High Fiber

Summer is often considered sleepytime on the St. Louis art scene, the time when galleries get very mellow, museums drag out drowsy work from the permanent collection for display and everyone refuels for the fall season. Maybe it's the heat.

Fortunately for St. Louis, summer '99 is saved: Innovations in Textile Art III officially begins June 18. It includes extraordinary exhibitions, workshops and presentations at 11 venues citywide, plus an intensive weekend symposium June 18-20. Many of the exhibitions will be up throughout the summer, so don't worry; you've got time to see everything.

If you're still not excited -- if the word "textiles" sounds dull and industrial, and "fiber arts" means macrame plant hangers to you -- you are urged to see any or all of these exhibitions. They are guaranteed to revise common conceptions of textile and fiber arts, as well as the materials and techniques associated with them.

This third edition of the biennial textile fair, organized by Craft Alliance in conjunction with the participating galleries, nonprofit arts organizations and museums, promises to be rich in variety while maintaining a focus on innovations in African-American, American and Japanese textiles.

The splashy centerpiece of this year's extravaganza is Structure and Surface: Contemporary Japanese Textiles at the St. Louis Art Museum, opening June 18. This exhibition offers a look at the incredible work by Japanese textile artists and manufacturers. Japan is now the acknowledged center of experimental innovations in textile design, and the works included in this exhibition seriously stretch the definition of the word "textile."

The exhibition includes works made of every material imaginable, from the expected (silk, cotton, polyester) to the wildly unexpected (copper, soil, silver foil, feathers). Some of the fabrics are stretched, burned, pleated or distressed to achieve wonderful textures and sculptural forms.

Structure and Surface was curated by Matilda McQuaid of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and Cara McCarty of the St. Louis Art Museum. St. Louis is the second and final stop on its tour, so be sure to catch this show before it closes on Aug. 15.

Playing off the Japanese theme, R. Duane Reed Gallery is opening The Japanese Aesthetic on June 18. Curated by fiber powerhouse Jane Sauer, this show features works by Japanese and Japanese-inspired artists who use traditional techniques and not-so-traditional materials to produce woven, sculptural forms that can best be described as poetic. Converging Cultures at the Center of Contemporary Arts also showcases artists inspired by Japanese techniques and materials. That exhibition is kicked off by Yoshiko Wada's slide presentation at COCA on June 17.

Wada is an internationally renowned curator and artist specializing in the Japanese textile technique called shibori. She is a central figure in this year's Innovations in Textile Art, holding a shibori workshop at COCA (June 16 and 17), delivering a lecture at the St. Louis Art Museum (June 20) and curating Fiber Focus '99, an enormous collection of works by 78 artists from the Midwest, opening June 18 at Art St. Louis. With so many artists one would expect some overlap, but instead Fiber Focus '99 reveals the stunning variety of materials and techniques used by fiber artists today.

The same thing can really be said about every exhibition in the program. For instance, if you thought you knew what a basket was, think again: Baskets and Beyond, curated by Sauer at Craft Alliance, unravels expectations about those all-too-familiar containers. And Threads of the Imagination, at the St. Louis Artists' Guild, features six artists who take imaginative approaches to wearable art and create what is described as a "Wearable Labyrinth." In conjunction, the curator of the exhibition, Margaret Roach Wheeler, will give a lecture on "American Fiber Before the Europeans" at the Guild on June 18 and 19.

The strength of Innovations in Textile Art III is that it allows for close investigation and sustained study of a medium that is constantly and rapidly evolving. And it allows audiences to be exposed to the diversity of cultures engaged in the production of textile arts. The Other East, opening June 18 at the Portfolio Gallery and Education Center, features fiber works by African-American artists from all over the country and as far away as Barbados. This is the first year Portfolio Gallery is participating in the program, and it makes a welcome addition to the lineup. Also participating this year is the Austral Gallery, with its collection of contemporary Australian and aboriginal art in all media. And don't miss the Muriel Nezhnie retrospective exhibition at the Gallery in the University City Library (through June 30). Nezhnie, a leading tapestry artist, produced an amazing series of works devoted to survivors of the Holocaust, which are on display along with smaller studies and drawings. Sheldon Helfman will discuss the works at the Gallery on June 18.

Textiles and fiber arts are endlessly fascinating because they can take unlimited forms in any imaginable material. The field extends to works that can be described as "art" or "craft" or both -- indeed, pioneering fiber artists in the 1970s were some of the first to take the artificial (and gendered) art/craft distinction to task. Innovations in Textile Art III offers works at both ends of that imaginary spectrum. On the "art" end, you'll find works like Ann Coddington Rast's viscera at the Forum for Contemporary Art, a subtle yet enticing installation of basket forms embedded in false walls that invite viewers to ponder their deep, dark interiors. (Coddington Rast will be on hand to discuss her work on June 19 at the Forum; viscera runs through July 31.) On the "craft" end of things, City Museum will hold a sheep-shearing and artist demonstrations, also on June 19.

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