was a pilgrim and had reached my final destination. Although I get excited often when viewing art, I’m not usually one to get all cheesy and sentimental. Maybe it was the theatrical lighting, or maybe it was the sheer fact that this massive feminist work had found a home at a revered institution, but I was truly moved.
In a way, it was like my work had found a home too (granted it was thirty years in the past). Making vaginally-centered art might be considered unoriginal, old-news to the majority of the art world, but at least now I know my art has other pieces to converse with.
Abby Hertz, Creep, Ink and blood on paper, 2006.