Judy Chicago hates men and left me feeling slapped around — it felt good

    The feminist artist Judy Chicago hates men. Wandering through her angry and tumultuous show at the Serpentine Gallery, I felt like a trespassing schoolboy who was getting his face smacked. “This is for picking your nose!” Smack. ”This is for destroying the planet!” Smack. “This is for making God a man!” Smack. By the time I slunk out of this weird but impactful event, I was rubbing my cheek, gingerly.

    I’m exaggerating. You have to with Chicago. Exaggeration is one of the weapons she employs in her unceasing attacks on the patriarchy. For 60 years — she was born in 1939 — Chicago has been making thunderous art driven by the certainty that men are bad and women are good. Not a millimetre of grey has ever been allowed into the mix.

    The present show heightens this clarity by dragging the Bible into the argument from the off. In a 30ft reimagining of the Book of Genesis that takes up the entire opening wall, Chicago envisions how the universe would have been created if God had been a woman rather than the wrinkly patriarch with a beard imagined by most religions.

    Basically it’s a hospital moment. Set in a paediatric unit. First there’s a wail. Then a stirring. Then a rip. Then life pours out in a torrent of blood. “Living creatures crawl out of her crevices.” The “white milk of light” surges from her breasts. And with one last wail “woman was born onto the Earth”. The imagery swirls, throbs and loops. The running commentary keeps us ecstatic and informed.

    Wow. These are the imaginings of a particularly intense feminine psyche. Born Judith Cohen, to a liberal Jewish family in Chicago, she took the name of her home city as an act of American camouflage. But here, clearly, is an artist who knows her way around the Talmud; who imbibed its moods, exaggerations and terrors with her mother’s milk; whose relationship to everyday reality is biblical and tremulous. And so it proves.

    The show ahead could pass for a retrospective. It contains work from most of Chicago’s many phases, including an early abstract section filled with delicate arrangements of shapes that look like flowers but aren’t. Produced in the early 1960s, they were intended as a riposte to the males in the art world who blocked her progress and as evocations of specifically female states to which she has supplied a handy wall guide. Thus the forms that dissolve at the edges are, we’re told, evocations of the female orgasm. Precise, skilled, beautiful, it’s not an art that deserves to have been so ignored.

    The show is actually called Revelations, a biblical title she originally gave to a remarkably savage manuscript she wrote and illustrated in the 1970s while making her most celebrated work, The Dinner Party — a triangular table filled with place settings for 39 women whom Chicago felt deserved greater recognition. The manuscript for Revelations — shown here for the first time, having laid forgotten in Chicago’s studio since it was made — tore into men and their history with unconfined zest.

    Boy, do we get a beating. We’re ugly. We’re monstrous. We look like the Devil. We pollute the earth with our machinery and our arms. Fortunately, the Great Goddess arrives to rid the universe of us bad blokes. “I am alive, come to redeem the Earth and save it from destruction,” she screams. Presented in the style of a hippy comic from the 1960s, it’s a mad read, but curiously exciting. If the art world handed out prizes for hatred, Chicago’s Revelations would be a shoo-in for the top award.

    As the show progresses the detestation of men transforms into something more general as Chicago shifts her attention to climate change and the destruction of the environment. Pissing on Nature, from 1982, shows exactly that: a naked man micturating on the landscape. Stranded, from 2013, pictures a shivering polar bear stranded on a melting iceberg.

    What’s impressive is the range of techniques she employs to make her points: painting, video, performance, embroidery. In her use of textiles she was certainly a trailblazer. And while the art world was being calm, cool, monkish and modernist, she was raiding the global goodie box for tremulous subjects and noisy methods.

    There’s something excellently declamatory as well about her signature painting style, a brightly coloured visual shoutiness she surely learnt from the Mexican muralists. With Chicago, no subject is approached obliquely. It’s always full on, straight at you. She was a pioneer in lots of directions and with a lot of methods. I may have staggered out of her show having been slapped about, but it felt good to be so actively engaged.

    For a different and gentler form of feminine experience I recommend the Mary Beale show at Philip Mould & Company. Beale (1633-99) was a female portrait painter at a time when such artists were not thought to exist. The show focuses on the successful business she set up and the shared nature of her output. Much of the time she churned stuff out. Occasionally she rose to rare heights of intimate expression. Particularly when painting her family.

    Revelations is at the Serpentine Galleries, London W2, until Sep 1; Mary Beale: Fruit of Friendship is at Philip Mould, London SW1, until Jul 19