Rounding the Corner 

At VAC, a Japanese sculptor takes bamboo to new heights.

The work is part of an annual program in which an artist is brought in to conceive and create work on-site. In 2004 Wendy Ewald worked with Carver Elementary School students on the photographic banners that hung in that neighborhood. Last year Nancy Blum installed ceramic butterflies decorated with Muslim patterns in the gallery.

The arts center introduced the Kawashima's work in its 2004 exhibition "Contemporary Japanese Bamboo Arts" — a collection of bamboo objects, many functional, by artists whose work evolved from years of study under bamboo masters. Kawashima set himself apart by exhibiting delicate objects that demonstrated a technical mastery of his medium but were seemingly weightless and purely sculptural.

Kawashima's response to his new assignment is an elliptical woven-bamboo tube. At 6 feet tall, 18 feet long and more than 5 feet wide, it demanded a tactical ballet of preparation and execution. It is sculpture in its purest sense. But because of its size — and because the artist is trained in a tradition so foreign to Western experience and speaks little English — it also represents a 10-day-plus performance piece — one that involves laborers/assistants, a translator, visiting school groups, at least one photographer who documented the entire process and a water gun for comic relief.

Kawashima split long portions of freshly harvested bamboo into slats about 1 inch wide and coaxed them into curves that in certain areas are so taut they seem spring-loaded. The slats crisscross diagonally and are meticulously secured at each intersection with black yarn knotted and trimmed to resemble small bow ties. Almost a brutal contrast to the smooth green bamboo, the stark black ties resemble the sharp ends of barbed wire. Kawashima states that he draws upon imagery far less severe, referring to fences in Japan where connections are deliberately exposed and highlighted.

Partly constructed like a trellis, the form is sure to suggest garden structures, but as a large enclosure, its apparent structural strength (like Buckminster Fuller's geodesic domes built with lightweight cords) offers more complex interpretations.

Curving slightly from the gallery entrance, the form is part building and part living organism. It is hedgelike in scale, color and texture (the fringe is also similar to small flowers or prickly growth), and it is physically impenetrable yet visually open.

Eight of the artist's small sculptures, some of which are models for larger works, are also exhibited here. Like Kawashima's large installation, these objects are closed, curving and based on cylinders. The suggestions of springing action and of contained energy carry throughout his small work too, but constructed with strands of bamboo thinner than a toothpick, they seem as weighty and lasting as a ring of smoke.

Viewers may feel intimately drawn to these objects, large or small, because in Kawashima's hands, every element — from the sumptuous curves of the forms to the handling of each connection — responds to the human form. One might presume that is no accident, but a product of years of practice and study. S

Shigeo Kawashima's work will be at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond, 1812 W. Main St., through July 23. 353-0094.

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