A Basketmaker in Rural Japan

at the Field Museum of Natural History, through February 8

A Game of Chance

at Printworks, through February 7

By Fred Camper

Viewing the 100 some elegant handmade baskets and other objects in the Field Museum’s “A Basketmaker in Rural Japan,” I was struck at first by their repeating geometrical patterns, the bamboo taking forms as elegant and precise as in a Sol LeWitt wall drawing. The more I looked, though, the more I realized how laughably mistaken my approach was. These objects, all made by Japanese craftsman Hiroshima Kazuo, don’t really reward the gaze of the aesthete. Even the most neutral-looking LeWitt work has some sort of edge: a line surprisingly placed, an unexpected color. Hiroshima’s seeming acres of woven bamboo never produce the same sort of frisson, only a puzzlingly silent apparent monotony. But I was looking at these works with the wrong eyes, my vision skewed by hanging around too many art galleries. These objects aren’t made to express the artist’s emotions or personality, and they aren’t made to express ideas in the Western sense. They aren’t meant to be beautiful in themselves: they’re designed for use.

Despite Western attempts to meld fine and applied-art traditions–the Bauhaus is one example among many–in most of our minds, an object that’s actually used is not fine art almost by definition. Fine art is precious, sacred; it stands apart from the bustle of our daily lives; we view it under glass, and derive pleasure and meaning from the viewing alone. And we learn how to view fine art by viewing fine art. Hiroshima’s baskets, by contrast, can never be fully understood unless one uses them–to trap fish in streams, to sort mushrooms, to carry manure out to the fields–a fact that puts this critic on shakier ground than usual.

The viewer can only guess, from the exhibition’s instructional materials, at the full significance of these objects. We learn from the catalog and a video on view that Hiroshima almost always knew the people he designed baskets for and tried to make objects that would please them, fit their bodies, and please himself as well. On the video he offers an appreciative buyer his choice of two baskets, since the artist wasn’t sure which would suit his customer best. In the catalog, Hiroshima calls basket making “a form of prayer.” On the video he tells us the “true meaning of the craftsman’s work”: it forges a connection “between the hearts of the person who made it and the person who uses it.” I’ve interviewed a lot of artists, some of whom have spoken eloquently about the connections they seek with their viewers; none has said anything quite like this.

Born in 1915 in a hamlet in Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s main islands, Hiroshima dislocated his hip when he was three. He explains in the video and catalog that while today it would have been simple to reset it, there was no way to do it reliably where he was living then; so he grew up lame, unable to become a farmer. Apprenticed to a basket maker when he was 15, he soon began practicing his trade, walking from customer to customer, revisiting them every few years to replace the worn-out baskets with new ones.

Only after World War II did Hiroshima settle in a studio and let his customers come to him. Over the years, contact with other basket makers and their works allowed him to learn new designs and improve his craft. Youths were apprenticed to him, but no one had the patience or skill to stick it out. And by the 60s, when cheap plastic knockoffs–a few of which are included in the show for contrast–became accessible, demand for Hiroshima’s products began to fall. He kept working, however, and gradually demand by collectors increased. The works in the present show were all commissioned by a researcher who wished to create a record of Hiroshima’s craft.

With the aid of the helpful wall labels, one begins to understand Hiroshima’s integrity. The rims and spines that hold the basket in place are firm and thick, and in a large basket he uses thicker bamboo at points of greater stress. Some round baskets are like sieves, filled mostly by a grid of gaps, creating a striking contrast between circle and square. But the design serves not visual effect but maximum functionality. There are different storage baskets for sardines and rice and mushrooms; there are backpacks; there are baskets for carrying manure.

The baskets have a mute, self-abnegating perfection. Strong and sinewy, they’re completely lacking in the manneristic details that amateur U.S. basket makers often include. But most moving for me, once the baskets’ purity started to come together with knowledge of their varied uses, was the fact that the show is a portrait of a vanishing world. Handmade objects that once sustained the most basic activity of life–farming–are now created for and shown in museums. Karen Keane, a Chicago-area collector who’s studied and worked in Japan, chuckled at one basket designed to store rice, explaining to me that she’s seen many similar baskets in modern Japanese homes, sitting atop the TV where they store bills, key rings, aspirin bottles. Mass manufacturing, assembly lines, the factory farm, and money as the medium of exchange have marginalized Hiroshima’s art, eliminating the direct connection between maker and user and between a maker’s hand and the object he crafts. (There may be an industrial designer somewhere who speaks of a consumer’s “heart,” but I haven’t met him.) Of course Hiroshima charged his customers, but clearly he didn’t charge very much. And in the early years, when he had no permanent home and carried his tools on his back, part of his pay was living with his customers while he made their baskets.

