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A Gift to Be Simple

Nine months ago, when Yukiko Lunday opened Takara in the Village, she filled it with decorated chopsticks, kimonos and handmade Japanese paper, operating the business as a combination gallery and gift store. But now Lunday has purged her space of the expensive souvenirs, leaving a simple, open, storefront gallery that seems an appropriate setting for "Texas Wabi-Sabi," an exhibit in which the Japanese-American gallery owner has attempted to find in her current homeland an aesthetic tie to her ancestral one.

Wabi-sabi is, Lunday says, ineffable. Japanese people can't explain it, but they know it when they see it. Wabi-sabi has to do with contemplation, earthiness, nature, humility, simplicity. But it also has to do with imperfection. It's a fairly elastic concept -- it can be the result of a happy accident. The way I understand it, wabi-sabi has an underlying and pleasing notion that the imperfect is more compelling than the perfect, that the subtle is better than the direct. It's a notion that seemed antithetical to what Lunday saw as the driving spirit of Texas art, which tends to prefer the loud, colorful and large. That spirit was one Lunday was trying to counter when she decided to search out wabi-sabi in Texas for her exhibit (which will travel to Japan this fall). The wabi-sabi aesthetic may be unique to Japan, but its ideas are not. They could stand to be highlighted anywhere, Texas included. But in Lunday's exhibit, she wavers between the aesthetic and the ideas.

For example, she chose as one of her pieces Kate Petley's Japanesey Bone, a sort of organic kite fashioned from wire and muslin. In so doing, she unproductively counters stereotype with stereotype, showing us that Texas artists can indeed make work that looks Japanese. But Lunday, this time sticking to her underlying concept, also chose Petley's un-Japanesey Balance, in which a resin "balloon" sits on a pedestal, "balanced" by a much larger real balloon which dangles off the side, and which will slowly deflate. Now, Balance might not be particularly Texan, but it's a humble little sculpture. If I were Japanese, I might be surprised to see that a Texan could make Bone, but I would be more interested to find that wabi-sabi, in the form of Balance, occurs outside an aesthetic system of my own culture.

Some of the pieces in the show, such as Rheim Alkadhi's The Crown, are rescued from failure by their wabi-sabiness. On a pedestal, Alkadhi has placed a wooden wig-master's head and, next to it, a simple headdress made of a ring of stiff, cottony hair. Alkadhi, who has a dry and subtle way about her work, has embedded a wad of chewing gum in the headdress, turning an odd found object of questionable value into a crown, indeed -- a crown for a vagrant weirdo who sleeps under park benches. The combination is just enough to fuel the imagination past the "ugh, more found object art" point for a brief moment.

I'm not sure if one person can be more wabi-sabi than another, but if they can, I'd give First in Show for most wabi-sabi to David Fulton, the artist who never throws anything away. His One Year Soap Grid consists of thin slivers of soap rescued just before oblivion. Each one is sandwiched between two squares of wax paper and added to the irregular grid, creating a wall hanging translucent enough to let you make out the tiny curls of hair that still cling to some of the bars. A book about wabi-sabi sold at the show claims, in a rather oversimplified comparison, that Modernism romanticizes technology while wabi-sabi roman- ticizes nature. Fulton romanticizes something else altogether -- call it human remains -- and it feels tender and blessedly simple.

As for the accidental side of wabi-sabi, Lunday persuaded many artists to hand over works intended as studies, or not intended as works at all. She exhibits a small tester canvas she found moldering in Kim O'Grady's studio, some terse gouache studies Beth Weinberger had squirreled away and Terrell James's pocket sketchbook. As a result, my obligation as a viewer is considerably lightened -- if the artist didn't intend to show the work, then I don't have to work to divine the artist's intention. My job becomes one of pure contemplation -- wabi-sabi.

But a problem here is that the unintentional works are exhibited side by side with intentional works, as if to say that an artist's aesthetic sense is always functioning at the same level, whether actually working or just checking out how a certain kind of paint is absorbed by a new brand of canvas. On the other hand, Lunday sometimes allowed artists to make unfortunate adjustments -- a small drilled clay figure she found on Monti Mayrend's desk, for example, was given an awkward brick pedestal. Granted, he quite wabi-sabily found the brick lying in his yard, but it would have been better to leave well enough alone.

In this show, the general concept takes precedence over the individual pieces and the artist's aesthetic is subsumed completely by the curator's. That's okay once in a while, though it should be the exception. And if that's the case, the curator should be able to, as Lunday did when she chose a suite of low-concept objects by the Art Guys, stretch her idea beyond the obvious.

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