Two Exhibits of Crafts That Communicate

At the Renwick Gallery, fiber marries wood; African-American works resonate

'Marriage in Form: Kay Sekimachi and Bob Stocksdale'' and ''Uncommon Beauty in Common Objects: The Legacy of African American Craft Art'' are two new reasons to visit the Renwick Gallery of the National Museum of American Art in Washington.

The Renwick, a small and welcoming museum, exhibits a wide variety of American crafts. Though visitors aren't actually allowed to pick up the objects on display, the Renwick has an almost ''touchable'' atmosphere: One feels compelled to reach out and feel the surfaces -- smooth, bumpy, slick, or furry. The tangibility of the objects -- three-dimensional, textured, and real -- invites viewers to think not only about the crafts as art, but also about their creators and inspirations. ''Marriage in Form'' and ''Uncommon Beauty'' -- two vastly different exhibits -- are two good examples of how craft can communicate in this way.

''Marriage in Form'' is a collection of works by husband-wife team Bob Stocksdale and Kay Sekimachi, each considered a pioneer in their respective fields of wood and fiber. From two different backgrounds -- Stocksdale is self-taught; Sekimachi trained with a Bauhaus-influenced weaver -- the couple has produced complementary pieces of art. Both choose unusual materials and employ similar aesthetics. The result of their work is at once independent and intertwined.

Stocksdale's craft is bowls of unusual woods like mesquite, macadamia, and blackwood. Hardly the salad bowl variety, these bowls are silky smooth, with exquisite attention paid to the grain, the shape of the rim and curve of the sides. They are solid, yet delicate and elegant.

Sekimachi's work has almost the opposite emphasis: delicate and elegant, yet not quite solid -- sometimes whisper-thin. With a preference for subdued colors, she weaves flax, linen, grass, and paper. Some objects look like shadows or ghosts of Stocksdale's work, like ''Flax Bowl'' and ''Lace Paper Bowl.'' Other pieces are more distinctive, like her three hanging ''Black River'' linen- and nylon-woven tubes or her linen nesting boxes. The couple's collection is displayed alternately, which emphasizes the influence each artist's work has on the other.

If ''Marriage in Form'' is a display of two voices singing a duet, ''Uncommon Beauty'' could be described as a whole chorus of voices singing different songs. This collection, organized and displayed first at the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center in Wilberforce, Ohio, represents a huge range of contemporary African-American craft.

The legacy of centuries of African-American artists is widely varied, from craftsman Anthony Beverly, who was uneasy about his ''Folding Screen'' being included in the show because he does not consider his work to be African-American influenced, but rather based on Asian aesthetics, to Nathaniel Bustion, who based his ''Brownstone Series #30'' on his strong reaction to seeing the poor neighborhoods of Baltimore.

Some of the art is functional, like Michael Chinn's ''Tension Table VIII'' and silversmith Charnelle Holloway's self-described ''art-deco-ish'' tea set. ''[In Africa] craft and art functioned as the same thing. Though it [was] art, everything had a function.... I want the work that I do now to be functional. I want it to have deep meaning in the tradition of African art,'' he writes.

''African-American craft art has largely been ignored in the developmental analyses of American craft....'' writes Nkiru Nzegwu in an overview of the exhibit. ''In sum, the uncommon beauty in African American craft art is that it stands as a lightening rod of remembrance of the systematic exclusion and erasure of a people's creative expression.... [It] also challenges white America's views about art and creativity.''

*''Marriage in Form: Kay Sekimachi and Bob Stockdale'' and ''Unicommon Beauty in Common Objects: The Legacy of African American Craft Art'' will be at the Renwick Gallery in Washington through June 18, the collections then travel to the American Craft Museum in New York, July 13-Oct. 8; and the Museum of Art at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, Nov. 16-Feb. 4, 1996.

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