"Don't be deceived by the simplicity of the art," Judy Chicago admonishes a group of reporters gathered for a preview of her "Resolutions: A Stitch in Time" exhibit at the Skirball Cultural Center. "The works may look effortless, but they are not simple in technique and meaning," adds Chicago (née Judy Cohen).
Even to a male ignoramus who wouldn't know a French knot from an appliqué, the 20 works on display are impressive, as much for their painstaking craftsmanship as their ability to infuse fresh perspectives into old platitudes.
Take the first work encountered by the visitor, the painting and embroidery titled "Home Sweet Home." Instead of a sampler gracing a bourgeois parlor, we encounter the diversity of human habitat through a globe surrounded by an igloo, Indian tent, high-rise, mobile home and more.
"Home Sweet Home" is part of the "Family" section of the exhibit, followed by such virtues and verities as "Responsibility," "Conservation," "Tolerance," "Human Rights," "Hope" and "Change."
Under Chicago's creative spur and design, 17 craftswomen labored some six years to complete the works, using such traditional "women's" textile arts as needlepoint, embroidery, French knots, weaving, appliqué, macramé, beading, smocking (gathering fabrics in a series of pleats) and quilting.
"This exhibit is about the ability of art to teach, perhaps even achieve social change," comments Nancy Berman, director emeritus of the Skirball. "Like this cultural center itself, these works lie at the intersection of Jewish and American values."
Chicago began work on "Resolutions" in 1993, after immersing herself the previous eight years in "The Holocaust Project."
"By the time I finished the project, I was in a deep depression. I felt as though I had traveled through Dante's 'Inferno,'" she recalls. As an antidote, she returned to the biblical injunction "to choose life" by making art celebrating humanity's deeply rooted moral values.
The artist, a petite redhead, has ardent followers and equally ardent detractors. "When "Resolutions" opened in New York, The New York Times critic pulled out all the stops by blasting it as "aesthetically vacuous, conceptually inane and morally disingenuous."
Chicago shrugs off the harsh judgment. "I've gotten the worst reviews of any contemporary artist in the world," she says. "If I started getting good reviews, I'd think I was doing something wrong." A number of programs related to the exhibit include:
Feb. 25: "Turn Over a New Leaf": Tu B'Shevat family program with Lisa Deutsch. Paper making and bookbindings for ages 4 and up. 2 p.m. at the Skirball.
March 3-April 7: A show of Chicago's drawings at Works on Paper, Inc., 6150 Wilshire Blvd.
March 4: "Responsibility." Rabbi Harvey Fields will discuss the role of social responsibility within the Jewish tradition. 2 p.m. at the Skirball.
March 6: "Art Matters." Barbara Isenberg interviews Judy Chicago in the Getty Center's Harold Williams Auditorium at 7 p.m.
March 31: The Gwen Wyatt Chorale of the Wilshire United Methodist Church will perform a concert of gospel music exemplifying the value of hope. 1 p.m. at the Skirball.
The "Resolutions" exhibit will run through April 29. Hours are Tuesday-Saturday, 12 p.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. The museum is closed Monday. Admission is $8 (adults); $6 (seniors and students). Members and children under 12 free. For information, phone (310) 440-4500.