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JUDY CHICAGO

by Betty Ann Brown




“Home Sweet Home,” painting and
emboidery on linen, needle-
work by Pamella Nesbit, 2000.
Photo: Donald Woodman.






“Begin with a Clean Slate,” needlework
by Louise Otewalt, Jane Thompson,
and Mary Ewanoski, 2000.
Photo: Donald Woodman.






“Turn Over a New Leaf,"
painting/embroidery/appliqué
on linen and charmeuse, needle-
work by Jane Thompson, 2000.
Photo: Donald Woodman.
(Skirball Cultural Center, West Los Angeles) Judy Chicago has been challenging the historic hierarchies of the art world since the early 1970s. Raised in a culture that stereotyped the artist as an eccentric mostly male genius struggling in alienated isolation, Chicago developed broad-based collaborations of creative people from various age groups, races, ethnicities and sexual preferences. Educated in a system that valued the efforts of white Christian men over those of all others, and the so-called “fine arts” of painting and sculpture over the so-called “crafts” of ceramic and textile work, Chicago celebrated the accomplishments of diverse women in the porcelain plates and embroidered fabrics of her seminal and controversial The Dinner Party. Chicago’s inquiry into the conventional tropes of artistic production continues in Resolutions: A Stitch in Time.

Chicago’s work is not limited to art world relevance; indeed, it is far from “art about art.” Rather, she addresses significant cultural issues through examination of the limits of dominant historical narratives. With The Dinner Party, Chicago sought to insert women into the histories from which they had been erased. With her later Holocaust Project, she endeavored to personalize the frequently dehumanized accounts of Hitler’s “final solution.” And with Resolutions, Chicago explores the value of what is often demeaningly thought of as “women’s wisdom.”

When this writer was growing up, female discourse was constantly discounted. I was told that men conversed, but women gossiped. Men spoke of ideas, women of romance. To disregard the veracity or relevance of a story, it was called an “old wives’ tale.” When men read the newspaper, they concentrated on the hard news; women stuck to the the food section, life style articles, you know, the “soft” stuff.

Not much has changed. Even after decades of feminist critique of the patriarchy’s narrow biases, women who take on roles more public and aggressive than Laura Bush are demonized (think of how many times youíve heard Hillary Clinton referred to as a bitch; or the ongoing personal assaults on Janet Reno). And, sadly, our female elders remain largely invisible. Their insights--what they have learned from their mothers, and from their mother’s mothers, what they have tried to pass on to their daughters and to their daughters’ daughters--all of this is lost to a culture whose primary industry is the development of entertainment to be marketed to fourteen year old boys.

Resolutions celebrates not only the “women’s work” of embroidery and tapestry, but also the women’s wisdom of age-old sayings. In doing so, Chicago celebrates the past generations of women who have stitched such sayings on samplers and repeated such sayings to their children. She celebrates women’s culture and women’s way of knowing. Feminist pedagogy scholars Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger and Tarule assert that men often learn through what they term “separate knowing:” a kind of learning that tends to isolate the learner and set him up in competition with other learners. In contrast, women tend to learn through “connected learning:” a process that allows the learner to integrate the knowledge into her subjective self by establishing links with her lived experiences.

Viewing the iconic images of Chicago’s Resolutions, I feel compelled to connect them to my life, to personal memories. Home Sweet Home makes me think of a framed embroidery sampler in my maternal grandmother’s Oklahoma City home. I remember as a child watching her choose one of the shimmering skeins of embroidery thread, lick the end to a fine point, then slide it through a silver needle. I remember my grandmotherís collection of thimbles and can recall watching her long fingers capped with metal thimbles used to push the needle through thick fabrics. I can hear her describe and demonstrate decorative stitches: satin stitch, French knot, etc. And I can remember my early efforts at mimicking her skill. I feel connected to my long-deceased grandmother. Through these memories, I am once again nestled in her sweet home.

My hope is that all viewers will find similar memories to connect them to the ideas and images of Chicago’s Resolutions, and that in such connection, they will re-value the wisdom of their female elders.