Baskets contain multitudes in ‘Uncontained’ exhibition at Hunterdon Art Museum

by TRIS McCALL
uncontained baskets review

Ed Williford’s “Oval Halves With Crescents” is part of the “Uncontained: Reimagining Basketry” exhibition at The Hunterdon Art Museum in Clinton.

Baskets are humble. They are lo-fi, receptive, unobtrusive and helpful. We associate them with fruit, bicycles, modest purchases at the market. They tend to be made of malleable organic materials: rattan, bamboo, willow and coiled rope. Wicker — the weaving technique associated with baskets for centuries — creates sturdy containers, but they are also lightweight and unassuming, the better to swing to a picnic (or provide a hiding place for a big bad wolf).

So useful are baskets that we sometimes miss the skill that contributes to their creation. A well-woven basket made by a master craftsperson is, quite often, a thing of beauty. The braiding of basket materials can create complex visual rhythms.

There is hardly an object in “Uncontained: Reimagining Basketry,” now on view on the second floor of The Hunterdon Art Museum in Clinton, that you would take to the fair and fill with wildflowers; these designs are too ambitious for that. But adoration and deep respect for an ancient art run straight through this show — even though many of its participants use modern artistic methods to turn the basket inside out.

“Uncontained,” which has been curated by the whimsical basket-weaver Carol Eckert, is similar in spirit to “Claybash,” the great 2023 experimental ceramics show at this museum. “Claybash” took pottery in unexpected and occasionally alarming directions. These were earthenware creations, but ones that pointedly refused to hold water. They weren’t there to be vessels for storage or household chores; they were manifestations of the artistry and inventiveness that animates the potter. Similarly, “Uncontained” encourages us to expand our understanding of a human activity that has been around for so long that most of us take it for granted. What might basket-making and wicker craft look like in the digital age? What can a craft that dates back millennia teach a modern builder?

“River in the Sky,” by Mo Kelman.

The connection between basketmaking and architecture is immediately visible in the restless work of Mo Kelman. “River in the Sky” combines a thatch-layer of bamboo twigs with a stretched sheet of see-through silk, with the entire assembly mounted on a wall. A latticework of hundreds of little wooden girders is visible through the holes that the artist has cut in the textile covering. The wooden half of the piece resembles a tiny construction site or the supports of a roller coaster; the fabric half appears as organic as the tree-tents slung across branches by caterpillars. Kelman has used the materials of basket-weaving to show us a collision of the built environment and the natural world. This feels appropriate: The basket, a tool developed to tame the chaotic wild and glean from it what we would, was one of the first technologies created by human beings.

Hanna Vogel’s winsome but unsettling installation navigates similar terrain from a different route. Her wire and pulp paper receptacles in “The Vacuum Effect” do possess the characteristics of baskets, even if they lack a handle for transport. These pieces look feather-light, delicate and timeless, but their steel skeletons and rust stains situate them in a world of smokestacks and machinery. Vogel hangs scores of them on nails hammered into a blank white wall. The result is a swarm of baskets, rising from the floor of the gallery with the eerie weightlessness of spores.

Sometimes the primal, organic spirit of basketmaking in “Uncontained” makes its presence felt in a manner that is downright spooky. Ed Williford’s “Oval Halves With Crescents” resembles a bowling ball-sized lychee cut in two and connected by a hinge of weedy fibers. Though it is made of common materials, it feels alien and vaguely threatening, as if a creature has hatched from this basket cocoon and is presently on the loose. “Knot (Black)” is even more evocative — a large coil of stained fabric studded with inch-long rods, tight, winding filaments and a spray of stained cilia. It is as if a basket came alive, made a deal with a demon, refashioned itself in the shape of a serpent, and readied itself to strike.

