Stringing it together

Saint Mary’s University Art Gallery hosts Kai Chan: A Spider’s Logic, a retrospective exhibit spanning an impressive 35 years of contemporary textile art.

Kai Chan’s “Aurora” makes creative use of a larger space.
Kai Chan’s “Aurora” makes creative use of a larger space.

The SMU Art Gallery hosts Kai Chan: A Spider's Logic, a retrospective exhibit spanning 35 years of contemporary textile art. by Julie Sobowale

A quick look in the past can inspire work for the future. When the opportunity came for Kai Chan to add new work to his retrospective exhibit, he knew what he wanted. "When I have a huge space, I go for big," Chan says. "My workspace is only 22 inches wide in the basement. I wanted to do something big."

Within his small workplace, Kai Chan has built an impressive volume of exquisite work. Kai Chan: A Spider's Logic is a retrospective exhibit covering 35 years of textile art at the Saint Mary's University Art Gallery. Following Chan's career from 1975 to 2010, the exhibit features everyday items, mostly textiles, manipulated into detailed pieces of art. Halifax is the final stop for the exhibit, which has toured six cities nationwide.

"Kai's work crosses boundaries," says Sara Quinton, curatorial director of the Textile Museum of Canada in Toronto and curator of the exhibit. "It's hard to pin it down. It's contemporary, visual and even a little performance art. His work is extraordinary."

Chan came to the art world later in his life. Originally from China, Chan grew up in the wake of World War II and became a high school teacher. He and his family immigrated to Canada in 1966. While studying interior design at the Ontario College of Art, Chan was struck by the Wall Hangings exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art. "I was completely attracted," he says. "I had never seen such an expressive art form."

Shortly after completing his degree in 1970, Chan began his art career as a 30-year-old with no formal training. "I had lots of doubts," he says. "I started so late. I needed confidence to move forward."

Chan quickly rooted his art in textiles. In "Playing Mountains, Playing Marriage" (1986), two columns of dogwood, cotton and thread are meshed together as towers. The construction of the tangled thread and wood requires skill and judgment that Chan has built up over the years. "I tend to experiment with an idea until I find a solution," he says. "I like to figure it out for myself. I enjoy that freedom."

Chan's work is mostly autobiographical, bridging his Chinese heritage with his Canadian home. In "Shangri-La" (2010), dry lawn grass is carefully threaded through glass beads. The items are strewn together on the wall as mountains in reference to the mythical, pristine land located in Asia. "China has rapidly changed in the last 50 years," says Chan. "I want to say what I want by reducing materials to their most essential elements."

The magic of Chan's work is in the details. In "Yellowing Yellow," hand-painted toothpicks are woven onto a screen. "The art is transformative," says Quinton. "The viewer is transformed by looking and seeing what the pieces are made out of. There are miles of thread with a mundane object to form something new and yet it's so familiar."

So much can be made with a simple thread. Black silk thread in "Link" (2009/2010) reveals never-ending patterns. In "Mirage," red silk thread hangs on nails from the wall, showing a beautiful skyline. Pink cotton thread in "Marilyn" (2010) reminds us of Marilyn Monroe's beauty with the thread hanging on nails to form many curves. "I love the construction of thread," says Chan. "I want to divide the thread from that straight line. I like to give it another character."

Retrospection can lead to new creation. While Chan sees his past works as "still fresh," he's waiting for the new challenge. "I like to do something I haven't done before," he says. "I want to expand my artistic ability. I'm still looking for something new."

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