We’re all familiar with that dictum by probably the best known theorist of war, Carl von Clausewitz, that war is “the continuation of politics by other means.” So much meaning, so much horror and waste and pointless destruction and sacrifice of lives hidden there within a few short words.
I don’t intend to lay that philosophical legacy at Canadian artist Kai Chan’s aesthetic doorstep, but the structural conceit of the metaphor, it linguistic bones, if you will, offers a kind of entry point into talking about his work.
Chan’s an artist who works primarily – but not exclusively – with textiles. Originally trained as a biologist in his native China, he studied at the Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto in the early 1970s and at the Banff School of Fine Arts in Alberta in the early 1980s. Throughout all of that, he was showing his work, more often than contextualized, as per the period, as “craft.” But not always, and Chan found international footing for and interest in his work as something other than pieces that were easily contextualized within a craft paradigm.
But about “craft”. It has, far too gradually and with a lot of proverbial kicking and screaming, evolved from a term of rigid fixedness into something for more aesthetically and delightfully slippery. It’s become, in a way, a kind of threshold word, and thresholds are most definitely where interesting stuff happens. Like that ecological zone between the sea and the land, for instance: the littoral, a place where live thrives in great abundance. Or something as ordinary and everyday as a hedge at the edge of a suburban lawn, home and shelter to myriad species.
The same, of course, goes for art; aesthetic life flourishes where one zone, one realm, one medium, one way of doing things, bumps headlong into another. The fact that these “zones” are defined and delimited, unfortunate as that is, offers at the very least the possibilities of fecund “transgressions” that can be remarked upon in the critical language of different mediums.
So I turn to some of Chan’s recent work to point a transgressive way forward, to pieces demonstrative of his aesthetic demand to work outside the proverbial box that is “craft” while utilizing many of its conceits and concerns, its materials and its processes. Like Morning Star, a wall-mounted piece made of bamboo that’s been dyed red. Chan’s woven an uneven, ragged ring out of the stuff. It’s a rim, of sorts, and extending inward from it, like spokes of a bicycle wheel, are thinner, finer pieces of wood, dozens and dozens of them, all overlapping and intersecting, some heading off sideways and not toward the centre, toward the core, where the fingers of wood end and nothingness is shaped: the titular star, framed by the tendrils of thin, fragile sticks of dyed bamboo. The object, the artifact, and the negative space it meaningfully articulates.
Foraging ostensibly speaks more to abstraction, while still highlighting material and process. It’s another wall-hung work, not particularly large. A mélange of wire shapes a volumetric three-dimensional space across which stretches woven lines of yellow, purple, and blue-green threads, as well as the mesh of a series of copper screens. All of it serves to contain a space within which resides the shape of a tightly coiled yellow spiral. Myriad readings are available, here, of course, courtesy Chan’s abstraction and the “crafty” foreground of material, but the spiral of yellow tugs the work as a whole toward an aesthetically viable suggestion of rendering or modeling the expression of a kind of multi-dimensional cosmology – toward, in short, something vastly greater than the sum of its parts.
Sculpture, in short.
And then there is the problematic case of La Primavera – Homage to Botticelli, the star of this exhibition, a piece occupying the entirety of one long gallery wall. I say “problematic” because this work is in no way overtly sculptural. It’s a textile work, in the purest and simplest senses, a long, flat piece of silk and cotton thread – nothing more. And at that it’s barely there, a monochromatic, minimalistic black skein of threads that in the loosest possible sense resembles a torn fishing net in dire need of mending.
But of course it’s no such thing; analogies clearly have their limitations, but you get my point. Visually, it reads rather narratively, comprising vertical sections of clearly demarcated differentiation horizontally brought together into a whole. Parts are full of holes of varied sizes, and in some instances it looks like Chan has woven threads into the voids to create delicate filaments of connective tissue. In other areas, the threads tightly coalesce into dense, dark knots of fiber. Such oppositions recur across the entirety of the piece. And the work is absolutely straight along the course of its upper edge, the lower unevenly sagging.
It’s clearly a wall hanging. A flat wall hanging. But that being said, Chan’s sculptural impetus is still demonstrably present and accounted for. There’s a push-pull of visual tensions in the work, particularly in one section that is, in some sense, the most classically textile part of the work, displaying a recurring, corrugated rhythm of pattern along the vertical axis, visually pulling the piece away from flatness, toward dimensionality. The articulation of space becomes an overtly central concern, here, framing any reading of the piece as a whole.
Sure, it’s entirely illusionistic. No question about it – Chan’s cheekily messing about at thresholds. But arguably La Primavera – Homage to Botticelli is, like the work of Eva Hesse half a century ago, a continuation of sculpture.
By other means.
By Gil McElroy