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When Women Rule the World: Judy Chicago in Thread

Date Feb 11, 2009 - Sep 7, 2009
Artist Judy Chicago
Curated by Allyson Mitchell

Exhibition Overview

Living legend of feminist art, Judy Chicago’s place on the landscape of contemporary textile practice is a significant one. Best known for her groundbreaking sculptural installation, The Dinner Party (1974-1979), Chicago has spent decades exploring the possibilities of “thread as brushstroke.” This exhibition surveys some of Chicago’s most important contributions in cloth, highlighting both key and lesser-known works dating from 1971 to present. From macramé to needle point to airbrushed quilts, Chicago employs “technique as content” in her major projects selected for this survey exhibition including the Birth Project (1980-1985), the Holocaust Project (1993) and Resolutions: A Stitch in Time (1994 to present). This exhibition centralizes the labour-intensive nature of Chicago’s textile work as a metaphor for investing in the ideas, values, histories and provocations in her artwork.

Additional Information

Five artists who take this notion to heart are profiled alongside Chicago, underscoring her ongoing and unmistakable influence and creating an intergenerational dialogue with Chicago’s most recent work “What If Women Ruled the World” (2008): Orly Cogan, (New York, NY); Wednesday Lupypciw (Calgary, Alberta); Cat Mazza (Troy, NY); Gillian Strong (Halifax, Nova Scotia); and Ginger Brooks Takahashi (New York, NY).

Related Exhibition:
She Will Always Be Younger Than Us

A catalogue related to this exhibition is available in the Museum Shop.

Related Programs and Events

Thrift Tour led by Allyson Mitchell
Saturday August 22, 11:00 am - 5:00 pm
Join Toronto artist and When Women Rule the World curator Allyson Mitchell for a bus tour of Toronto's thrift stores. Discover hidden thrift locations and find textile treasures on this intimate day-long excursion.
Members $50, Non-members $65, Full-time students and youth $40
Advance registration is required, class size is limited. To register, call 416-599-5321 x2221.

<p> <b>Judy Chicago</b> <i> If Women Ruled the World </i> 2008, Modified Aubusson Tapestry; Four Banners: 96 x 58 cm each. Woven by Audrey Cowan. Collection: Audrey & Robert Cowan. Photo: Donald Woodman </p>
<p> <b>Judy Chicago</b> <i>Birth Tear </i> 1982, Embroidery on silk 50.8 x 69 cm. Embroidery by Jane Gaddie Thompson. Collection: The Albuquerque Museum. Photo: Donald Woodman </p>
<p> <b>Judy Chicago</b> <i>The Fall</i> (detail) 1993, Modified Aubusson Tapestry 190 x 550 cm. Woven by Audrey Cowan. Collection: Audrey & Robert Cowan: A promised gift to the Museum of Art and Design. Photo: Donald Woodman </p>
<p> <b>Judy Chicago</b> <i> Find it in your Heart </i> (detail) 2000, Carved wood, paint, embroidery and Japanese gold embroidery 221 x 127 x 96 cm. Embroidery by Paula Davis and Lynda Patterson. Photo: Donald Woodman </p>
<p> <b>Judy Chicago</b> <i>Birth</i> (detail) 1984, Filet crochet 234 x 564 cm. Executed by Dolly Kaminski. Collection: The Albuquerque Museum. Photo: Donald Woodman </p>
Installation view (2009) Photo: Jill Kitchener
Installation view (2009) Photo: Jill Kitchener
Installation view (2009) Photo: Jill Kitchener
Installation view (2009) Photo: Jill Kitchener
Installation view (2009) Photo: Jill Kitchener
Installation view (2009) Photo: Jill Kitchener

When Women Rule the World: Judy Chicago in Thread

Threads and Needles by Sarah Quinton

In 1979, Judy Chicago first exhibited her major installation, The Dinner Party (1974-1979) 1, at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Motivated by her observations of the art world's general lack of knowledge of women's artistic, social and cultural heritage, and perplexed by a lack of female role models for her as a developing artist - mixed with strong personal ambitions to contribute to a contemporary artistic landscape as a woman - Chicago set out to correct this gap and communicate the significance of women's achievements around the world and throughout centuries. The Dinner Party, made predominantly of hand-painted porcelain plates and embroidered table runners, was Chicago's now-famous foray into a historically female-dominated world of china painting and needle arts as the basis of her own designs and concepts that radically altered ideas of the communicative capacity of textile materials and techniques2. Since the creation of The Dinner Party Judy Chicago has deepened her conceptual investment in textiles, and threads of the history of women's work from antiquity to the present day are woven into many of her subsequent projects. Her artistic output in textiles exemplifies her determination to activate historic and personal events and experiences through various forms of needlework as they intersect with sculpture, drawing, painting and installation through a feminist perspective.

