3. Quilting

First, I bought a blue dress and then, some weeks later, a curious anthology called ‘I’m not that kind of girl’ by poet and professor Susan Schutz. There’s a handwritten inscription on the inside cover of this particular copy, Happy Birthday, Favourite Person Love, Judy, and is dated: August 28, 1977. Approaching the 30th anniversary of Favourite Person’s last bookmarked birthday, I wonder what exactly did Judy, the card-giver, do to end up here? Abandoned, here, on the shelves of a desert junkyard.

The content of Schutz’s book is uncomfortable, perhaps Favourite Person wasn’t pleased about the gift, as her poems are a heady mix of sexual and platonic desire. Most pages are illustrated by the author’s husband, Stephen, to whom she pays tribute on, again, almost every page. I read on and find that the Shutzes are recognised in every English-speaking country as ‘the best-selling poet-artist team’; fittingly, today they run a Greeting Card company in Boulder, Colorado, producing birthday card after birthday card for every and anybody’s favourite person.

Amidst Susan’s love for Stephen are fumbled attempts at platonic love that go like this: ‘You know how I feel/You listen to how I think/ You understand…/You’re/my/friend.’ and, elsewhere, ‘I go out/all the time/ with so many/ people/ but when I/ need someone/ to understand me/ it is not these/ acquaintances to whom/ I turn/ It is always/ to you,/ my true friend’. Jaunty stops and starts create a tone of uncertainty, not sincerity: it’s as though Schutz is google translating, reversing the original language’s emphases, each heartfelt phrase.  

Soon after finishing the collection, I dreamt about the abandoned Judy being the legendary artist Judy Chicago, best known for her installation The Dinner Party (1979). Chicago is notorious for her many severed relations, largely a result of controversies surrounding the production of her work, so I tried to justify this dream from fiction into reality. After painstaking comparative studies between the signature in the book and Chicago’s real signature, I found an irreconcilable difference: namely, a striking inconsistency in the way each Judy inscribed the initial of their shared first name.  Even so, this plot line had been planted and I was afloat with fantasies of Judy’s ‘Favourite Person’ flinging Chicago’s love letter into a box labelled ‘Thrift Store’ following some argument or fatal disagreement. Perhaps their love, platonic or not, had dwindled under the stress and labour of The Dinner Party, completed a mere two years after Favourite’s birthday. The Dinner Party, or even Womanhouse (1972) which preceded it, follow the same fault-lines that shook Drop City.

In 1972, female students belonging to the CalArts program in Los Angeles, CA, were tasked with building a house-sized installation, where they would be separated from the outside world and resist conforming to male desire. Chicago once publicly humiliated a blonde-haired woman for grooming herself according to the male gaze; the next day, the same (slightly altered) person walked into Chicago’s seminar with a self-styled bob and other students soon followed this new fashion, believing they were in some way repealing male law and appeasing the Queen Judy. Chicago expressed shock and a sense of regret for the oppressive influence she had unwittingly exerted (1). In a similar way, there were signs of unintentional hierarchies within both Drop City and Criss-Cross collectives respectively. These are most clearly shown through accounts of conversations and the behaviour of those involved.For instance, the artist Charles DiJulio, whose posters currently adorn the walls of the first project space at Rule Gallery in Marfa, suggested the name ‘Criss-Cross’ in a phone conference that happened before the group formalised. The telephone transcript of the meeting reads,

‘Gene [Bernofsky] and Clark [Richert] dig “crisscross” and want to have this for the name. Ch. [Charles DiJulio] thinks they are putting him on. They insist that they like it.’ 

Dijulio’s unfounded rejection of their approval suggests a history of mocking or derision from his peers. Despite the artist’s current importance and influence, I imagine DiJulio as a quietly talented man. Almost thirty years later, his presence in Rule Gallery is widespread; his work much admired and praised. Yet, during his lifetime, DiJulio’s distrust of his work and, by extension, of his critics led to situations of disarray. In a documentary directed by Joan Grossman in 2012, some droppers recall a physical clash that broke out between Charlie and fellow residents. They identify this particular altercation as an early sign of the city’s inevitable doom.

A rug belonging to the late Robin Rule, founder of Rule gallery, sits on the floor in Rule House’s living-room. The artist Sean Landers littered it  with letters, words and phrases that express doubt and voice frighteningly exclamative thoughts such as, ‘IT DOESN’T TAKE A GENIUS TO FAKE I.Q TEST RESULTS, OR DOES IT?’ or, ‘OF COURSE I’M A FRAUD’ and, simply, ‘FEAR’. I sit on the couch tapping at my laptop and imagine the rug is in fact blank or beige and the writing a mere projection of my internal monologue, or an imaginary portrait of anyone who has ever stepped out of what feels natural to them.

I was less aware of this reflexive action three years ago, when I visited the Riflemaker Gallery in London for a Judy Chicago retrospective called ‘Star Cunts and Other Attractions’. In the basement of the gallery I sought refuge and found a series of self-portraits by the London-based artist Josephine King. I took a photograph of one painting that shouted “SELFISH BITCH. FEMALE ARTIST. ESCAPE MEDIOCRITY” from its borders. After all the criticism and controversy, I am forced to believe that abandonment is a state of mind that feeds on doubt: hey Judy, it’s just a book, okay? We experience reckless self-abandonment when these thoughts turn into art, writing, music or more. Landers’s rug is aggressive in the same way that DiJulio’s handwriting is grievously splattered across the project room walls: it’s a type of dropping, in the sense of excrement, that needs to come out for the artist to live.

DiJulio’s posters, amongst other works, were found inside a geodesic dome at the back of the artist’s garden three years after the artist’s death. Clearly, unlike galleries or museums, he wasn’t precious about his artwork. He loved measuring and the process of making; and this was a love that exceeded the final appreciation of each work. Droppers made their city from found objects, and DiJulio produced art that he could no longer cling to—and so, it had to be dropped.

Notes

  1. Jane F. Gerhard, The Dinner Party: Judy Chicago and the Power of Popular Feminism, 1970-2007 (The University of Georgia Press: Athens, Georgia, 2013), p. 34.

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