I used to think that Judy Chicago resembled Christo. Both of them lead armies -- her ambitious art, like his, is made by hundreds of assistants. The process of its making, and the hugeness of the effort, is more impressive than its looks.
But after viewing her "Birth Project," or those parts of it on view here, I now see Chicago as the Werner Erhard of the art world. Like that charismatic salesman who brought the country est, Chicago has attracted, goaded and inspired hundreds of adherents. They claim she's changed their lives. Somehow she's persuaded hundreds of women, many of them housewives, to view themselves as artists. Somehow she has forced large segments of the public to consider parts of women's bodies, and parts of women's lives, that the public would rather not confront. Chicago's fans adore her.
Her imagery -- polemical, insistent, disturbing and unsubtle -- is less successful than her cult.
Chicago's "Birth Project" -- with its emphasis on thighs and breasts, bodily functions, genitals, blood and pain and mucus -- suggests a female version of the gross and boisterous talk heard often in boys' locker rooms. Her bald and faceless women stare in horror at their bodies, or writhe about in agony, or pull their knees apart to force us to stare at what Chicago's Houston needleworkers coyly call "the 'V.' " "The Birth Project" embarrasses and drains. Political, repetitive, relentlessly verbose -- and not easily forgotten -- it is among the most exhausting shows this city has yet seen.
A viewing takes all day. To see it, and to read it (each image is surrounded by a dozen documents) you have to go to two branches of the Women's National Bank (one in Georgetown at 2905 M St. NW, the other at 1627 K St. NW), and to the Martin Luther King Memorial Library (at 901 G St. NW), and to the Wallace Wentworth Gallery (2006 R St. NW), and to the Maryland College of Art and Design (at 10500 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring). Long before that pilgrimage is over, the most intrepid viewer will feel dull-eyed, mush-brained, lectured-at, victimized, depressed.
Perhaps that is intentional. Perhaps Chicago here is trying to evoke the when-will-it-all-end tedium of pregnancy. Perhaps she wants us all to feel the misery and shame experienced by those women whom males have oppressed.
Obedient to the artist's poster-bold cartoons, about 150 unpaid needleworkers worked for months, or years, on the fabric works displayed. This page -- if meticulously embroidered, if shot through with gold thread -- would no doubt please the eye. So, too, do the efforts of Chicago's patient minions. Their stitchery is splendid. What fineness and precision "The Birth Project" possesses is less hers than theirs.
"I have approached the subject of birth," she writes, "to present different aspects of this universal experience -- the mythical, the celebratory, and the painful." The painful here predominates. Chicago rarely lightens up. Chicago grinds you down. She is interested in power -- and much of the potency of her exhibition comes from her ability to evoke disgust, disquiet, shame.
The crotch shots in "Hustler" are embarrassing. The motive here is different, but so are these.
Also embarrassing is one's sense of discretion cast aside, of privacy invaded. Confronted by these pictures of the agony of labor, one's impulse is to turn away. But Chicago will not let you. She turns viewers into voyeurs. She writes that though she searched art history for images of birth, she "turned up almost none." More than just politeness may explain their absence. Cows about to drop their calves wander from the herd. Women in few cultures bear their young in public. Certain moments call for privacy. That of birth may well be one.
Another lesser embarrassment, at least for male viewers, is prompted by the truculent, for-women-only spirit of Chicago's show. Men have let her down, she writes. She feels "fundamentally let down by the way they've treated me throughout my career . . . I feel punished, shut out of the art system, and made to feel ashamed of what I have created." Here she gets her own back. Men rarely appear in "The Birth Project" (and why should they? They don't have babies), but one of those that does, in a picture at Wallace Wentworth, is a brute, a cave-man, dragging off a woman by her hair. In a show that tries to overthrow sexist cliche's, that old clunker glares.
A final, subtler embarrassment is provided by the many gushing needleworkers' testimonials that accompany this show. Not only did they work for free, making objects now on sale for as much as $56,275, they also wrote accounts of their experience that read like advertisements. But do they feel misused? Not a bit. "I have gained more self-confidence, especially in relation to trusting my own judgment," writes one of them, Chrissie Clapp. The image Chicago gave her to sew "has meant my Self to me -- she is my universal experience as a woman," writes Kate CloudSparks. "I am now aware that I am a capable woman and secure enough to handle whatever comes along," writes Sally Babson. "The piece I worked on came to be synonymous with my personal growth," adds Candis Duncan Pomykala.
That's the tone of voice one hears when Scientologists talk about their E-Meters. Embroidering, as Kate CloudSparks did, a bleeding, screaming woman, torn from throat to crotch -- instead of, say, a bunch of flowers -- may have been a life-enhancing experience. But it is not easy to see why.
"The Birth Project's" five exhibitions here will remain on view through June.