'Hopelessly optimistic' artist stitches together a globally minded show

"Keep the home fires burning" may be one of the few traditional aphorisms that feminist artist Judy Chicago doesn't explore in her new exhibition, "Resolutions: A Stitch in Time." But it certainly defines this persistent feminist, who is committed to exploring a woman's place in and contribution to the art world.

Her exhibition, six years in the making, is an homage to the values of well-worn phrases as seen in home crafts such as needlepoint, quiltmaking, Aubusson tapestry, and embroidery. It is on display at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles through April 29.

For the show, Ms. Chicago employed some 17 master weavers, seamstresses, embroiderers, tapestrymakers, and other textile workers. Each piece takes a traditional saying and explores its meaning and larger resonance in the culture.

"I wanted to subvert both the traditional techniques and the meaning of these proverbs," says Chicago in an interview at the Skirball.

Pointing to the illustration of "Home Sweet Home," she explains that while the phrase remains the same, the meaning is broadened to include different kinds of homes. She illustrates this by featuring a blue-green globe outlined with different-size homes, tepees, and igloos.

"That phrase has often been used to underline the value of an individual home and hearth, as opposed to a view that embraces the whole world," Chicago says. "That global perspective is what I want to explore."

In developing her exhibition, she began with seven traditional themes drawn from the art of samplermakers: family, responsibility, conservation, tolerance, human rights, hope, and change.

Each piece in the show explores one of these values, using a time-tested adage or proverb. The idea of responsibility underlies "Do a Good Turn" and "Paddle Your Own Canoe," for example. Tolerance is depicted by "Welcome with Open Arms" and "Bury the Hatchet."

Chicago's involvement in an earlier Holocaust-based project inspired the idea.

The themes of hope rose directly out of that work, embodying what she calls the Jewish mandate to choose life.

"I choose hope," says the artist, who was raised in what she calls a liberal Jewish home in Chicago.

"Critics like to call me hopelessly optimistic," she says. Her 30-year career has been devoted to an affirmation of women's contributions to art and culture.

"But I say, it's much harder to choose hope than cynicism."

"Judy's work has always had the elevated purpose of using art to teach and envision real social change," says Nancy Berman, curator at the Skirball.

"The origin of this project was a desire to promote and enshrine positive values. Enmeshed in these familiar homilies are our values; these sayings have always been one way of keeping these values out there."

Ms. Berman points to themes such as conservation and helping one another. "These are the things that we need for the survival of this world," she adds.

Chicago's career has had its detractors, who have found her work either strident or simplistic. But she has embraced and welcomed controversy.

"I like to go against the grain," she says with a smile, starting with when she changed her name from Cohen to Chicago (after her hometown) in 1971.

Her feminism underlies every aspect of the "Resolutions" project, not just the themes. The style in which the works were created expresses Chicago's commitment to "changing the paradigm."

All the projects were co-created with master craftswomen, who provided the technical skills to complete some exhaustive tasks, such as a six-foot needlework sampler.

"We've worked together for 25 years," says Audrey Cowan, referring to Chicago. Ms. Cowan is skilled in the techniques of Aubusson tapestries.

She and Chicago "are complete creative and financial partners, 50-50," she adds. "I wouldn't work where someone just told me what to do, and I had to do it. I have to have creative input and respect."

For Chicago, this work style is just another way of looking at the world. "It's a whole other paradigm, one of cooperation, not competition," she says.

The Holocaust project taught her "that the oppression of women must be addressed."

Through "Resolutions," Chicago says, she does just that, but on a broader scale: She is using women's issues to reach out to the whole world.

'Resolutions: A Stitch in Time,' is showing at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles through April 29. It will then travel to The Albuquerque Museum in New Mexico May 13-Sept. 2. For more information and additional dates, log on to www.judychicago.com

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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