In a series of drawings, paintings, cast paper and bronze pieces, she explored how prevailing definitions of power have affected the world in general — and men in particular. More than thirty years after Chicago completed PowerPlay, Salon 94 is proud to present a select group of works from this prescient series in Chicago’s inaugural exhibition with the gallery.
Four monumental paintings will be on view at Salon 94 Bowery. After the furor and acclaim that she received from The Dinner Party (1974-79), with its decidedly female subject matter and evolving feminist iconography, and while simultaneously working on Birth Project (1980-85) which explored aspects of the birth process from the painful to the mythical, Chicago turned to an entirely new subject: man. While traveling through Italy in 1982, Chicago was inspired by the style and scale of Renaissance painting. Having already mined several art forms including minimalist sculpture, large-scale installation, ceramics and china-painting, textile-based works, performance and even auto body painting, Chicago developed a new painting technique which sought to reproduce the vibrant color and luminosity of the Renaissance precedents. The technicolor figures pop off the Belgian canvases- a combination of a clear gesso base, sprayed acrylic under paint, and thin layers of oil paint on top.
In preparing for PowerPlay, Chicago executed extensive drawings of the male nude, which she recalls as being frightening and difficult due to only ever having access to female models during her art education. With the PowerPlay series, Chicago paved an early path for many female artists who came after her, by appropriating and reversing the male gaze that men had used for centuries to depict the female figure. As she stated the year she began the series, “I knew that I didn’t want to keep perpetuating the use of the female body as the repository of so many emotions; it seemed as if everything – love, dread, longing, loathing, desire, and terror – was projected onto the female by both male and female artists, albeit with often differing perspectives. I wondered what feelings the male body might be made to express.”
Chicago recognized in Renaissance painting, the conflation of the birth of modern society with that of the ubiquitous male hero. Her stylized sinewy male bodies are decidedly reminiscent of the Socialist Realism used in Soviet-era art, particularly in propaganda used by the Russian government to invoke nationalistic pride and to glorify and propagate the ideologies of authoritarian leaders. Rather than portray the male figure as a hero in her own work, Chicago pulls back the curtain to reveal an uglier side of man that is alarming, revolting and eerily predictive. In typical Chicago humor, her fallen heroes are drunk with patriarchal power as they drive destructively, "piss on nature", pull hair, pick their noses and stick out their tongues. In the centerpiece of the show, the massive triptych titled Rainbow Man, the worst deed of all is preformed, the “bait and switch”, which Chicago likens to the Trumpian tactics used in the 2016 election.
When PowerPlay was first shown in 1986 at ACA Galleries in New York, it received scant attention and continued to be her least recognized body of work. Though now, more than thirty years later, her depictions of the male figure in various states of acting out in unscrupulous ways could not be more relevant to our contemporary dialogue on the abuses of power that we are experiencing and witnessing first hand.
Also on view for a limited time at 1 Freeman Alley, Salon 94 will present a group of unique cast bronze and paper wall sculptures and a series of fiercely colored small paintings. The scowling, contorted and forlorn male faces evoke the embellished facial expressions of an operatic chorus. They collectively call out like lost souls, giving one the sense that they are in a purgatorial state of suffering; victims of their own misdeeds.