Bamboo is ubiquitous in Asia, where it is used for everything from food to building construction. The ultimate sustainable material, this fast-growing grass is industrially processed into textile fibers and flooring, kitchenware and furniture. Perhaps its most ancient use is for basket-making, practiced in Japan since the 8th century. The finest Japanese baskets are works of art, integral to the rituals of tea ceremony and flower arranging.

Since the 1950s, a handful of Japanese artists have elevated bamboo from craft to art, creating strikingly original sculpture using traditional basketry techniques. “Modern Twist: Contemporary Japanese Bamboo Art,” currently exhibiting at the Bellevue Arts Museum (BAM), brings together nearly 40 works that will make you see bamboo in a whole new way.

At first glance, it is hard to believe that every piece in this show is made from the same material. Each artist harvests and prepares his or her own bamboo, controlling both the shape of the work and the nature of the material.

Textures vary from thick, rustic, woody strips to thin, flexible, wire-like rods. Some of the artworks are recognizable as baskets while others are purely abstract; freestanding or wall-hung forms that evoke flowing water, mathematical geometry, or music. Inventive shapes provide the initial visual impact; subtle colors and textures draw the viewer in to contemplate and explore each work. This show uses lighting to great dramatic effect. Many of the pieces are lit from above and the shadows they cast add another dimension, like a reflection in a still pond.

The exhibition is organized around three traditional basket-making regions of Japan: East, centered on Tokyo; West, including Kyoto and Osaka; and South, in Beppu on the island of Kyushu. Artists within each region are often connected by family or master-apprentice relationships, but there is considerable stylistic diversity within each region and even within the work of a single artist. (On the exhibit labels for each piece, artists’ names are printed according to Japanese convention with the family name first).

Fujinuma Noboru, one of two artists in the show designated a Living National Treasure, is represented by two contrasting works. “Spring Tide” is a rustic basket of thick bundles of bamboo plaited in a triangular weave. “Gentle Heart,” created ten years later, is woven in a herringbone twill pattern of strips so fine the basket appears translucent. Matsumoto Hafu’s “Hanging Flower Vase” is crafted of a single strip of bamboo, bent and curved to form the vase. Ueno Masao uses dozens of closely spaced, wire-thin rods, lacquered and tinged with gold , metallic powder to create swirling forms that absorb and reflect light. Nagakura Kenichi’s “Circle” is barely recognizable as bamboo; its irregularly woven surface is coated with clay, giving it an earthy texture. Its circular shape with open center appears completely abstract, but is in fact designed to hold water and a flower arrangement.

The largest body of work in the exhibition is by Uematsu Chikuyu. One gallery is devoted to 10 of his pieces, which are some of the most abstract in the show. Their titles refer to nature (wind, fields, forest, wilderness) and the cosmos (heaven, enlightenment). His swirling, flowing forms are dynamic, seemingly in motion, yet impeccably precise in their construction.

“Modern Twist” was organized by the Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture in Central California. Most of the works in the show are from the collections of the Clark Center and the Clark family.

BAM will be hosting an ikebana and tea ceremony demonstration and the lecture “When a Basket is Not a Basket” on Friday, January 4, 2013. The exhibition continues through February 3. More information: www.bellevuearts.org.

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