At the heart of Vanderbilt’s Peabody campus, stately brick buildings with tall columns flank a grassy mall. One of those is the Cohen Building, which before this fall housed the university’s studio arts program. That program moved into fancy new digs over on the far side of the main Vanderbilt campus, leaving the building empty. But go there today and you’ll find a hive of activity—people painting canvases, installing dry wall, or, on Wednesday afternoons, almost 30 people sitting on chairs in a circle in a large windowless classroom. A short woman with red hair leads the conversation, sometimes conferring with a tall blonde man in a Hawaiian shirt and cowboy boots. The topic today is how to find the money to make art. Each person in the circle—men and women, college students and people whose college days are long behind them—takes a turn describing how they found people to donate supplies, provide financial support or help out in other ways. The discussion hits on grants, support from family and ultimately on the sacrifice required to make art.
The woman tending the circle is Judy Chicago, and her husband Donald Woodman is the one with the boots. She’s a cultural star, someone of great notoriety and one of the key 1970s figures who made feminism a powerful force in the art world. During that decade, women artists made their voices heard as never before, and claimed aesthetic values that differed vastly from the prevailing values established by men. As the decade came to a close, feminist art was summed up in one magisterial work, Chicago’s 1979 “The Dinner Party.” It was audacious, remembering women throughout history with unmistakable vaginal imagery set on a monumental scale. People talked about this piece, had opinions about it, traveled to see it. It mattered, and guaranteed its creator a place in the history of 20th century art.
This semester, Judy Chicago is in residence for a project at Vanderbilt that will fill the 13,000-square-foot Cohen Building with art. Her presence is the art world equivalent of having Woody Allen or Elaine May here to work with aspiring local filmmakers. Chicago and her husband are working with a diverse—and select—group of Vanderbilt students and community artists, who include some of the more active members of Nashville’s creative scene. The visitors’ influence will be felt by virtue of their impact on the people participating in the project.
While the enterprise features Judy Chicago’s name, the art will come from the participants, the results on view to the public from April 21 to May 13. What Chicago and Woodman bring to the project is a feminist teaching method that she has been developing since her involvement in pioneering early-’70s women’s art programs in California. Her pedagogy includes a series of group meetings, held in a circle that establishes a space for the participants to present themselves, their ideas and strategies for converting those ideas into art. There is discussion throughout about the practical concerns of making art in a highly visible way. Chicago pushes the participants to identify issues and experiences that matter deeply to them, and to make art based on that content. It can sound like an encounter group—“definitely this has been therapy for some people,” participant Fukimo Futamura says. The participants also receive individual critiques from Chicago and Woodman, and that’s supplemented by weekly lectures by Vanderbilt art historian Vivien Fryd.
Futamura is a good example of the range of the participants. She’s a Ph.D. student in mathematics, studying frame and operator theory, and the fact that she has gone way past most of us is evident as soon as she tries to explain further. “I’m dealing right now with what’s called localized frames, and I’m looking at operators, specifically pseudodifferential operators that are almost diagonalized by these frames,” she says. But she also minored in studio art as an undergraduate.
The participants include several recent graduates of the Watkins College of Art and Design, like Jason Driskill, who explores, in very challenging imagery, issues of male physical and sexual perception. Unlike Vanderbilt students in the liberal arts program, he and the other Watkins graduates have trained to become professional artists. Kate McSpadden graduated from Vanderbilt last spring and won the Hamblett Award, which gives the winner support for a year of travel, study and making art. Paula Bowers-Hotvedt is a weaver who was involved in the Visual Arts Alliance of Nashville, one of the precursors to all of the co-ops, collaborative shows and one-night events that give the local scene much of its vitality. Constance Gee, wife of Vanderbilt Chancellor Gordon Gee and a professor at Vanderbilt, is also participating. Erika Johnson serves as a paid coordinator for the Untitled series, is a member of East Nashville’s Plowhaus co-op gallery, and is becoming a leading local artistic voice with a lesbian perspective.
This project is the latest in a sequence of similar undertakings that can be traced back to “Womanhouse” in 1971. A group of women in the Feminist Art Program at the California Institute of the Arts, under the leadership of Chicago and Miriam Shapiro, converted an old mansion into a series of thematic installations that explored women’s experiences. Several of the participants went on to prominent art careers, such as Faith Wilding, Jan Lester and Suzanne Lacey. In the intervening years, Chicago became known for working with groups to realize her designs and aesthetic vision. “The Dinner Party” involved hundreds of people. A large-scale installation that celebrated the achievements of women throughout history, with individual place-settings along a triangular table, it required the work of many others who researched the historical figures in the project, painted the china, embroidered runners and assisted in other ways. Chicago followed with “The Birth Project,” another large work that pulled together tapestries created by 150 needleworkers around the country. In 1999, she returned to site-based projects built around the ideas of individual participants, all done in conjunction with a university. The Vanderbilt project follows others at Indiana University, Duke, Pomona and Western Kentucky.
