Kai Chan Crafts a New Profile

If you're one to read the still-damp tea leaves at the bottom of contemporary art's most recently consumed cup, you'd be hard-pressed not to divine some kind of moment for the apparently homespun techniques of traditional craft. Just in our own hometown, all of the Big Three museums feature, or just featured, major exhibitions that fit the thesis: At the ROM, El Anatsui's arresting hand-wrought aluminum tapestries offer a recycler's take on heroic, narrative fabric-making; at the Power Plant, Pae White's jarringly photo-realistic, computer woven fabric hangings of such things as crinkled plastic wrap and smoke; while at the AGO, Flesh and Blood , Shary Boyle's sensual, labour-intensive show of porcelain figurines and miniatures, among other things, made a bold statement for the hand-made and sensual in a sometimes physically-detached art world.

But don't take Toronto's word for it: This year's Whitney Biennial, a highly subjective pulse-taking of what's important in American art every two years, featured a remarkable amount of stitching, weaving, carving and other homely skills more associated with humble craft-making than high-minded art. (There was a good amount of painting, too, reminding us that that medium is essentially craft as well.) So I suppose we can see Kai Chan as ahead of the curve. For the past 35 years, Chan has been working within his own fascinations, plying the usually well-defined boundary between, as the Whitney put it, "the applied and fine arts." At the apex of the conceptual era - think black and white performance documentation, piles of symbolically freighted pebbles on the gallery floor, aphoristic text on the wall - this border was particularly well-controlled. Perhaps not coincidentally, it's about the time - 1976 - Chan began making meticulous, craft-and-labour intense pieces using colourful silk thread. The work was also connected to a highly personal narrative in a moment when the personal and hand-wrought was, at best, gauche, stamping Chan's passport with resonant clarity.

It's taken some time, but the wheel has turned, if not entirely, and the fruits of Chan's practice are getting their largest-ever airing at two museums in the GTA, at the Varley Art Centre in Unionville, and at the Textile Museum of Canada here in Toronto. Called "A Spider's Logic," it's an intelligent, well-crafted appeal, perhaps, to reconsider; those features long-sniffed at, in Chan's hands, become a bracing, quietly provocative practice, stitched together, so to speak, by a remarkably centred consistency.

Chan describes his work as an attempt to reconcile the two halves of his life, growing up in a rustic, pre-industrial China, and his later experience as an immigrant to Canada, where the whole of modernity greeted him in one rapid gush on arrival. The work is primitive and modern, fine and rough, and almost always personal:

Link (2010) is both huge and barely there, a delicately crafted web of black thread that overwhelms both with its spectacular, ethereal presence and Chan's labour in making it.

In fact, nothing in this show seems absent of serious physical commitment - or, for that matter, simple, plain-spoken beauty.

Playing Mountains, Playing Marriage , from 1986 - I'm not going to guess what he means; the mystery is one of the work's central pleasures - knits together hundreds, if not thousands of dogwood twigs into twin columns bound by blue and black thread.

Chan transforms prosaic materials like thread - and toothpicks, which, for Yellowing Yellow (1996), he hand-painted hundreds of them before weaving them into a screen - into delicate, movingly human objects where his presence, through labour, is a subtle constant.

Aurora , from 1976, is an early example of his commitment: thousands and thousands of feet of fine crimson silk thread shrouding a wooden core. Chinese mythology has it that those fated to have their paths cross are linked by an invisible red thread; Aurora speaks of a vast interconnectedness frankly and open-heartedly.

Nearby, Family Moon , a crisply ordered, overlapping collage of buttons, is a charming if a little blunt rendering of Chan's dual existence: A grid of uniform bone-pale buttons pinned to the wall in a loose oblong form, overlapping a ring of bright, bangly ones - the loud, hectic churn of modern life set against the quiet uniformity of rural China (or, not knowing Cultural Revolution China, maybe it's the other way around). Either way, it has a simple, engaging beauty, like almost all of Chan's work, that gently prods the imagination.

An admission: I did not make the Varley before writing this, thwarted by time, circumstance and a Don Valley Parkway paralyzed this week by snow. Having seen the portion downtown, I'll brave it. Chan's evocative craft reminds us the human hand and gesture will always have its place in art - one that's finally becoming less confined, again.

Kai Chan: A Spider's Logic continues at the Textile Museum of Canada, 55 Centre Ave., Toronto until May 1, 2011, and at the Varley Art Gallery, 216 Main Street, Unionville, until Jan. 30.

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