Los Angeles


Otis College of Art and Design

With the exhibit “Containers” at the Otis Art Institute came the opportunity to see assembled an array of baskets, bottles, boxes, and bowls which was most stimulating. Typical examples of these from ancient and modern civilizations were on view. A gathering of one class of items is a service that punctuates the definition of that object and also brings to light its particular meaning to each individual. Containers reach over the ages, reflect terrain, cultural modes, religious beliefs, levels of technological advance, man’s need to store and predilection to save.

Excellently presented, the objects did not feel removed from daily experience and placed apart within a museum. The title of the show immediately kept use foremost, and the labeling of each piece stated its culture of origin and its function to those people. Furthermore, most examples were not under glass, but sitting out as they would be naturally.

It became surprising, how great a variety of work could be gathered under the name “container,” despite differences of intended length of use, purpose, and style. An Egyptian Canopic box, of about the second century B.C., was made to hold for eternity the entrails of the embalmed; a French silver string-dispenser to keep its contents for a daily need; a shopping bag to be used for an hourly convenience. Containers have been made to hold practically anything from beta! nuts (in a silver container from Khmer, c. 12th C. A.D.) to holy water in a pilgrim’s brass carrier (India 17th C.), to feathers (in a ceremonial feather holder of carved wood from Maori, New Zealand), to Chinese silk (in a brass and wood merchant’s trunk), to a baby (in a Japanese basket) while its parents are working in the field. Great stylistic variety does not keep one from liking all sorts of containers. A Japanese wood box with the pure form of a rectangle contrasts strongly with a Pre-Columbian parrot effigy pot or an Indian enamel and silver sweetmeat holder that is a composite of heart shapes, yet the examples in the show were all exquisite. Besides this, with a refreshing approach, the Institute underplayed stylistic traits and rather emphasized the peculiarities of the individual piece.

Unexpectedly, certain objects conjured up a distinctive feeling. A wood crate stamped with the words “white cucumber and ginger from Singapore,” a yew wood and silver letter box, an antique snuff box, and a frozen food package all brought a different response. The Otis Art Institute show was remindful that Jack, Pandora, and bread all apply to box, and that each container one uses has its own place on a vast ancestral tree.

Molly Siple