According to Judy Chicago, she had always “naturally created forms with a center”, in reference to her controversial central core imagery. However, she learned to censor and disguise her work, as the climate of the society around her was not accepting of such feminist images. She stated that, at the time, it was impossible for a female artist to reveal her gender and still be considered a talent. In order for her to create her works in subterfuge, Chicago learned the visual nuances of art – strengthening her skill. After overcoming the conditioning of society that the female power is repulsive, Chicago discovered that central core imagery is about realizing ones own creative power and aiding in helping others reach this epiphany.
Chicago states that the essentialism in her central core imagery does not aim to reduce women to a single entity – the vagina – but is instead suggesting that this common body part is what “kept them within the same confined historical space.” In the 1980s, the critique of essentialism was founded in the sheer impossibility of universal feminine iconography, however, it is important to differentiate between the types of essentialism because of the different issues they address. Where biological essentialism criticized that female artists belittled what the feminist movement was attempting to accomplish, cultural and political essentialism addressed the problem that a patriarchal society inherently poses. Due to our society’s gender expectations, they form a social reality and all members are conditioned to adhere to a certain role. Continually, political essentialism is the notion that if you have to support female empowerment, is suggests that women require the extra aide and are not equal to men; reverse-feminism. Therefore, by straying from the realm of biological essentialism, one is able to address the heart of the issue and embrace what the feminist movement strives to achieve.
An example of the famed central core imagery, Judy Chicago’s “Big Blue Pink” (1971) although simple, is an abstract symbol for the plight of the feminist movement and equality among the genders.
In the critique of biological essentialism, the very fact that the image centers around a main locale suggests that women are little more than a sexual organ, their sole purpose to produce offspring. The cultural sense evokes the response that society has oppressed women to the point that their role in the world is to have children and care for them; and political essentialism believes that painting this at all stunts the progress of the feminist movement. Contrary to these popular beliefs, this type of imagery helps to expand appreciation and aid in the cause of equality in an androcentric society.
Initially suggested by Paula Harper, Womanhouse was an installation of feminist art directed by Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro. Put together in only six weeks and displayed in 1972 in Hollywood, they sought to address the everyday life of a typical housewife at the time. The art, developed under the collaboration of Chicago and Schapiro and 21 female students, utilized bold colors, mixed media, and abstract images to bring light to their viewpoints and challenge the stereotype of the happy housewife.
Performed at Womanhouse in 1972, “Waiting” by Faith Wilding suggests that the ordinary housewife spends her days waiting – for meals to be done cooking, the laundry to finish, her family to come home, for life to begin. This differs from other representations of women in that it exposes the solidarity and lonely existence that comes with being a housewife whose sole purpose is to tend to her family.
“Dining Room” is a mixed media site installation at Womanhouse by Beth Bachenheimer, Sherry Brody, Karen LeCoq, Robin Mitchell Miriam Schapiro and Faith Wilding. This piece suggests the innumerable hours that women would spend in the kitchen, producing copious amounts of food, only to repeat the action every single day. The undeniable central core imagery in the painting on the far wall represents the feminist undertones in the setting and expose the subject of critique.
By Sandy Orgel, “Linen Closet” was another installation at Womanhouse that caused one woman to comment, “This is exactly where women have always been – in between the sheets and on the shelf.” Intimating that women are only useful in the kitchen or the bedroom and that society would rather women be only for looks – on a shelf – than be released from the confines of the closet that they have been locked in for so many generations.