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Fabricating Art 

Wednesday, Mar 29 2000
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To be honest, I went to the SFMOMA last Sunday to see the high art. It's an occupational hazard, this compulsion to be up to date on the big names and the lofty questions.

So I took the 30 Stockton to the big black and white brick cake they call the SFMOMA in hopes of absorbing the bright ideas of the Sol LeWitt retrospective (through May 21st) and laughing silently with the conceptual artists on display in the "Fact/Fiction" exhibit (through April 16). But after less than 15 minutes inside I took refuge from all the sober headiness in a wing devoted to contemporary Japanese textiles.

According to the brochure, there are over 100 pieces of fabric and fashion in the "Structure & Surface" exhibit, a show first organized two years ago by the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the St. Louis Art Museum which runs at our MOMA through June 27. I didn't count them, to be sure, but there didn't seem to be that many, which was probably because I was delirious with delight.

Full disclosure: I had no idea the art of textile design was so advanced. Take, for instance, the literally breathtaking work of Reiko Sudo. Standing at one of two interactive "touch panels" that accompany the exhibit, I overheard one stylish woman in her 40s remark to two younger male companions, "Oooh, ahhhh" as she scrunched and patted Sudo's luxuriously soft stainless steel and copper cloths.

Naturally, most of the exhibit is "look but don't touch," with many of the fabrics displayed like, well, canvases. Junichi Arai's "Moon Light," for example, is a shiny, slick piece of polyester film, aluminum wool, and nylon filament about five feet tall and three feet wide. Unlike other samples which consist of repeating or random patterns, "Moon Light" features a broad streak of light color against a solid background of iridescent dark blues and purples. The resulting composition is a dreamy and dark skyscape, both restrained and passionate.

It would have been nice to dim the lights or walk the piece over to an open balcony and see "Moon Light" as it would appear in daylight. Or, for that matter, to wrap it around my favorite pair of shoulders. No can do. Instead, we have to reckon with these fabrics under the same fluorescent lighting reserved for the museum's revolving collection of expensive artworks.

And while that's just fine for painted canvas, it strikes me as off for these items. I assume that the designers went through great pains to make these fabrics transform as they bend and catch the light -- that these are fluid sculptures as complex as their potential uses. But we don't get so much as a single video monitor with footage of the materials in action. Instead, the promising works just hang there, immobilized like so many pinned insects.

I shouldn't gripe, though: This is the SFMOMA we're talking about and not Mendel's Fabric Store on Haight St. Where else can we look at and even touch an expensive fabric sample while learning how it was made?

Take Sudo's "Shutter," which is curious for both its fabric and weave. According to the exhibit literature, "Shutter" was made by sewing strips of nylon tape onto a water-soluble fabric that was then dissolved. It's almost a biological process, which calls to mind the beautiful detritus of the chrysalis. What we see are the leftovers woven together to produce an airy, geometric net. Even the colors are strangely evocative of nature: "Shutter" is algae-brownish and yet obviously synthetic.

Aficionados of textiles will of course relish the terrific variety of techniques on display: rusted metal objects used to print patterns, calcium nitrate baths that produce semi-transparent patches, the ironing of polyester to sculpt impressive pleats. There's even a case of ingenious wrinkling in the Urase Company's angelic piece "Harmony."

My previous complaints notwithstanding, I savored the experience of contemplating these fabrics as finished products rather than as raw material. And while the show's catalogue draws a distinction between "textile designers" and "textile artists," I had a harder time deciding what was a finished work of art and what was destined to become a smart skirt. In fact, if only by virtue of hanging on a museum wall, all of the pieces elicit those pensive looks we call "appreciating art."

In that vein, I found plenty of humor in pieces like Hideko Takahashi's "Stick," which suspends rows of maroon tubular wool against a dark purple background, and the poetic irony of Sudo's "Feather Flurries." The latter, a long sheet of white silk organdy barely decorated with small feathers that appear to cling to the material as if by supernatural forces, nicely sums up this invigorating exhibit.

If "Feather Flurries" were hanging on the third or fourth floor of the SFMOMA, alongside the "mostly kidding" conceptual pieces or the Platonic ideograms of LeWitt, would the same usable fabric that won a Roscoe design award in 1994 become a one-of-a-kind collectible fabrication? Probably, and that would be the world's loss.

About The Author

Jose Marquez

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