Splendor in the Grass 

Japanese artists carry on ancient traditions at Hand Workshop.

Something about elegant objects formed from a lowly, prolific grass such as bamboo is bound to draw curiosity. Common clay can become a ceramic object, but high temperatures used in the firing process cause a chemical change, and the clay becomes something else. A bamboo artist may use water to encourage a slat to bend, or dye to change its color, but its physical properties remain — its flexibility, silky grain and knotty joints. These bamboo artists revel in the physical and visual qualities of their material, pushing it to do incredible things while celebrating its inherent character.

Robert Coffland, a gallery director from Santa Fe who has traveled in Japan for more than 20 years, has assembled examples of simple to complex weaving, dense to lacy patterns, symmetrical to asymmetrical forms, and delicate to hearty structures. It's hard to imagine a more diverse sampling of possibilities in bamboo.

As the art form arose for the purpose of containing flowers, these objects honor the idea of its origins figuratively if not literally. Each object at least suggests the idea of a vessel, though in some instances the containers seem to have unraveled or splintered, as in Torii Ippo's ribbonlike work. Ippo's strategy of imposing a complicated structure to layered bamboo while allowing the overall object to take a loose, asymmetrical form, typifies the more experimental objects here. Technique is ordered while form is not.

Natural occurrences, especially seasons and wind and water, inspire form and weaving patterns. Katsushiro Soho's traditional basket "Water Seeping Through Rocks" magically conjures the sight and sound of softly moving water with a complex pattern of rounded and bowed bamboo running vertically in an oblong form. Shono Tokuzo's "Surging Wave" and Yamaguchi Ryuun's "Tide Wave" also interpret rushing water by exploiting the material's ability to bend in graceful arcs.

Supplemented with photographs of some of the artists by Art Streiber and a video featuring Shono Shounsai, Japan's first Living National Treasure in the bamboo arts, this celebratory exhibit provides a window into a discipline and aesthetic that is foreign to most. As the best craft arts should, "Contemporary Japanese Bamboo Arts" marries technique, form and meaning. It just happens to be in a way that one rarely witnesses in the West. S

"Contemporary Japanese Bamboo Arts" runs through Oct. 17 at the Hand Workshop Art Center, 1812 W. Main Street. Call 353-0094 for information.

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