St. Louis Art Museum

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On one level, Structure and Surface, the new exhibition of contemporary Japanese textiles on view at the St. Louis Art Museum, is a stunning art show. Fabrics of every imaginable color, weight and texture cascade from their bolts, suspended in air and highlighted by sophisticated, strategically placed fiberoptic lighting. It ¹ s easy to get visually lost in them as they tease and tempt the eye to caress every crease and wallow between every layer. Each sample is a masterpiece of abstraction.

But on another level, Structure and Surface represents a stage in the gradual redefinition of ³ art. ² Textiles, furniture, tools and other functional objects have traditionally been shoved off to the margins in art museums (to see the St. Louis Art Museum ¹ s furniture collection, for example, you have to descend to the basement). These objects have been marginalized in art history as well, included among the ³ minor arts ² or designated ³ design, ² never given the chance to be considered for their ingenuity in quite the same way that fine art is.

This situation has been changing, particularly in the last 30 years. It really began with feminist artists, who challenged the gendered distinction between fine art and crafts and helped bring about a reconsideration of such media as ceramics and fibers. Exhibitions like the current Innovations in Textile Art reap the benefits of this redefinition of art. The citywide show includes brilliant artworks that give an idea of the range of media and techniques fiber artists are using today.

But Structure and Surface stands slightly apart from the other exhibitions that are part of Innovations in Textile Art. What distinguishes it is the connection to industry. These textiles are the result of collaboration between artists and scientists, often working in conjunction with industries that will mass-produce the materials for use in manufacturing, fashion or interior design, even the fishing industry. That such utilitarian material can also be exhibited as art is the real revelation of this show.

Structure and Surface was curated by Matilda McQuaid of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and Cara McCarty of the St. Louis Art Museum. McQuaid and McCarty made several trips to regions of Japan where the most experimental textile work in the world is being conducted. They brought back dozens of bolts and samples of textiles that are visually dazzling, defying simple description. Some are made with the use of processes so complicated that the developers can only discuss them in terms of chemical equations.

But as scientifically sophisticated as the processes are, the inspiration behind the textiles are often simple, natural forms. Junichi Arai ¹ s ³ Moon Light ² and ³ Deep Sea ² are incredible textile renditions of natural light and color, but they ¹ re made of materials like polyester, nylon and aluminum, which are commonly associated with the artificial.

If this exhibition does nothing else, it will cause you to question associations like these. Polyester, that stigmatized, cheesy leisure-suit fabric, is the star of this exhibition — the artists simply work magic with it, using its glossiness and elasticity to great visual effect. The exhibition includes an entire wall full of polyester pieces by Inoue Pleats Co., each pleated to produce luscious sculptural effects.

Other unexpected materials used in these textiles include copper, carbon fiber and silicone. Artist Sheila Hicks, working in conjunction with Bridgestone Metalpha Corp. (a spinoff of the tire giant), developed Alphatex, a flexible fiber made of stainless steel. Strands of the fiber are heavy and lustrous, with metallic colors achieved through the use of acid and heat processes.

The most fascinating pieces in the show are the technical textiles that incorporate industrial materials and processes. A favorite is Triaxial Fabric, developed by Sakase Adtech Co., a gorgeous piece of woven carbon fiber that uses a textile structure developed by NASA in the 1960s for use in aeronautics. Triaxial Fabric is used in consumer products like golf-club shafts, so it ¹ s normally hidden away and out of sight. In this exhibition we get the unique opportunity to appreciate the visual beauty of something otherwise valued solely for its function.

In most of the pieces, the artists have combined the traditional and the progressive in terms of both material and technique. A great example of this is Arai ¹ s ³ Charred Fabric, ² which combines nylon film, aluminum, wool and nylon filament. The material is ³ melted off ² through the use of a technique Arai himself developed to dissolve the metallic fiber in the film, leaving behind a transparent cloth. It is then dyed with the traditional Japanese technique of shibori, in which parts of the material are shaped and secured before dyeing. The result is a densely textured black material that sparkles on the surface.

Amazingly, many of the subtle and delicate materials in the exhibition are made with very aggressive processes — burning, twisting, pleating and stretching among them. Rather than destroy the materials, these processes transform them into fascinating textured, sculptural pieces, evocative of natural and artificial forms. Yuh Okano ¹ s ³ Epidermis (Ocean) ² is covered by mushroomlike elements made by wrapping the polyester fabric around beads and heat-setting it to retain the shapes. And Reiko Sudo uses flash-heating to stretch fabric into blistered shapes similar to plastic bubble packing.

Some of the more conventional textiles in the exhibition have a quieter, subtle beauty that offsets the busier works of artists like Okano and Sudo. Jun Tomita ¹ s panels of silk, hemp and linen are absorbing meditations on light and form, as are the selections from Hiroyuki Shindo ¹ s Shindigo Square Series. These handwoven, dyed pieces are a reminder that tradition persists even as the Japanese textile artists engage in radical experimentation and innovation.

It is a rare privilege to be allowed a glimpse into an ever-changing, still-evolving industry. And it is an even rarer privilege to encounter these works in an art museum, to be allowed to enjoy them for their aesthetic qualities. Here ¹ s hoping that Structure and Surface will encourage the development of more exhibitions that focus on both new and historical industrial products and designs.

Structure and Surface continues at the St. Louis Art Museum through Aug. 15.

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