Friday, July 24, 2009

Exhibition Review: Judy Chicago in Thread

Although Judy Chicago cannot sew and does not know how to do needlework, she has made a career out of art created by women volunteers using traditional forms of handwork such as embroidery, tapestry, quilting and cross-stitching. Perhaps best known for her landmark project The Dinner Party (1979) in which she presented a table set for dinner with an imaginary guest list of famous women from history, Chicago established feminist iconography as a subject worthy of a professional art practice.

What if Women Ruled the World: Judy Chicago in Thread opened at the Textile Museum of Canada on February 11, 2009 and continues until September 7th. Curated by Allyson Mitchell and co-produced with the Art Gallery of Calgary, the stated intent of the show is to offer a retrospective of Judy Chcago's textile-based art from 1971 to today. The question posed by the thematic title of the show is supplemented by two other questions: "Would God be Female? and "Would there be equal parenting?"

The exhibition is organized around Chicago's projects including The Birth Project (1985), The Holocaust Project (1993) and The Resolution Project (2000). As well, there is one work from 1971 and a mixed media piece from 2000 called Find it in Your Heart.

To see a Judy Chicago textile piece up close is a lesson in innovation in mixed media. Unimaginable combinations of paint, embroidery, applique, quilting, macrame, crochet, beading, printing, cross stitching, and needlepoint all come together in a swirl of vibrant colour and energy. Although the effect is anything but subtle, the considerable hours of work that went in to the creation of such intricate handwork is evident.

My favourite piece called Earth Birth is an image of "bringing forth light, a visual representation of early creation myths that posit a female deity as a source of all existence." This air-brush painting and quilting on fabric by Jacquelyn Moore Alexander and Judy Chicago from 1983 has a muted palette of black, silver and blue. The elegant refinement of this piece is unique compared to the other works in the exhibition and undoubtedly that is why it has singular appeal for me. I prefer subtlety of message and an elegance of line and colour which are not tenets of Chicago's work.

Other highlights of the exhibition include two videos about Chicago and her cadre of volunteers. To hear an artist speak about their work adds to the depth of understanding one has about their art. In this case, since there are sometimes hundreds of volunteers involved in a Judy Chicago project, these unheralded women were finally given a voice.

In Resolution: A Stitch in Time, directed and edited by Kate Amend and Johanna Demetrakas (2000), Judy Chicago and the women volunteers explain the collaborative process on The Resolution Project. According to Chicago, she wanted to create life-affirming images based on proverbs that state basic human values since "proverbs are the way different generations pass on their wisdom". Many of the volunteers expressed joy and a sense of community in working to complete Chicago's artistic vision. As well, some treasured the sense of purpose that it gave them "to work on something bigger than themselves" and "to have their work displayed in a museum".

In a video about The Birth Project directed by Vivian Kleinnam Productions (1985), Chicago said that there are very few birth images in the history of art and she wanted to reclaim history for women. She used the birth process "as a metaphor for creation in the largest sense". There were 150 volunteers who used a variety of needlework techniques to create 84 pieces related to all aspects of birth of which nine of those pieces are displayed.

Twenty artworks are exhibited in the retrospective of Judy Chicago's work at the Textile Museum. The singular element that does not fit with the curator's intent is the 1971 photograph called The Red Flag in which a woman removes a bloody tampon from her vagina. To me, this photograph is representative of art that a strident feminist produces for shock value alone. This ugly and disturbing photograph is not textile art and has no place in the show even though it is represetative of Chicago's early explorations in feminist iconography. The extensive range of the textile-based artwork that is on display at the Textile Museum is proof that Judy Chicago is capable of expressing meaningful and positive messages through her art. Without this photograph, the answers to the questions "What if Women Ruled the World?" and "Would God be Female?" would have been self-evident. Instead, I left the exhibition uncertain of what I wanted the answer to be.

When Women Rule the World
February 11 - September 7, 2009
Textile Museum of Canada
55 Centre Avene (St. Patrick subway)
Toronto, Ontario