"I always select techniques for a specific expressive purpose. Hence, in The Dinner Party, the runners were intended to convey something about the woman's life circumstances, which is why I selected design motifs and needle techniques that related to the time and place in which she lived. In the Birth Project work, because there were so few known images of birth (at that time), I did a lot of research that involved gathering testimony about birth experiences."3

If Judy Chicago's textile works, as seen in the Birth Project (1980-1985), for instance, are considered to be fundamentally feminist expressions, it is not simply the 'radical' suggestion that textiles - a genteel, private and 'female' medium - might qualify as a form of 'capital-A' art in the context of a mainstream public art gallery or museum environment that has caused her work to be met with controversy for being feminist, populist or too sexually illustrative. Rather, her mobilization of tapestry, embroidery and quilting - as well as sculpture and painting - to shape graphic, large-scale and at times discomfiting images of women experiencing the joys and agonies of childbirth and family life (perhaps a metaphor for the process of creative production itself) interrupted a neatly packaged modernist art-world hegemony with a powerful combination of process and image, tactility and seductiveness - with an attached message of a proposal for social change. Handcrafted textiles giving representational form to nude, voluptuous, childbearing female figures, even if they are symbolic of mythological and spiritual aspects of women's experiences, are hardly stock imagery in the collections of North American art museums. Smocked Figure (1984), for instance, even though the subject is fully clothed and modestly avoiding the viewer's gaze, is an exquisitely smocked textile impression of a standing female figure, slouched, with her face buried in her hands as though dejected and weeping. Chicago explains:

"I was interested in the ways in which women's lives were often 'constricted' by children so I chose smocking which constricts or compresses fabric, in this case, a 60" wide piece of linen which is 'constricted' into a narrow image."4

Judy Chicago sees herself as an artist, a designer and a collaborator who, by the time The Dinner Party had been completed, was familiar with historical, social and technical aspects of various textile techniques and was thus able to produce bodies of work whose content was expressed through materials and technique as much as through scale, colour and iconography. By the early 1980s when she was working on the Birth Project, she had a loyal and sophisticated group of craftswomen working closely with her to actualize the visual and physical effects she was looking for; at the same time they were performing the cooperative process of combining painting and needlework which, it could be said, was yet another productive route devised by Chicago to negotiate the complex stylistic and gendered leanings of mainstream art history.

Textile arts and crafts attract popular attention among women because so many women identify with the materials, the techniques, and the social and cultural significance of objects that are typically made, used and located in the domestic realm. Judy Chicago became aware of her potential, as a female artist, to legitimize women's artistry when she made the critical decision to create many of her works in textile media. Because she relied on the skills and labour of other women, her studio practice necessarily shifted into a social enterprise that activated her celebration of women's work even further. This in itself was a feminist action because it was energized by and contributed to a general awareness of women's political and personal circumstances. Chicago's process reinforced her belief in the power of art to change the individuals who make it, and made her faith in the capacity of art to affect an audience, stronger5. She was intent on making art that would reach a wide audience, at the same time bringing needlework into the so-called 'high art' realm. The more people were involved in her projects, the wider the network of knowledge and experience could become. In a 2002 catalogue produced on the occasion of Chicago's exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Viki D. Thompson Wylder quotes Chicago:

"We have cut art off from the larger human experience and have rendered it inaccessible to all but a few. I feel strongly about wanting to make a contribution to an expanded role for art because I feel we've lost the contact with why art is important. I believe it's a very hard thing to be authentic to human experience. You have to use your compassion, your intellect, your understanding, your emotions, your empathy, your talent, your insights, and your sensitivity to understand."6

