Picks and Pans Review: The Birth Project

updated 05/13/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/13/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Judy Chicago

Last time she raised her voice was with The Dinner Party, a banquet-size work dedicated to heralding the achievements of women through history. The plates in the work's 39 place settings celebrated the pudenda of such female giants as Eleanor of Aquitaine, Sappho, Georgia O'Keefe and Emily Dickinson. After a five-year gestation period, feminist artist Judy Chicago is back, as sexually explicit as ever, with The Birth Project, an exhibit and book bearing the same title. According to Chicago, birth is a topic that has been slighted in the history of art, and since the passage of time has obviously not dimmed her bustling sense of self-importance, she's out to remedy that slight. "I certainly have my work cut out for me," Chicago writes, "in trying to bring truth to a subject shrouded in such secrecy and mythology." Indeed. With the help of 150 volunteer needleworkers from across the U.S. and Canada, Chicago has produced 100 pieces about the act of birth and creation. (She designed the art, which was then executed by her handpicked team in embroidery, needlepoint, quilting, macramé, crochet and petit point.) What emerges is a group of amorphous creations, awash in ill-conceived feminist imagery. Take Hatching the Universal Egg, a disagreeable birth scene of a headless mother cradling her embryo baby while it breaks free of its shell. Then there's The Birth Tear, in which Universal Woman lies flat on her back, a blood-red rip splitting her open from her anus to her throat. Waves of pain in a progression of shades from red to blue seem to be radiating from her head. What we're getting, folks, is an intense dose of Chicago's radical symbolism, from which a lot of people recoil. Chicago's 231-page book includes excerpts from her five-year diary. They reveal some surprising expressions of frustration about the problems of working with women: "I'll never understand how women think things get done; they somehow must imagine that they can go from 'wanting' to 'having done' without actually...'doing.' " But there is also exultation about her female power: "I am powerful, and I expressed it, and I'm still expressing it." She has also stitched in diary entries from the needle-workers. It's a jumpy, badly organized patchwork of a book enlivened by self-serving revelations. As Chicago herself announces, "I've gone beyond all the familiar standards about what is good or bad in art." Her show is currently on view in Montpelier, Vt. and will be traveling through 1985, making stops in Washington, DC and Milwaukee. (Doubleday, $35)

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