When Dr. Lisa Levenstein asked members of her 500-level course, "Feminist Politics in Recent U.S. History," to choose a topic for their end-of-semester presentation, MA student Laura Malloy and undergraduate WGS major Derrick Foust decided to study the feminist art movement of the 1970s and 1980s. This grassroots movement sought to challenge male-centered ideas about what constitutes art, increase the representation of women artists in mainstream galleries, and develop alternative venues for the showing of women's work.
(Above: Students in History 551 with the 2012 version of Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party.)
During their research, Malloy and Foust closely examined Judy Chicago's three-dimensional work, The Dinner Party, the most iconic piece of feminist art from the period. The Dinner Party consists of a huge ceremonial banquet arranged on a triangular table, with thirty-nine place settings, each representing an important woman in history. Every place setting includes a painted porcelain plate, with motifs based on vulvar and butterfly forms in a style that suits the woman being honored. In addition to the thirty-nine plates, the names of 999 women are inscribed in gold on the floor below the table.
Malloy and Foust decided to recreate The Dinner Party in the classroom. Prior to their presentation, they asked the students in the class to send them names of women in recent history who were meaningful to them. Malloy then designed and created a "Chalice" to "toast" and honor these contemporary women. Malloy built the 4 1/2 foot tall chalice out of chicken wire and papier mache and decorated it with a collage of the faces of the contemporary women chosen by the class. To honor the spirit of collaboration that characterized the feminist art movement, on the day of their presentation, Malloy and Foust asked the class to decorate plates similar to the ones in the Dinner Party. The class then took a break, and when the students returned, Malloy and Foust had arranged the tables in the classroom a triangle, set the "table" with their plates, put the Chalice in the middle, and lined the floor with paper documenting the names of important women in history. The students ceremoniously entered the classroom one by one, signed their names on the floor, admired the sculpture, and then waited in awe for the oral presentation to begin.
"The topic of representation of women has always been of interest to me," explained Malloy. "Much like Judy Chicago, I feel that women in history are still to this day under-represented." Foust's training in WGS led him to question the very meaning of "feminist art" and search for answers. "During the course of my research there were moments in which I rejected the label 'feminist art'," he explained. "In the end, what became most important was to realize there was a feminist art movement that sought to redefine art and women's places in it."
The chalice is currently on display in the WGS conference room, 338 Curry building.
(At left: The chalice created by History MA student Laura Malloy to honor women who are making a difference today. )