Last summer Textile Museum of Canada presented Judy Chicago’s When Women Ruled the World, an exhibition covering 40 years of her art practice. Judy Chicago is shown as pioneer in many senses, resolving the stereotypes of female art, textile art, community art…., assaulting century-long models of aesthetics, patriarchal society and men-assigned monumentality.
Would God be Female? by Judy Chicago
Judy Chicago remains recognized as a socially engaged artist whose practice began with the feminist movement in 1960s and to these days continues in close relation to female experiences in most basic, but far from simple, levels of life. In her explorations Chicago came to a shocking conclusion that art history, so rich with phallic representations from Egyptian art on, has scarce examples of vagina. The work Red Flag from 1971 shows artist’s vulva out of which she’s easing a tampon. Red flag, associated with worker’s liberation, is put here in a position of liberated femininity, freed from lady-like refinement and given the power of body and mind.
Red Flag by Judy Chicago
In 1982 Birth project began, in some sense following the line of this new female iconography. Images of birth were not only hard to find in art books, but also in a scientific ones. So, Judy Chicago did what she considered basic for her art – engaged with community, number of women whose experiences and stories helped her to create a lexicon of images. On this huge, monumental works she employed artisans whom she all has given space to be signed as collaborators on the project – in that way Chicago combined their experience and skills, engaging them in a long process of art making – 150 needleworkers created 84 pieces!
Birth Tear by Judy Chicago
Birth series presents very precise and minute needle works which very profoundly depicts joy, excitement, suffer and pain of child bearing, the primordial, and yet almost completely artistically ignored, human experience. The theme in Chicago’s work has many variations, among them a mythical Earth Birth, spray painted and quilted image of the female earth bearing forth light. ‘This work is an example of the fusion of painting and needlework which I began to explore in the early 1980s’*, says the artist. What is very important to notice is that Chicago gives a framework for needle workers, but leaves them freedom for their own creation.
Earth Birth by Judy Chicago
Those huge pieces are monumental not only in size, but in visual strength, which is in strong contradiction of home made embroideries typical of artisans and hobbyists, usually connected with the needle work. But although being a feminist, she departed from their practice of creating temporarily works, or using media like video or performance; Judy Chicago stepped into male field, a consecrated ground of monumentality with force that probably frightened them like never before. Seeing vagina open to give birth certainly isn’t something a proper man wants to see in reality, let alone spread out over the huge museum wall.
Birth by Judy Chicago
These subjects that depict women, mythical or real one, are transcended onto universal level in The Fall. ‘The Fall is visual narrative demonstrating my belief that the Holocaust grew out of the very ‘fabric’ of Western Civilization (thus my use of tapestry).’** This thematically eclectic work depicts all the pillars of this civilization: dominance of patriarchate, Christianity, human dominance over world, technical dominance over humans, and the climax in the dominance of Arian race over the rest of the world; all historically proven as false and disastrous.
The Fall by Judy Chicago
Resolutions for the Millennium: a Stitch in Time also goes back to tradition, just in order to make a point in contemporary context. Artist draws on sampler making that was typical for girls in 17th-19th century to teach them precision in weaving Biblical quotes, and of course, make them obedient and cultural enough spouses.
The Fall by Judy Chicago, detail
Judy Chicago followed the practice of gathering female artists in embroidery, beading, macramé, quilting, but employing proverbs that accentuate human rights in every sense, and also giving them a new status.
Resolutions for the Millennium: a Stitch in Time by Judy Chicago
Judy Chicago is controversial and political, direct and shameless, but most importantly, close to her public, which embraces her as a liberator, collaborator, teacher and inspiration. Art open to a few elitist circles goes back to itself, in start losing a chance for dialogical enrichment; the art of Judy Chicago is, on a contrary, born from an open communication, which of course, when sincere, can strike hard.
* Quotes taken from the Catalogue When Women Rule the World, Judy Chicago in Thread, Textile Museum of Canada, curated by Allyson Mitchell
(Ivana Podnar is a co-blogger on Body Pixel)