In the lingo of the contemporary U.S. art world, Hiroshima was a sort of performance artist, a designer of props or costumes whose objects gained their full meaning only when used. One slight difference is that, at the end of one of Hiroshima’s “performances,” the performers had rice or mushrooms or fish to eat.

More to the point is the absurdity of this description, which underlines the show’s importance: it offers an alternative to the dominant model for the relationship between art maker and art consumer. Indeed, the difference between this model and current art-world practice is so radical that every artist and art student should see and think about this show.

“A Game of Chance” at Printworks has one link, however tenuous, to “A Basketmaker.” These 55 works on paper by 54 different artists were all made for a nonaesthetic purpose: to benefit the Y-ME organization, which assists women and families facing breast cancer. Money will be raised not only through the sale of the works themselves but by selling editions of the playing cards for which these works have been commissioned–52 cards, 2 jokers, and curator Hollis Sigler’s design for the back of the cards. The show’s title, Sigler says, emphasizes the “nondiscriminatory” nature of the disease, which kills many more annually than AIDS: “Who gets it or who doesn’t is just chance…”

But in two important ways this show is the opposite of Hiroshima’s. With few exceptions, these are artworks that happily display their ingenious, diverse takes on playing-card design. And the show’s usefulness still relies on the mercantile, art-collector, art-for-pleasure model of our current art world. Collectors will pay to own this art, but some of the money will benefit cancer patients. And though some collectors will perhaps use these affordable playing cards, clearly use is not their main purpose. The point is not that Hiroshima’s model of art making is better than ours, but that both models entail losses as well as gains.

The show’s panoply of styles and approaches makes it seem a postmodern extravaganza even though many of the artists aren’t postmodernists. But most seem to have taken a playful approach to the problem of including a number and suit. Mary Bero’s Three of Diamonds is a delightfully dense assemblage of colored swatches of cloth, mostly diamond-shaped, while Nicholas Africano’s Ace of Spades is a very simple drawing of two heads. Jan Carmichael’s Three of Spades suggests that she was really hoping to get hearts (cards were assigned to the artists at random): each spade looks like a heart connected to arteries.

Adding to the pomo effect is the fact that works with very different perspectives are sometimes hung side by side. The figure in Judy Linhares’s Jack of Clubs is fairly straight, a slightly cartoonish version of an expressionist painting–a looser version of Max Beckmann, perhaps. But she takes the jack seriously, whereas Lynn Zetzman in the adjacent King of Clubs is more satirical. She supplies a cluttered feminist parody of male conceptions of power: the king is an ogre with a spiked club threatening a uniformed woman in a cage. The whole is covered with a grid of costume jewelry, giving the scene a glitter that’s playfully decorative and makes the ogre seem less severe.

Other artists also include a bit of social commentary, though sometimes the work is so playful it doesn’t make a clear or singular point. Beth Reisman in Four of Hearts places red hearts over black-and-white help-wanted ads for accountants, suggesting some sort of opposition between the business world and the world of the heart. For King of Diamonds, Margaret Wharton juxtaposes Burger King logos with Diamond Matches box covers–representing the king and the diamond in two common products, illustrating how the most basic elements of our language have been appropriated by commerce.

Overall these colorful, pleasurable works reminded me of how much our culture, in contrast to Hiroshima’s, celebrates the self. I was also reminded of how much freedom our culture gives artists, viewers, and collectors: the simple design problem here has elicited many different agreeably playful responses.

At the same time, there are some surprising connections between artists. For example, abstract artist Julia Fish and Gladys Nilsson, a founding member of the Hairy Who, have utterly different perspectives on making art. The surface of Fish’s Seven of Diamonds is covered with the squiggly wormlike shapes found in many of her drawings, but the shapes get darker within the diamonds, which modify her usual approach. The overall effect is atmospheric, almost spiritual. Nilsson in Eight of Diamonds presents us with a cartoony female figure and background portrayed mostly in diamondlike geometrical shapes–a little play on cubism. But the odd transparency, even ethereality, of Nilsson’s figure brings it surprisingly close to Fish’s work. The resemblance, it became clear in subsequent viewings, wasn’t merely the result of a chance juxtaposition but a true connection that made me think of other artists in the show who connect in subtle ways. Perhaps there’s a transpersonal component in modern art making after all.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Baskets by Hiroshima Kazuo photos courtesy Arthur M. Sackler Gallery/ John Tsantes and Neil Greentree; “Eight of Diamond”by Gladys Nilsson; “King of Clubs” by Lynn Zetzman; “King of Diamonds” by Margaret Wharton photos by Michael Tropea.