at the Pasadena Museum of California Art
through October 7 (upon which time the museum will permanently close)
Reviewed by Emily Nimptsch
“If men had babies, there would be thousands of images of the crowning.” – Judy Chicago, 1982
Since 2002, East Union Street’s illustrious Pasadena Museum of California Art has reliably showcased some of the city’s most vibrant, eclectic, and socially-conscious exhibitions, including 2018’s The Feminine Sublime and Testament of the Spirit: Paintings by Eduardo Carrillo. As a modern and contemporary art hub renowned for presenting Southern California’s finest art and artists, this progressive artspace has undoubtedly elevated Los Angeles’s cultural discourse over the course of its 16-year run. With the recent news that the PMCA board has decided to close this beloved museum following the conclusion of its current exhibition, Judy Chicago’s Birth Project: Born Again, in October due to fundraising issues, witnessing this exquisite collection of Chicago’s rarely-seen feminist tapestries from the early 1980s in this transcendent, sublime location is now all the more important.
Prominently featuring women’s achievements, experiences, and vaginal imagery reclaimed to represent strength and power, Judy Chicago’s iconic conceptual sculptures, paintings, tapestries, and mixed media installations resist the patriarchy with a searing intensity. Deeply inspired by the second-wave feminist movement of the 1960s, the artist resolved to capture the puissance of this progressive movement through her highly personal artwork. She wholeheartedly rejected minimalism due to its remote, indifferent nature and association with the male-dominated art world at the time. In response, she forged her own path, espousing mediums, such as needlework and embroidery, which male artists and critics have historically rebuffed as “women’s crafts.”
Paying tribute to the unsung heroines of history, Chicago’s seminal installation, The Dinner Party (1979) assembles an imaginary gathering of over one thousand influential women, including Boadicea, Sappho, Joan of Arc, Sojourner Truth, Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, and Georgia O’Keeffe. With 999 names listed on the gallery floor as well as 39 individualized place settings with blossoming, vulva-centric designs arranged at a chalice-shaped dinner table, Chicago is not only offering women a seat at the metaphorical table but envisioning an enlightened, compassionate matriarchy. Although typically isolated and persecuted in their respective time periods, here these dynamic, subversive women are retroactively supported and encouraged.
Building on these themes of craft, unity, and the power of womanhood, Chicago soon began working on the series featured in this exhibition, The Birth Project (1980-1985). Interested in a collaborative experience, she gathered a team of 150 female needleworkers to create 84 textile works delving into issues of motherhood and the birth experience. Together, these tapestries reveal that the act of giving birth is not merely a physical act, but an emotional and spiritual one, too. Chicago explains:
“My first ideas in developing imagery for The Birth Project involved using the birth process as a metaphor for creation. Long before I finished The Dinner Party, I became interested in creation myths…I met a radical nun who collaborated with me in writing a reinterpretation of the myth of Genesis from a female point of view. As soon as I could, I began trying to build a visual analog to this myth—one that would affirm the fact that it was women who created life. When I approached this subject matter again in preparation for The Birth Project, I went to the library to see what images of birth I could find. I was struck dumb when my research turned up almost none…Why were there no images? Attracted to this void, I plunged into the subject.” — Judy Chicago, 1985.
Rife with fluid, undulating forms as well as Neolithic-inspired depictions of lotus flowers, insects, fish, and reptiles, these textiles read like archetypal mythology. While Western art has long devoted itself to a categorically male version of God, this collection is a celebration of the feminine divine in all Her transcendent glory. Here the viewer cannot help but witness the divine creatress empowered in this life-giving act.
As the emotional and aesthetic core of this series, The Crowning Needlepoint 3 (1983) is a radiant and refreshing depiction of the birth process. Complete with golden light emanating from a flowering vagina, this disarmingly honest needlepoint piece centers upon the vulva appropriately embellished with a regal crown. What was once considered a shameful process resulting from a sinful deed is now noble, natural, and divine.
Bathed in similarly dusty hues of golden brown, Chicago’s Creation of the World Petit Point (1984) offers another look straight up the birth canal. This petit point drawing on silk mesh further blends the heavenly and earthly realms through the extension of the depicted woman’s fingers and toes. Her extremities blend into rhythmic black lines as they diffuse out into the background. Here notions of the self extend beyond the borders of the physical body in both a parental and cosmic sense. As a portrait of both a mother and mother nature, her frame contains cave paintings featuring turtles, ants, salamanders, and trees with extensive root systems. In fusing a wide variety of life forms, Chicago meditates on the idea of a universal harmony which unites womankind with all creation.
Somehow both profoundly personal and universal, these seemingly ancient images also provide wisdom on issues plaguing the modern woman. The artist here offers copious amounts of fortitude and resilience amid the global struggle to gain and retain independence, reproductive health, and human rights. Judy Chicago’s Birth Project: Born Again serves as a timely reminder that tenacity, femininity, and divinity not abstract, separate concepts, but virtues firmly intertwined and needed for daily life. And although the Pasadena Museum of California Art is sadly coming to the end of its natural life cycle, its radical, avant-garde exhibitions surely inspired a generation of Los Angeles’s emerging artists. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, art cannot be killed or destroyed, as it will always find a way to continue in a new form, born anew.
Emily Nimptsch is Los Angeles Art Critic for Riot Material magazine. Ms. Nimptsch is also a freelance arts and culture writer who has written for Flaunt, ArtSlant, Artillery, ArteFuse, and Time Out Los Angeles.