The Western Kentucky project, “At Home,” is most familiar to Nashville audiences. A small group took over a bungalow off campus in Bowling Green and created installations in the rooms. Some of the work was excruciatingly painful—the Eating Disorder Bathroom, the Abuse Closet and the Rape Garage. That project was not without controversy, including a flirtation with censorship when university administrators threatened to mask pornographic images incorporated into the rape piece.
Where the WKU project started with a theme—the home—the one at Vanderbilt does not. Moreover, the artists have worked on solo ideas, not in collaboration. “We were all expecting to do a lot more collaborative work,” but the solo emphasis has the advantage of allowing people to pursue ideas of utmost concern to them, Johnson says.
While the group may not have worked collaboratively (with the exception of David Huestess from the Sarratt Art Studios and weaver Paula Bowers-Hotvedt), many feel a strong sense of connection as a group. Constance Gee comments on how “quickly and intensely the group cohered.” The environment has encouraged the participants to enter into deeply felt personal issues and experiences. Vanderbilt student Joann Lee, who is Korean, is working on paintings about her romantic relationship with a black man. Those paintings will be displayed in the same room as a series by Futamura that captures the various stereotypes she faces as a Japanese woman—paragon of traditional Japanese culture, straight-A student, rock chick, Asian fetish figure. Johnson is creating an installation piece that explores same-sex marriage and the idea of marriage and coupleness in general through an array of photographic images and sculptural elements (nests and cages) produced with the help of other women in the community. Watkins graduate Derek Gibson’s piece will include a video element in which the artist, dressed in a suit, performs chores associated with women. Other participants are tackling rape, the male desire for control, religion and political and moral conviction.
The group’s coherence reflects the success of Chicago and Woodman’s method—the project’s “first genius,” in Johnson’s words. This success may be a function of skillful screening and selection, the simple efficiency of the physical arrangement of the circle, or Chicago’s skill as a facilitator. Heather Spriggs-Thompson, one of the Watkins graduates and a Secret Show series organizer, says she was struck by the way Chicago handled people who were dealing with “really difficult emotional and personal situations.” She allowed these conversations to occur but “knew when to cut it off so that the person didn’t feel completely uncomfortable.”
Not everyone involved found the “circle” process compelling. The group is big enough that just to go around the circle once on a topic can take up almost an entire session. A certain portion of the time is consumed with logistics, such as deciding on hours for the exhibit, collecting mailing lists, arranging trips to the art supply store. The drudge work is part of the project’s lesson, but it’s not going to come as a revelation to the participants who have put on shows already (a large number of the community artists). Some of the substantial exchange between the participants comes outside of the circle.
And, of course, there are Chicago’s and Woodman’s critiques with each participant. Futamura may be typical of many of the artists. “In the very first meeting with them, there were a lot of suggestions that I just rejected, but there were a lot of good suggestions that really improved my work. Overall, it’s been a really positive experience.”
For others, the critiques have gone less well. One participant was “offended” by the critique at first, but in retrospect found merit in the suggestions. Another critique turned so heated that it created a crisis of sorts in the project. In many cases, Chicago and Woodman asked the artists to prepare models of their project for evaluation. This artist’s model received a strong rejection. Chicago and Woodman hated certain details and in general felt it was too esoteric for anyone to understand. They delivered the criticism in a way the participant found withering, calling into question not just the idea but her skills as an artist. This artist was prepared to quit the project, but other participants later intervened and helped arrange a rapprochement with Chicago and Woodman. The artist herself ultimately concluded that Chicago “is a gutsy lady who has done important things. But even though she’s worked in large collaborative groups often, it’s strange, but she has difficulty working in large groups.” Chicago responds that this participant “has a very high level of craft skills and we tried to help her bring up the aesthetic level. Her first model was weak, and she responded very defensively to our criticism. It was unpleasant for all of us.”
Controversy has followed some of Chicago’s projects—for example, over the years there have been accusations that she exploited the people who helped on “The Dinner Party,” claims that Chicago and her biographers dispute. Rather than trying to sort out the merits of conflicting claims, it’s worth recognizing the note of conflict that exists around some of her projects. She is certainly a forceful person, with strong opinions, a mix of confidence and anxiety, and bluntness that often puts people at ease but can also go in the other direction. Anyone with high energy and vision will rub some people the wrong way and be criticized for it, but the reaction is seems more virulent for a woman. Whether due to a double standard or avoidable mistakes, a degree of tension goes with Judy Chicago. Where one imagines a male artist dismissing complaints about friction on a project, Chicago does not stay impervious to the criticisms. She wonders if people “understand how much it hurts me to see these things in print.”
Many of the most intense exchanges on the Vanderbilt project have surrounded one of Chicago’s central tenets, the “content-based search.” Unlike art that might focus on forms, abstract ideas or the physical process of art-making itself, Chicago asks the participants to find specific content relevant to themselves and the project and to use this as the foundation for their work. The content and what the artist wants to communicate about that content drive the form. As Johnson puts it, Chicago told the group not to “be afraid to do what is really personal. Whatever is personal and specific for you, the more specific you can make it and the more clearly you can communicate it, the more likely it is to speak to a larger audience.” Chicago’s strongest criticisms seem to focus on work that she doesn’t feel pushes far enough into personal honesty, and on elements that interfere with the piece’s ability to communicate to an audience.
