ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — About 36 years ago, art critics greeted Judy Chicago’s “Birth Project” with derision.
Now this iconic work designed by the Belen resident and stitched by 150 needleworkers is in demand across the country.
The Harwood Museum of Art in Taos is opening “Judy Chicago: The Birth Project from New Mexico Collections” on Sunday, June 2. The exhibition will include more than 20 works that explore mythological representations in relation to women and creation. Selections from the project have already appeared in Pasadena, Calif.; Tallahassee, Fla.; St. Paul, Minn.; and at Miami’s Art Basel.
In Taos, the show features more than 20 tapestries celebrating the birth-giving capacity of women amid the flowering of their creative spirit. Designed by the author, artist and feminist, the pieces combine painting and needlework from the Harwood, the University of New Mexico Art Museum and Through the Flower, Chicago’s nonprofit feminist art organization.
“Suddenly, there’s all this interest in the Birth Project,” Chicago said. “That’s one of the things about my work – 36 years after I do it, they go, ‘Wow.’ It took 30 years to place ‘The Dinner Party’.”
This is a woman who is accustomed to being told no and doing it anyway.
Chicago’s work defiantly resists the patriarchy with a searing intensity. She showcased mediums such as needlework and embroidery, rejected by both male artists and critics as “women’s crafts.”
Born Judy Cohen in a lower-middle-class Chicago neighborhood, she changed her name in 1969 to “assert my independence.” She trained at UCLA in the ’60s, founded a women’s art gallery and moved from minimalist sculpture toward the images of female genitalia and radical feminism that made her famous or infamous, depending on your point of view.
In “The Dinner Party,” her best-known and most controversial work, she set a huge triangular table with ceramic plates, symbols of women in western history. The piece celebrated 39 women, including Georgia O’Keeffe, Virginia Woolf and Emily Dickinson.
Chicago’s plates were unabashedly explicit – membranous designs in bright, sometimes lurid colors. By the time “The Dinner Party” arrived at the Brooklyn Museum in 1980, it triggered an uproar. In 2007, the museum accepted it into its permanent collection.
Chicago conceived “The Birth Project” as “The Dinner Party” ended.
“When I did the drawing, it was quite raw,” she said. “When I saw it in needlework, it was completely different.”
The works depict maternity dresses, birth traditions and issues enveloping motherhood and the birth experience.
Chicago researched birth practices around the globe and watched a live birth. She returned home in tears.
“I just thought to myself, ‘If everybody grew up seeing this, there would be no idea of the vulva as a passive organ. It’s tremendously powerful.'”
She was shocked to discover how rarely this natural process surfaces in art. A virtually unknown painting by Frida Kahlo was the exception.
Chicago and her needleworkers gestated 85 exhibit units across five years. Although she knows nothing of sewing or embroidery, she discovered an “unaccountable eye for designing needlework.”
The tapestries reveal the act of giving birth to be much more than a physical process; emotion and spirituality flow within the designs. Chicago used birth as a metaphor for creation. Individual lines undulate and spiral with depictions of lotus flowers, insects, fish and reptiles in evolutionary streams. Others feature an unashamed look up the birth canal, reading like a celebration of the feminine divine. The wrenching pain of labor is present; screams rent some of the women’s mouths; the rippling designs pulse with agony.
“Some of the stupidest things have been written about ‘The Birth Project’,” Chicago said. “One of my favorites was that I degraded women by putting them on their backs.”
“It is interesting to me that the work seems as relevant today as it was over 30 years ago when I first created it,” she added.
In 2018, Time magazine labeled Chicago one of its “100 Most Influential People.”