Sculptor Robert Lach’s fabrications aren’t quite that unnerving, but they are still likely to prompt double takes. The sculptor has fitted conical white heaps of straw and fiber — each one concave and large enough to fit several eggs — into suitcases. His array of sawdust cups looks as if it were assembled by a family of birds or an enterprising team of insects. In this context, his work challenges us to imagine the animals as the weaver of the baskets, and the human being and his outdated machinery as, by comparison, insufficiently enterprising.

Theda Sandiford’s “Great Resignation Baggage Cart.”

Theda Sandiford, another familiar face in New Jersey galleries, contributes one of her “emotional baggage” carts to the show. She has taken a shopping trolley and wrapped it in plastic and fairy lights, holding it together (and giving it a strangely furry texture) with zip ties. As Lach did, she started with a commonplace object and, through the process of weaving and receptacle-making, turned it into something strange and otherworldly.

It is notable that no consumer items are in the shopping cart. Lach’s nests are hollow; Vogel’s bowls bear no fruit; Willard’s split-open orb has the stringy feel of a pumpkin with the guts scooped out. Ashley Page provides us with a three-dimensional “Self Portrait” in black reed, but it is empty inside. It is closer to a fencer’s mask than it is to an image of a face.

Much more than at “Claybash,” a feeling of absence and danger hovers over “Uncontained.” Something has slipped away from these baskets. This show is full of the drama of containment and escape. The vessels left behind often have a skeletal, residual appearance: Stephen Talasnik’s “Debris Field #120: Spinner” is a swirl of interlocking stone shafts arranged in a hurricane shape, complete with a hollow central eye. Though it was fashioned in the last decade, it looks very old — old as desiccated coral coughed up by the waves.

Perhaps it is the looseness of wicker reeds that makes escape imaginable for viewers. Clay dries to create a solid surface; wicker, no matter how tight the weave, is permeable. And “Uncontained” argues that strands of anything flat and malleable can be woven if the basket-maker is forceful enough.

Becca Barolli’s “Uncontrollable Urge.”

Jeannet Leendertse shapes strips of seaweed, resin and wax into vessels that resemble tarred and hollow tree trunks. Becca Barolli tames a tangle of steel wire loops, bends them into a bell-ended tube, and places the graceful object on a pedestal. Most arrestingly, Dennis RedMoon Darkeem weaves a man-shaped figure out of belts and suspends the effigy, with leather and buckles drooping from its open arms, on the wall. A basket it isn’t. But it’s likely the oddest and most striking cross you will see in a museum this year, and it feels both logical and continuous with the aesthetics of the show.

The shadows cast by these pieces extend “Uncontained” into another dimension altogether. Illumination passes through the lattice made by the tiny, matchstick-like wooden girders of Kelman’s work, the curved ribs of Vogel’s paper bowls and other deconstructed and reassembled bits of wickerwork, and creates audacious parallel designs on the white walls around them. A secret exhibition exists behind the visible one.

The wickerwork of shadow can carry no groceries, but it has a tensile strength of its own: It speaks straight to the imagination. It’s a reminder of the way in which light is woven into the most artfully constructed baskets — how the rays of the sun thread between the knotted reeds and amplify the texture of the object. If the basket was impenetrable, it wouldn’t be so beautiful. Sometimes it’s what we can’t contain that makes us what we are.

“Uncontained: Reimagining Basketry” can be seen at The Hunterdon Art Museum in Clinton through Sept. 1. Visit hunterdonartmuseum.org.

CONTRIBUTE TO NJARTS.NET

Since launching in September 2014, NJArts.net, a 501(c)(3) organization, has become one of the most important media outlets for the Garden State arts scene. And it has always offered its content without a subscription fee, or a paywall. Its continued existence depends on support from members of that scene, and the state’s arts lovers. Please consider making a contribution of any amount to NJArts.net via PayPal, or by sending a check made out to NJArts.net to 11 Skytop Terrace, Montclair, NJ 07043.

$

Custom Amount

Personal Info

Donation Total: $20.00

Explore more articles:

Leave a Comment

Sign up for our Newsletter