Mimura Chikuho, Hope, 2004, bamboo, rattan, lacquer.

Bellevue Arts Museum is quietly hosting the must-see shows of the winter season. Modern Twist: Contemporary Japanese Bamboo Art is one of them: it’s awe inspiring.

These days bamboo has become a buzzword for sustainably grown “green” products: clothing, flooring, fencing, food, you name it. But as an art medium, bamboo belongs to Japan, where the tradition of bamboo basketry is ancient and elevated; craftsmanship is beyond the moon, and a heightened aesthetic appreciation is integral to the rituals of religion and daily life.

Historically, bamboo baskets were crafted as containers for ikebana, those Zen-inspired flower arrangements that reflect the changing season and inspired sensibility of their creators. Some pieces in this show keep that function in mind, while others exist as metaphor or poetic architecture. They are feats of engineering as well as objects of meditation. It’s a blessing, in this time of instant everything, that anyone still has the patience and concentration to make such fine things. 

Uematsu Chikuyu, Sound of Wind, 1991, bamboo, rattan, lacquer.

One functional ikebana basket, titled Warrior, is shaped like the sleeves and breastplate of a samurai’s armor. One abstract form represents the chaotic rush of fire, another the intersecting currents of the wind, while one particularly intricate wall-mounted sculpture reproduces the swooshing back of a lady’s braided hair knot. Interestingly, in Japan, basketry is a predominantly male art form. As far as I could tell, only one of the 17 featured artists is a woman.

In this country, where we have long considered basketry, embroidery, weaving and other fiber arts as women’s pursuits, there is a quiet revolution in progress. Men are taking up the needle and proud of it. That’s obvious upstairs, in BAM Biennial 2012 (this year focused on fiber), where male artists make an impressive showing. (I was surprised to encounter Tacoma Art Museum curator Rock Hushka—who knew he could sew?—seated in the galleries as artist in residence, doing performance embroidery for a curious and appreciative audience.) Some of the region’s top artists have work in this show: There are three gorgeous Sherry Markovitz beaded pieces and my favorite-ever trompe l’oeil cardboard sculpture by Scott Fife. It’s also a great place for discovering emerging talent. David Chatt’s Love, Dad encases 30 years of his father’s “friendly but not intimate” letters in a ghostly white, bead-encrusted, padlocked webbing, where they can be glimpsed but never read—like the man himself.

Modern Twist: Contemporary Japanese Bamboo Art
Thru Feb 3, Bellevue Arts Museum, $7–$10 (museum admission)

BAM Biennial 2012: High Fiber Diet
Thru Feb 24, bellevuearts.org