Kate McSpadden, a 2005 Vanderbilt graduate, was pushed in this way. “I painted abstractly because I loved the thinking behind it. I was a huge Abstract Expressionist fan. I’m compelled a lot by light and shape and color, the formal qualities you see in Abstract Expressionism. Basically, I found landscape images I loved and painted them…. This process makes me slow down and very consciously plot out what I’m going to do, and I’ve never worked on subject matter this personal, and all this is very intensely personal. I’m reluctant to delve into my private life in a very public way.”
Chicago’s insistence on communication with an audience has marked her entire career. Her success in this regard was evident in “The Dinner Party,” which reached blockbuster status and drew the kind of crowds you might find for Impressionist paintings or Egyptian artifacts. But this accessibility never served her well in the art world or with collectors. Prominent critics attacked “The Dinner Party” vehemently. While that piece is finally getting installed permanently in a major museum (the Brooklyn Museum in 2007), some of the collections that define the canon of contemporary art, like the Museum of Modern Art or the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, do not own pieces by Chicago. The directness of Chicago’s style, features that allow it to communicate with large audiences, conflict with art world values that privilege the pleasures of ambiguity, endless layers of meaning and complex coding. Several of the participants in the Vanderbilt project feel they’ve been asked to abandon some of their emphasis on personal expression and to think much more about accommodating an audience. The challenge has been how far to go in reaching audiences. Some of the artists wonder if the admonitions to keep it simple “sell people short.”
Chicago presents younger artists with an interesting model. On one hand, she is a success, someone who has produced artistic landmarks. But she earned her canonical status unconventionally, pursuing a more populist path, and anything populist (and popular) runs the risk of being dismissed as middlebrow. This choice represents a political and social idealism that seems central to her personality and can be traced back to her family background. Her father was a left-wing organizer in Chicago (the family name was Cohen, but Judy took the name Chicago early in her career), and the value of engaging with the masses seems part of her DNA. It’s hard to imagine her getting satisfaction from appealing primarily to a minuscule elite audience.
Chicago’s odd position in the art world, prominent but not marketable, means that she and Woodman offer unconventional lessons. She does not point the way to art market success, but to the possibility of alternatives. “We’ve built a world of our own,” she says. “When people come to see us, they come to our world. We brought our world here.” To the artists from Watkins College, who have taken responsibility for making and showing art, Chicago and Woodman’s ideas validate their activity. Driskill says this experience “made me realize I’m not a student anymore. In discussions on how to display art, and taking responsibility for showing art, I’ve developed a new sense of self-awareness.”
Throughout her career, Chicago has worked on forming communities and taking charge of getting her art shown, and exhorts the project participants to do the same. That message has already made its way into the consciousness of the young grassroots artists here, which just goes to show how the idealistic impulses of Chicago and others have shaped new generations of teachers and mentors like those at Watkins (who include at least one person, Lesley Patterson-Marx, who worked on the “At Home” project).
Chicago and Woodman offer no easy ride on their alternative path. One of their recurring lessons is that people need to understand the amount of work and sacrifice it requires to make art. Some of the participants found this to be an important insight. It made Erika Johnson acknowledge that she couldn’t count on relief from the practical struggles of art-making, but it also reassured her by showing there wasn’t something wrong in struggling. “I thudded to earth in a way that felt OK,” she says. She also decided to cut back her hours at work and commit to daily studio time. For Futamura, the mathematician, the work has confirmed her decision to pursue math and teaching, holding art as an important activity on the side.
In the end, Chicago and Woodman are only here temporarily, but it would be nice to think the project will have some lasting impact on Nashville—after all, it’s not every day artists of this stature work with people here. There is a good chance that new connections will be formed within the community. Bowers-Hotvedt believes “a lot of us will keep up” the relationships. Chicago and Woodman report that ongoing connections among project alums have formed at Indiana and Pomona.
The show also has the potential to affect the Nashville art audience. Chicago’s celebrity and Vanderbilt’s institutional clout could draw more and different people to see work by these participants. Johnson believes “people are going to come to this show who don’t come to the Secret Shows or to Untitled…. We’re going to get an audience for contemporary art who will see stuff they haven’t seen before in Nashville—not because it hasn’t been here, but because they don’t go to warehouses in bad parts of town to see art.”
If any of this happens, Chicago and Woodman will nudge the contemporary art scene in Nashville forward a step or two by making a few artists a little more visible, a little braver, a little more self-assured and a little more connected among themselves. In an art community Nashville’s size, benefits to a few players can easily influence the rest.
Evoke/Invoke/Provoke: A Multimedia Project of Discovery, Cohen Building, Peabody College, Vanderbilt University. April 21 through May 13. Gallery hours Wed & Thurs. 2-6, Fri. 4-8, Sat. & Sun. 12-6.