"Structure and Surface: Contemporary Japanese Textiles," Nov. 12, 1998-Jan. 26, 1999, at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, New York, N.Y. 10019.
The exhibition of contemporary Japanese textiles at the Museum of Modern Art -- 110 works by 29 artists, designers and manufacturers -- is subtle and spectacular. It opens up a world of design that fuses ancient esthetics and modern technologies, an industry that employs traditional crafts like pleating and dying in ways that reflect up-to-the-minute runway fashions.
The show is beautifully installed, and is structured according to six defining fabric characteristics: transparent, dyed, reflective, printed, sculpted and layered. In keeping with the Japanese esthetic of coexisting complementary states, a single piece of fabric often combines a number of qualities.
One transparent textile is a delicately woven "dragonfly wing" fabric, gossamer like champagne. Another is a super-strong triaxial carbon fabric used for golf club shafts and speaker cones. There is a knotless fishnet piece, an updated polyester version of a design from earlier this century. Reiko Sudo's Shutter is a meandering labyrinth of brown nylon ribbon-like material stitched to a base fabric that was then dissolved.
The reflective textiles are the most amazing. Some employ polyester slit-film, in which a thin layer of metal is bonded to a fabric base and then slit into strips to be used as thread for weaving. In Deep Sea, Junichi Arai subjects this material to the "melt-off" technique, which dissolves metallic areas, exposing a transparent cloth. The effect is thrilling, an abstract marine fantasy in blues and greens. Not to be missed is Issey Miyake's shirt and pants ensemble made from gold and silver foil, partially stripped off a cotton backing in irregular stripes. Reiko Sudo's Stainless Steel Gloss splatters powdered metals onto woven polyester for a shiny stainless steel finish.
The selection of sculpted fabrics contains a dizzying array of puckered, pleated and otherwise manipulated material that often approaches the surreal. Analogies to skin and to the natural landscape are inevitable. Pleating is a traditional Japanese technique, but the Inoue Company (and others) have developed highly complex, detailed, wave-like patterns through the application of heat and pressure.
Yoshihiro Kimura's Pedocal uses flocking and stretching to create a crenelated baroque landscape in bonded chiffon. Yuh Okano has heat-set metal disks into polyester and later removed them to form a field of puckered protuberances. Issey Miyake uses minute needle punching, joining chiffon to batting to create a collage effect of layered colors.
Masaji Yamazaki has produced a kind of nubby faux velvet by flash-heating polyester that has been silk-screened in an overall pattern. Reiko Sudo uses heat to melt off printed chemical pigment, allowing soft rayon piling to peek through in her highly textured Moss Temple. Other artists have used soil, feathers and handmade Japanese washi paper with their fabrics.
The sections on dyed and printed fabrics are in some ways closest to traditional techniques, but often with unexpected twists. Keiji Otani has created a rubberized, dimensional op-art grid by printing nylon with polyurethane. The dyed textiles include some of Hiroyki Shindo's beautiful panels, which connect her work both to natural forms and to the venerated Japanese craft of indigo-dyed fabrics.
Though this show fits right into the Museum of Modern Art design department, it's worth noting that these textiles have a weird correspondence -- particularly in their florid materiality -- with a certain type of contemporary abstract painting in New York. For instance, Marlborough Chelsea recently mounted a show called "Baroque Geometry," featuring works by Karin Davie, Stephen Ellis and four other painters. And of course there's MoMA's own Pollock retrospective. So make haste, abstraction-lovers. The show closes next Tuesday.
JOHN MENDELSOHN is an artist who writes on art.