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Art and Craft

Judy Chicago‘s most recent production, a series of textile works made in collaboration with 17 female needlework artists, has not met with kind reviews. When the exhibition of this work, “Resolutions: A Stitch in Time,” premiered at the American Craft Museum in Manhattan last summer, The New York Times called it “an excellent candidate for worst New York museum show of the year . . . aesthetically vacuous, conceptually inane and morally disingenuous.” When it opened at the Skirball Cultural Center in January, the Los Angeles Times dismissed the works as “so unattractive, out-of-touch and propagandistic that it’s difficult to take them seriously.” Harsh words for a body of work that purports to “celebrate the moral values that have sustained humanity through the ages.”

Of course, criticism is nothing new to Judy Chicago: She has long been the sort of artist critics love to hate -- and who clearly loves to hate them right back. Indeed, her breezy attitude toward criticism has become an essential element of her persona and echoes throughout the personality profiles that make up the majority of her press coverage. “I‘ve gotten the worst reviews of any contemporary artist in the world,” she admitted to the Los Angeles Times. “In fact, if I started getting good reviews, I’d think I was doing something wrong.” In this context, criticism is translated as controversy and displayed as a badge of honor. Compared to the adoration of her real fans, the irritation of the critics is seen as proof of their misogynistic elitism -- a testament to the purity of Chicago‘s mildly martyred vision.

This antagonistic dichotomy -- between the fans and the detractors, the female feature writers and the male critics, the real people and the art snobs -- is unfortunate. It makes the fans look undiscriminating and the critics seem inhuman. I myself wanted nothing to do with it. As a proponent of most of the values that the show purportedly espouses -- feminism, optimism, a recognition of the value of traditionally female craft -- I really wanted to like the show. When I saw it at the Skirball and realized that I couldn’t -- that it would, in fact, be beneath my dignity to do so -- I considered retreating from the museum quietly and keeping my opinions to myself. But the more I thought about it, the more the show‘s blandly righteous stance grated on me, and the more angry I became at feeling pigeonholed into the despicable-critic category.

The premise of the project is as inarguably decent as a church picnic. Over the course of six years, Chicago and her 17 extremely talented collaborators (most of whom had worked with Chicago on previous projects) produced a series of textile works illustrating common proverbs. In the exhibition, these works are grouped into seven thematic categories: family, responsibility, conservation, tolerance, human rights, hope and change. The works combine Chicago’s imagery and painting with more than a dozen different needlework techniques, all of which are respectfully explained in accompanying text panels. A short video introduces us to the individual needleworkers with footage taken from their yearly meetings in Chicago‘s studio. They are agreeable women -- mostly middle-aged, den-mother-ish and cheerful -- who have nothing but enthusiasm for the project and glowing praise for Chicago. The exuberant presence of these women is the real light of the show: Their work is skillful and wonderfully earnest; it lends gravity to the project’s moral purpose.

To be fair, Chicago herself does not attempt to overshadow the role of these women. The equality of their creative and economic relationship with Chicago is stressed again and again throughout the exhibition -- so extensively, in fact, that it becomes very clear what Chicago has to gain from their participation: They are her shield. Their cheerful presence warms the heart, deflecting all but the most mean-spirited criticism, and their technical virtuosity distracts from the essentially vapid quality of the imagery.

The proverbs that form the basis of each piece -- such as “Do a good turn,” “We‘re all in the same boat” and “Bury the hatchet” -- are painfully banal, and Chicago’s illustrations are even worse. Rather than expanding the meaning or value of these age-old sayings, Chicago‘s inoffensively liberal (i.e., multicultural, multidenominational, earth-friendly and child-centered) imagery has drained the life out of them. The works seem to have been designed for the walls of a parochial nursery school. Bury the Hatchet, for example, features a Christian, a Jew and a Muslim literally burying a hatchet. While the imagery bears a stylistic resemblance to earlier Chicago works such as The Dinner Party (1974--79) and The Birth Project (1980--85), with flowing forms, expressionistic figuration, and a careful attention to texture and materials, it lacks the anger and political fire that made those works compelling. What’s more, the installation -- with stale brown walls and tight, impersonal frames for each piece -- is dull and smothers the homey pleasure the needlepoint offers. One finds oneself longing instead for the samplers, quilts and embroidered pillows these women might have created without Chicago‘s help. As it is, there’s simply no force to the work. Outside of its proper context -- a community center or a school, perhaps -- and devoid of conviction, it seems sadly irrelevant.

Because the traditional crafts of women do deserve to be honored, because the level of craft that Chicago employs in the project does warrant serious museum recognition, and because such craft should be explored and meaningfully incorporated into the dialogue of contemporary art, it is tempting to take Chicago‘s word at face value and simply enjoy the handiwork of her talented collaborators. But it is for these same reasons that the work is so disappointing. There are too many people likely to believe that women’s art is as vacuous and women‘s worldly concerns as childish as “Resolutions” implies. Chicago offers little to the causes of either craft or feminism when she trumpets them in such simple-minded terms.

In contrast, two small solo shows at the UCLA Hammer Museum -- Francesca Gabbiani and Arturo Herrera -- offer a compellingly complex vision of craft, and exemplify the ease with which craft techniques are continually being woven into the fabric of contemporary art practices. Gabbiani makes painstaking collage works from small bits of carefully cut colored paper. These collages are of two types: large landscapes (one is more than 20 feet in length) and small bugs (most only a few inches across). She seems to have chosen her subjects more for the technical challenges they presented than for the picturesque qualities they might have possessed -- the pieces are, on the whole, more impressive than they are beautiful -- but those challenges suffuse the work with a heady and exhilarating sense of accomplishment that calls to mind one’s first childhood mastery of scissors and glue. The largest piece, Wallpaper (2001), is a dense autumn forest scene made up of thousands of bits of paper, one for every hue, highlight and shadow in the thick foliage. The smaller works, each of which depicts a different species of insect, centered and flattened like a biological specimen that has been pinned to a board, combine yet smaller fragments of paper to illustrate the startling complexity of the insects‘ natural design and coloring. In all of the works, the coarse tactility of the materials -- the sheer clumsiness of the layered paper -- belies the precision of the techniques, resulting in a strange fusion of hobby-store aesthetics and scientific hyperrealism.

Herrera employs a variety of different media, such as paper collage, latex, felt and plaster, to produce seductive and playful images that blur the lines between a cartoonish sense of realism and delirious abstraction. His blood-red latex wall paintings, which engulf the lobby and stairwell of the Hammer Museum to thrilling effect, feature a perversely confusing and uncomfortably erotic tangle of imagery from Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. A series of small paper collages displayed in the lobby gallery of the museum expresses a similarly poignant eroticism in very different aesthetic terms. These letter-size works are composed around found fragments of paper that seem to have been retrieved from the bottom reaches of someone‘s memory. In several of the collages, soft, pale smudges of watercolor resemble the faint evidence of bodily fluids. Exquisitely delicate in color and form, these works are unexpectedly entrancing. Herrera’s use of craft techniques is most obvious in his pieces using cut felt, which are similar in design to the wall paintings. But it is the intimacy found in all of his work, its proximity to the body and human experience, that best expresses the essential spirit of craft.


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