There are, of course, many examples of textiles that are 'authentic to human experience' and lend themselves to shared expressions - as exemplified in a range of activist movements and community endeavors. For example, Gather Beneath the Banner: Political and Religious Banners of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union 1877 - 1932, a 1999 exhibition at the Textile Museum of Canada, featured 21 hand painted, stitched and gilded textile banners, made as signs of protest and of social belonging. As co-curator Max Allen writes in the foreword to the exhibition catalogue, "At the time they were made, around the turn of the century, the banners symbolized the fact that women were stepping into the public world to take an active political role in the preservation and advancement of the social values they championed."7 He also speaks of the textile historian's oft-encountered difficulty of knowing who made a particular textile: "In many cases the practical utility or the ritual meaning of the cloth is known, though the weaver isn't. (High art, for example in the Chinese tradition or in the West since the Renaissance, is usually signed, or the maker is traceable on the basis of stylistic idiosyncrasies.)"8 In spite of years of archiving activities at the W.C.T.U. offices, there are no records of who made these banners - likely because the message was of such greater importance. Nor were the banners, made of fragile silks, satins and velvets, well conserved: "[A banner from Montreal, 1904]...was the most seriously damaged, shredding and cracking, with major sections missing around the edges. It had been painted in delicate pastel colours on silk which, over the years, had dried and split."9 Judy Chicago is sensitive to the contemporary (and Western) reality of anonymous female artisans, and during the making of The Dinner Party ensured that the names of the seamstresses were embroidered onto the backs of each of the runners and in each book she has written about the project, securing the documentation of the personal contributions of individual women's artistry in the art historical annals.

In a statement that is strikingly similar to Chicago's comment to Wylder (above), Canadian artist Joyce Wieland (1931 - 1998) said "The land cries out to be discovered through art to be claimed humanly."10 In her films, her textiles, her paintings and her collages, Wieland opened up Canadian mythologies, politics and artistic practices to subjective reckoning. In 1968, a time of social change that included women's liberation, civil rights, anti-war protests, and a new permissiveness regarding drugs and sex, Wieland transformed Canada's then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau's message to the nation, "Reason over passion,"11 into a quilt that conflated seemingly oppositional realms of domestic textiles with public politics and mass media. Politics came face to face with art, and an everyday object reached artistic heights. Wieland spoke of her idea of craft as an activity that embodies the coming together of people for the sake of a common goal. The history of quilting is, indeed, one of collaboration and, like Chicago's, much of Wieland's art production is a gendered metaphor that extends the legacy of the accumulated efforts of seamstresses, knitters and embroiderers, whom she always credited generously for their contributions to her art practice.

Judy Chicago's 19 framed textiles and sculpture that comprise Resolutions for the Millennium: A Stitch in Time (1994 - 2000) represent a technical culmination of her own painterly hand, or stylistic signature, in partnership with a team of artisans who worked their embroidery, beading, macramé, quilting and other needlework skills in tandem with her sprayed acrylics and oil paint strokes. The images are reinterpretations of traditional adages and proverbs, focusing on such age-old values as family, responsibility, tolerance, human rights, ecology, hope and change in a lighthearted vision of old-fashioned ideas. By the time work had begun on the Resolutions series, 10 years had passed since the completion of the Birth Project, and many of the textile artists who had worked on it also worked on Resolutions. Judy Chicago describes the combination of painting and needlework in Resolutions as a successful synthesis of individual makers' marks:

"In The Dinner Party, I did painted designs, which were then gridded and transferred onto the runner surfaces. In the Birth Project, I painted under all the early works and the stitching was done directly on top of my drawing and painting. At some point, I began to get interested in letting some of the painting show through and that led to some of (in my opinion) the best works which combine painting and needlework, e.g. Earth Birth, where Jackie Moore, the quilter, changed the color of the quilting thread to match the sprayed fades of the paint or We're all in the Same Boat where the painting provides detail that is almost impossible to achieve in thread except with embroidery but even then...human features don't come out as well as they do with my paintbrush.

In Resolutions I worked primarily with needle workers with whom I had worked before and I knew their skills so I designed pieces that both expressed a proverb (expanded into a global metaphor) and allowed them to push their particular skills beyond anything they had ever done before (which is one reason so many needle workers wanted to work with me - my images related to their lives and my designs challenged their skills."12

Historically and in many traditional cultures today, handmade objects are neither signed nor attributed to a single maker or even community. The colour, technique, style, materials and scale of an object are frequently enough to identify it according to gender, purpose and site of origin. The activity of quilting is such a community-based activity. Many quilts, although usually designed and sewn together by one person (often to the tune of traditional patterns that were passed down from one generation to the next) were - and still are - very often quilted by a group of women working together at a quilting bee, a social high point in many communities throughout 18th- and 19th-century North America and Europe. Labour intensive, time consuming and even tedious, the quilting process requires great skill - and requires one's stitches to blend in with the rest of the group's, devaluing individuality in favour of technique - in this case finely honed sewing skills. Anonymity is privileged here for the sake of the group - as expression, not suppression.

