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September/October 2002


Baskets Now: USA

Installation view. In the foreground, John McQueen, Welcome, Welcome, 2001; willow branches, zip ties; each tower, 104 by 27 by 27 inches. Photos: Camera Works. Courtesy of Arkansas Arts Center, Little Rock.

Euphoria was in the air! A festive crowd of more than a thousand people mingled at the Arkansas Arts Center in January for the gala opening of "Baskets Now: USA." Enter and face: John McQueen's two willow towers. Built with stacks of open grids, each piece was topped by a pineapple, symbol of hospitality, fitting his title, Welcome, Welcome. They set the mood. With a height of 104 inches, they reimagine a basket's scale.
Dorothy Gill Barnes, Above and Below the Earth, 1999; mulberry wood, bark, roots; 11 by 14 by 13 inches. Collection of Ed & Jo Pascoe.

Positioning oneself at the front of the gallery, the eye was drawn to the back wall, where Michael Davis's massively colorful spherical basket appeared to lift off its pedestal and float skyward. The exhibition included pieces by 52 basketmakers. And on view simultaneously in the arts center were two other basketry exhibitions, timed to coincide with the regional conference being sponsored jointly with the National Basketry Organization.

Always inventive, Dorothy Gill Barnes's work, Above and Below the Earth, featured a woven bark chalice emerging from its tree's exposed natural roots and branches. Judy Mulford abandoned the vessel: Mother and Child stands upright and frontal. The female presents herself breasts first like sculptures of ancient mother goddesses. Mulford employed her signature knotless netting to dress her figures and embellished them with a myriad of tiny objects usually found in a sewing kit. Jerry Bleem molds malleable plastic into visceral, menacing forms held together by an abundance of overlapping staples. These perturbed objects question whether they are baskets at all.
Jerry Bleem, Analogy, 2001; found plastic, thread, staples; 19 by 19 by 15 inches.

To form the interiors of his pieces in the show, Leon Niehues experimented with black emery cloth, a dramatic contrast to the exterior skeleton, a sparse number of curving white oak splints. This pair was not entirely satisfying, but the artist was risking change to see if it might take him to another place. You could compare Niehues's meticulous early traditional work and gauge what a leap of faith he has taken by viewing the exhibition "Baskets from the Contemporary Collection." The Arkansas Arts Center has been collecting modern baskets since the early Eighties. Here we could see older, formative pieces of some of the same artists exhibiting in "Baskets Now."

Leon Niehues, Chan Juan #63-2001, 2001; white oak, emery cloth, brass bolts; 16 by 14 by 11 inches.

Nearly half of the artists in "Baskets Now" were invited to submit works. Jurist Jack Lenor Larsen chose works by lesser known basket weavers. Donna Kaplan, among a new generation of makers, uses pliers and her hands to manipulate loom-woven metal with linen, silk, and metallic thread. The undulations and the light flickering from the reflective materials give the vessel an ever-changing silhouette. Kaplan writes that living through a 6.8 magnitude earthquake explains its unusual shape. Another eye-catcher, Jan Hopkins' grapefruit-peel pieces threaded together as in a puzzle, includes lizards chasing one another around a tea cozy-shaped basket.

Jan Hopkins, The Grass Is Always Greener, 2001; grapefruit peel, waxed linen, hemp paper; 14 by 16 by 6 inches.

For "Tradition Bearer," the third exhibition at the arts center, John McGuire chose works with a readymade grammar and references to functionality. Many of them were beautiful gems that remind us of the foundations from which the new basket arises. If one considers their prices, perfect technique, and classic beauty, are they objects for use or objects for contemplation? A tiny box, one with a defining black wooden rectangular frame, resembled a miniature coffin. This was the first basket Susan kavicky made after 9/11. For now, ideas are what the new art baskets carry.

-Marina D. Whitman

Marina D. Whitman is a fine arts appraiser.

This review first appeared in:

Sept/Oct 2002

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