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A Stitch in Time

Shows by Jane Miller and Cecilia Vicuna reveal a common thread

To fully experience "Time Not Wasted," Jane Miller's installation at Rice University Art Gallery, you must carefully step around scattered floor "paintings" and audiotape "rugs," climb onto a 20-foot bed with a knotted muslin spread, walk around an oddly crooked staircase, examine a room jammed with hand-colored etchings of absurdly violent domestic scenes and traverse a painted "path" that swells and tapers around the gallery walls. Give in to the show's peculiar demands, and you will be rewarded.

The painted white path contains dozens upon dozens of objects, each leading us to the next, just as one thought will lead to another. Miller mixes the ingenious, the crude, the functional, the elegant; she crosses time periods, continents, class and caste, and thumbs her nose at artistic hierarchies with considerable glee, happily unsettling fine-arts purists by embracing the declasse, feminine world of craft. Clunky needlepoint hangs alongside hand-knitted clothing; a hankie embroidered "help" is placed near a frilly white apron stitched with images of clocks. But the labor, almost all by Miller's own hand, is of her own choosing. Her effort is visible in the work and essential to its meaning. It gives substance to such old saws as "waste not, want not" and "time is work and work, time."

Clocks images are everywhere. On one wall, Miller draws an androgynous cartoon figure who checks the time on a wristwatch; she then leads viewers past a dozen more clocks. Their connection to the craft items is obvious: At the show's heart is the notion of duration, the time it takes to collect the materials and produce the work, which is notable for its sheer labor-intensiveness. You can't help but wonder: How does Miller get time for all this making and finding?

The flotsam and jetsam she has deliberately chosen from junk heaps evoke a hermetic world of melancholy and whispered secrets, and an awareness of the riches of everyday visual life. Chunks of birch bark, dried leaves gathered with string, a stick capped by a sea anemone -- all have the presence of simple occurrences. A large wooden "club" has been glommed with a crusty material, and some of the wall-mounted objects look grubby, as if fished from a garbage pail, as close to non-art as they can possibly be without crossing the line.

Other things are piquantly beautiful: tufts of shiny red material stuffed, twisted and wrapped with string; bronze hat pins that coalesce to form a sporelike matrix; and, on the floor, rows of brightly colored, lumplike "specimens" fashioned from beeswax.

Acting as an urban archeologist of sorts, she combines the vitality and energy of both raw and formal materials as a way of questioning the value of life and nature in a throwaway culture. Each piece is a little world unto itself; each seems to have gleaned a spiritual gift from the activity of the work.

The creaky, homemade look belies an ordering and representation that's canny, even deliberately complex. If anything, "Time Not Wasted" demonstrates Miller's ability to define by contour and color what is fleeting and seemingly inexpressible. All of the works are lean and self-effacing, and most appear ready to come undone given a moment's notice. Yet all exude a formidable presence, as well as a directness and clarity of construction that vibrates with natural, Zen-like grace. Bound boxes, Chinese-like puzzles, tiny ladders of copper and wood, wire cages, long "tails" of knotted and braided twine or flax, rectangular grids of beeswax and bizarre floating forms evocative of scaly creatures -- all cling to and project from the gallery's walls with an awkward candor that lends them a human warmth.

You feel that these poetic, slightly zany statements are held within the painted path as if gravity had brought them to rest there. Each appears to be a meditation, on the nature of stroke and color, or on formal, perceptual and intuitive processes. The elusiveness of Miller's work is heightened by the fact that its playful combinations of wire, wood, found and fabricated objects remain difficult to classify, so obsessively has she been a creator of things graceful and lyrical, clumsy and unlovely. Some of the needlework pieces and "button" paintings, with their childlike ideograms (yes, that's a clock!), are formal attempts to marry form and color, but they are also places where the mind can relax. Miller reduces the intensity of adult life by breaking the world down into a friendlier place.

Like visual riddles, Cecilia Vicuna's small objects beckon the eye as a way of baiting the mind. Culling from discards, the Chilean poet and artist describes a world that contains a glut of things but offers little in the way of spiritual solace.

At DiverseWorks, Vicuna has filled a narrow table with precarios, tiny, fragile assemblages constructed of found objects or rubbish. They're like visual poems, the gentle juxtapositions of stone, wood, feathers, shells, cloth and pencils, often bound with brightly colored thread. The modest pieces -- a boat, a web, a scroll -- seem to have merely happened, rather than to have been constructed, and appear so flexible and loose that the parts might at any moment form another whole. They feel pregnant with meaning, ideas about the complexity of nature and life's little miracles. But it's not because Vicuna worked some sort of alchemy on her humble materials; it's because she left well enough alone.

The word "precario," like the English word "precarious," is derived from the Latin precis, meaning "prayer," and Vicuna's poet's table is placed over cracks in the room's concrete floors, symbolizing communication between the worlds above and below. The artist wants her work to trigger contemplation; she wants it to help us find our own truth.

Accordingly, she bridges the gap between the past and present. Vicuna sees modern life as disrupting humans' direct relationship with the world around us. For her, emanations of spirit, visionary powers and mythical archetypes don't fit with mechanization; we've estranged ourselves from the earth. poet's table correlates poverty of materials and purity of spirit.

Each piece can be mined for layers of formal and thematic content. The work is political in the most poetic way: It critiques the general culture through the expression of a personal vision. In Houston, a Central American butterfly is caught in an industrial web. For Poet's Blood, an ink cartridge is inserted in a Pre-Colombian piece of bone. Alongside are two thorns from Chile and a grid of industrial debris interwoven with a chunk of coral reef. Guacamayo electrica juxtaposes an iridescent blue feather with electrical trash from the streets of New York.

Vicuna uses wool, thread and knots to explore connections between weaving and language. "In the Andes," she says, "to weave is to give light. Textiles were frequently offerings in Pre-Colombian cultures. Everything is falling apart because of lack of connections. Weaving is the connection that is missing, the connection between people and themselves, people and nature. Weaving and crossing are healing processes."

The DiverseWorks show opens with a video in which women are rhythmically pulling strings of yarn. Taken together, the video and poet's table convey a deeply feminine perspective. Vicuna's language goes beyond the mind/body dichotomy to the realm of feeling. It touches our most primal chords.

Her installation in the main gallery, cloud-net, places logic and intuition on equal footing. She loops, twists and knots ten pounds of unspun wool over the rafters. Eight separate streams of wool create a weblike structure that conforms to the room's arches. As a physical object, cloud-net is impressive and mysterious; it begs to be touched. Vicuna explains that unspun wool contains the energy of the unformed, and cloud-net does seem primal and atavistic, an umbilical cord attached to the womb, a cradle of sorts, slung close to the ground but free to move. (The work seems especially appropriate to its site: DiverseWorks's building was once a cotton warehouse.)

The streams of wool create complex shadows on the gallery walls, and the sprawling expanse of lines puts viewers in mind of the oldest representations of labor: that of women spinning. The piece relates to the ancient, repetitive, Penelopean rhythms of seeding, gathering and weaving, as well as to modern domestic routines. Calming and meditative, the looping structure seems to take root and grow. Perhaps in line with our desires, or perhaps at odds with our wills, Vicuna aims to draw us outside of ourselves and toward the power of myth, ritual, dream and enchantment.

Jane Miller's "Time Not Wasted" is on view through April 18 at Rice Gallery, Sewell Hall, 6100 Main, (713)527-6069. Gallery director Kim Davenport will give a talk, "Hey, you never know," on Thursday, April 15, at noon.

Cecilia Vicuna's work is on view through April 24 at DiverseWorks, 1117 East Freeway, (713)223-8346.

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