The embroidery sampler is another traditional textile craft that aspires to prescribed technical precision, and one to which the Resolutions series, with its narrative and enlightening content, might be compared. The convention of sampler making involves adherence to a strict format by which 17th - 19th-century girls were to practice their stitches, learn literacy, numeracy, biblical quotes and other forms of culturally valued knowledge that would ultimately lead to "...independence, adulthood and autonomy signified by reading and writing. The very nature of needlework, the stillness, concentration and patience it required simply made it a penance for some children: "Polly Cook did it and she hated every stitch she did in it" says one sampler."13 Eighteenth-century Polly obviously understood the power of the needle. Judy Chicago, as she designed Resolutions to include painting, embroidery and installation, does too. Titles such as Do a Good Turn, Turn Over a New Leaf, and Live and Let Live are adages that call to mind the words to live by that we see on embroidered samplers made by Polly Cook's contemporaries. The Textile Museum of Canada houses one made by Catherine Cooper dated February 11, 1862 with the aphorism: "Remember thy creator in the days of thy youth and He will not forget thee in thy old age." And another, embroidered by ten-year-old Elizabeth Paxton in 1849, reads instructively if not prophetically: "Search the Scriptures."

Young girls' samplers, suffragist banners, community quilting bees and social protests are some of the ideological building blocks for the feminist textiles of Judy Chicago. The objects and actions of our foremothers raise awareness of the interconnectedness of communities and social/intergenerational relations, personal and cultural histories. The collectively made AIDS Memorial Quilt commemorates thousands who have died in a modern-day health catastrophe; for generations, signature quilts have been made by communities and then raffled as fundraising efforts for war efforts and community needs; and white ribbons are worn as a reminder of the Montreal massacre and violence against women and children around the world. Textiles can unravel history and stimulate discussion of power structures, gender inequity and economic imbalances.

1 The Dinner Party is comprised of a triangular table symbolically set for 39 notable women from history, resting on a white porcelain floor inscribed in gold with the names of 999 others. The table settings are made of hand-painted china plates set on top of hand-stitched runners, containing explicit butterfly (a symbol of liberation), or vaginal imagery in combination with texts, images, designs and embroidery stitches that contribute to the personification of each woman. Represented chronologically around the table are Primordial Goddess and Fertile Goddess from pre-history, to Artemisia Gentileschi (1590 - 1652), Virginia Woolf (1882 - 1941) and Georgia O'Keeffe (1887 - 1986) who was the only women 'at the table' who was still living at the time. As the chronology progresses around the table, the carved porcelain forms become more and more sculptural. Over 400 women and men are credited with contributing to the making of The Dinner Party.

2 For an in-depth account of the creation of The Dinner Party, see Judy Chicago, Embroidering Our Heritage: The Dinner Party Needlework (Garden City, New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1980).

3 Judy Chicago, email message to author, November 18, 2008.

4 Ibid.

5 Judy Chicago, in conversation with the author, Belen, New Mexico, February 2007.

6 Viki Wylder, “Judy Chicago: The Courage of Singular Conviction,” in Judy Chicago, ed. Elizabeth A. Sackler (New York: Watson-Guptil Publications, 2002), 119.

7 Max Allen and Wendy Harker, Gather Beneath the Banner: Political and Religious Banners of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union 1877 - 1932 (Toronto: The Museum for Textiles, 1999), 7.

8 Allen, Gather Beneath the Banner, 8.

9 Ibid, 51.

10 Joyce Wieland, True Patriot Love/ Véritable amour patriotique (Ottawa: The National Gallery of Canada, 1971). 1967 was a time of nationalism in Canada: the country's centennial celebrations were in full swing, resulting in an awakening of a Canadian national identity that coincided with a global rise in feminism.

11 The phrase “Reason Over Passion” has roots in Cartesian philosophy which privileges mind over body. This can be seen as repressing the feminine if body, passion and emotion are to be associated with femaleness. Reason, then, can be seen as a triumph of male over female.

12 Judy Chicago, email message to author, November 18, 2008.

13 Rozsika Parker, The Subversive Stitch (London: The Women's Press), 132.

© 2009 Textile Museum of Canada