Weaving Issues into Art Textile Works Focus on Domesticity and the Environment

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A SERIES of exhibitions devoted to various facets of contemporary textile art opened in St. Louis earlier this month.

Artists are drawn to textile (or fiber) art for a number of compelling reasons. It has a long and illustrious history to draw from, a history in which methods have remained constant. It presents a challenging range of possibilities to exploit, a variety of methods and choices of materials, which today can mean materials never imagined by fiber artists of the past.

Works can be flat or three-dimensional, large scale or miniature. Even more to the point, the nature of much of the material used and the long tradition of textile art (domestic and feminine) makes it a perfect vehicle for expressing some of the major issues afloat in the art world today, namely issues of family, domesticity, the body and the environment.

These issues surface in the survey of contemporary basket making at Craft Alliance, "Bridges" (devoted to the pioneers in the field) and "Breaking the Rules," curated by Jane Sauer, herself an internationally recognized basket maker.

With 108 baskets on view, this show represents the creativity released by the metaphorical and utilitarian possibilities of the vessel form, a repetition of what happened years ago in ceramics.

It takes a lot of looking to sort out the multitude of directions. There is everything from the small, intimate, pictorial, even narrative work , such as Judy Mulford's "The Family - Will We Survive?" that incorporates family photographs, text and tiny babies fitted in papoose-like cases, to formal sculptural concerns.

A basket can be a mere sketch in which the utilitarian aspect is minimal. This is the case in Gyongy Laky's architectural baskets, which are made basically of an open work circle of bound vines.

A highly successful example of a sculptural object whose skin encloses implied rather than visible interior space is Barbara Cooper's large-scale wall piece "Plexus," made of glued wood veneer strips in a random weave. Its entwined form and wrapped surface emphasizes twist, a dancer's movement. Rather than appearing as a small piece simply blown up, it achieves true sculptural presence.

In the same vein are Linda Kelly's dark, life-size baskets of woven reeds, examples technically of basic basketry. They are most effective seen in a grouping in a small room at the R. Duane Reed Gallery. The gallery is showing both Kelly's and John Garrett's work, who is also included in the Craft Alliance show.

Kelly's forms - vertical, dark, grouped like a small forest - are very lightweight, soft to the touch, even squishy, and have an uncanny, almost breathing human presence.

It is interesting to note that the most creative energy in art today seems to fall into polar extremes - a cool poetic minimalism and an obsessiveness bordering on chaos. This, I believe, is influenced by the interest today in so-called naive or outsider art. Maybe these are the only two choices left to us in viewing the state of affairs in the late 20th century.

The minimalist vein is beautifully exemplified in the work of the two Japanese basket makers, Hideho Tanaka and Hisako Sekijima. Tanaka's "Vanishing" series baskets, made of stainless steel wire, are formed into nest-like pod forms. His stated concern is how to make an object appear and disappear. Some have a handmade paper skin, part of which has been ceremoniously (in performance) burned away to reveal structure.

My favorites are the wire ones. They are dense, complex, light filled, evanescent containers. A beauty is in the St. Louis Art Museum exhibition, "Contemporary Fiber From St. Louis Collections," curated by Zoe Annis Perkins, textile conservator at the museum.

Sekijima's pieces at Craft Alliance are fragile looped envelopes that lie flat. They are minimalist studies in negative and positive space. …