Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - February 22, 2008

Thinking outside the basket

Weaving together twigs and vines, fabrics and fish, exhibit takes a fresh look at baskets

by Rebecca Wallace

A basket is something you swing while skipping to your grandmother's house. It carries iced oatmeal cookies or a midsummer picnic.

Or maybe your notions are out of date. Visit the Palo Alto Art Center these days, and you'll see a new exhibit kicking the humble basket head over heels.

Grandma would never expect "Basket with Protruding Spirals," — combining mesh and pistachio shells to create something that looks like a couture purse — made by artist Lindsay K. Rais. And try tucking "Stickman" under your arm. He's more than 6 feet tall, painstakingly fashioned from willow twigs and plastic ties by John McQueen.

Artists can expand the way we see the world; here, we see that a basket doesn't need to be round or made of woven rushes — or even capable of carrying anything. "Stickman," who watches over the exhibit like a poker-faced mannequin, is as intricately woven as any craft-store basket. Here, the definition of a basket is simply the exhibit's title, "Intertwined."

"Rules are out the window. You can make a basket from almost anything," Palo Alto Art Center curator Signe Mayfield says.

Mayfield didn't curate this show; it's a traveling exhibit from the Arizona State University Art Museum, showcasing the contemporary basket collection of Arizona residents Sara and David Lieberman. Still, she is clearly filled with pride and enthusiasm as she shows a visitor around.

"It's just so gentle and easy," she says of the delicate "Desert Journey," in which Jill Nordfors Clark has woven twigs and gut to create a lofty, lithe basket stretching 52 inches high.

She peers at Ferne Jacobs' "Shin," a maze of waxed linen thread so complex that it makes your fingers hurt, and remarks, "It's maniacal in its obsessive detail." Take a step back, though, and you see only the gentle curves of the basket in its entirety.

Many of these creations are contradictions. From a distance, a basket can hold a pleasant composure in its shape. One thinks of the timelessness of work done by hand, or the peace that comes when you've gathered all the fragments of your life into one container. Up close, one sees the complex twists of the handiwork, or the edges of nontraditional materials such as bronze and staples — or nails.

Gyongy Laky's "Exile" is perhaps the harshest piece in the exhibit, with stars of David made from grapevines and bristling with vinyl-coated steel nails. Mayfield recalls an anecdote she heard about an art dealer picking up "Exile" and being painfully pierced by the nails. The dealer "realized the pain it represents, the exile," she says.

Born in Budapest during World War II, Laky came to the United States as a young child. The grapevines mirror both the grape-growing areas of California and the Hungarian orchards she remembers.

Like many artists in the exhibit, Laky was inspired by Ed Rossbach, a pioneer in art baskets. The show includes a few works by the late Rossbach and is one of the reasons Mayfield decided to show a traveling exhibit, which the Palo Alto Art Center rarely does.

Rossbach, who was a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, was inspired by Native American traditions but added decidedly modern twists, such as images of Mickey Mouse and nontraditional materials such as newspaper and fabric.

At the art center, his works now keep company with creations by several Native American artists, including a coiled basket by Hopi artist Pearl Nuvangyaoma. Nearby is a basket made from silver salmon skin; artist Fran Reed follows the Native Alaskan tradition of making useful items from fish skins and animal guts.

These methods are rooted in the generations. Nuvangyaoma learned to weave from her mother and grandmother when she was 8, and these days baskets are still "made on the Hopi mesas and in the villages below much as they have been for hundreds of years," according to the exhibit text.

Whether edgy or calming, the works on exhibit pay tribute to the basket's long history. Western art baskets may have come into popularity in recent decades, but baskets are practically timeless. Perhaps that's why they appeal to us.

As curator Kenneth R. Trapp wrote in the Arizona exhibit catalogue: "If we can imagine the awe and thrill our ancient ancestors experienced when they discovered that certain fibers or fish, reptile or animal skins were strong enough to be stretched and manipulated ... to useful purpose, then we can regain some of the wonder our ancestors must have felt as they developed skills to make baskets to enhance their daily lives."

What: "Intertwined: Contemporary Baskets from the Sara and David Lieberman Collection," accompanied by "From Fire to the Forefront: Vessels from the Forrest L. Merrill Collection" (see page XX).

Where: Palo Alto Art Center, 1313 Newell Road

When: Through April 27, open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 7 to 10 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays and 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays.

Cost: Free

Info: Go to www.cityofpaloalto.org/artcenter or call 650-329-2366.

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