Treasures and Delights at the Bellevue Arts Museum

Each time I venture across the lake and visit BAM I’m reminded of how much I love that place. Invariably it has a number of exhibits that delight and amaze me. The current selections are among the very best.

Unless you go this weekend you’ll miss Chris Antemann’s amazing porcelain installations created in collaboration with the renowned Meissen Porcelain Manufactory in Germany. The highlight is a long panorama of miniature semi-clothed men and women feasting—on each other and tiny varieties of fruits, wines, cakes, and other delights. It’s reminiscent of the decadent and romantic works of the painters Watteau and Boucher. Each figurine is carefully painted; each face reveals sly, coy, or hungry emotions. It’s a mesmerizing miniature world that combines the comic with the historical. You won’t be sorry to make a special effort to get to see it before it closes.

But there’s more, so much more. The largest exhibit is “Inspiring Beauty 50 Years of EBONY Fashion Fair.” Here you’ll find manikins garbed in the most luxurious and beautiful fashions imaginable. I just returned from New York where I visited the Metropolitan Museum’s current fashion show. The Bellevue show is far, far better in all respects. The exhibition was organized by the Chicago History Museum in cooperation with the black-owned Johnson Publishing Company LLC.

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Stephen Burrows (United States) Evening dress, ready-to-wear, spring/summer 2007 Rayon jersey Photo: John Alderson © Chicago Historical Society

Eunice W. Johnson, co-founder of the company, initiated the Fashion Fair to bring attention to black designers by showing their work in association with garments by the world’s most highly lauded designers: Givenchy, Balmain, Ungaro, Dior, Missoni, Yves St. Laurent, Blass, you name the haute couture icon and his or her work will be represented in this show.

The fabrics are luscious, opulent, audacious. There are furs, chiffons, silks, taffetas, beaded pieces, jerseys. Sexy sheaths hug the body. Flowing saris and kimonos contrast with sleek metal numbers. The use of buttons will astound you. What is particularly interesting is that even the 50-year-old pieces still look great today, not dated.

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Givenchy by Alexander McQueen (France) Evening dress, haute couture, fall/winter 1997-98 Synthetic raffia mounted on silk gauze Appeared in The Jazz Age of Fashions Photo: Courtesy of Johnson Publishing Company, LLC

In addition to providing a banquet of beautiful design and materials, the exhibition tells the story of changing attitudes toward race in the past 50 years. Initially designers were hesitant to submit their work to Ms. Johnson, worried that it’s placement in an “Ebony” show would turn white customers away.

Of course it didn’t. What it did was provide a vision of what was possible for African American women. The fashion show was a major event in all the cities it visited. The drama of the runway was accompanied by music. Funds were raised for local charitable causes (more than $55 million for civil rights groups, hospitals, community centers and scholarships). These were glorious clothes for good causes, and their history is well worth knowing.

And there’s more to see at BAM right now. Don’t miss the Kara Walker show. Her silhouettes challenge and delight. And certainly don’t miss Seth Rolland, the wood artist who appears to do magical things with wood.

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Seth Rolland Dreamcatcher Hall Table, 2016 The base is a single block of wood Photo: Frank Ross

His particular brilliance is “kerfing.” Kerfing is an old, but terribly difficult technique for bending and expanding wood. It makes possible musical instruments such as violins and guitars, and in Rolland’s hands it expands the wood.

By making precise, closely placed cuts in a solid piece of wood, he can create open spaces between each cut. Thus expanded, he fans the piece out to serve as the base for tables, sculptures, and wall hangings. His pieces and their shadows seem impossible to realize. Yet they serve utilitarian needs as well as being art objects.

The final exhibition currently at the Museum is “Atoms + Bytes: Redefining Craft in the Digital Age.” This collection draws on artists from around the world. Sadly, I didn’t have time to see it when I was there. That just goes to prove that BAM has such a wealth of exhibitions with such a diversity of offerings that just one visit isn’t enough. Do check it out.

Bellevue Arts Museum, 510 Bellevue Way NE, Bellevue, (425 519-0770 or info@bellevuearts.org).

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