Times Staff Writer

If anyone personifies the flowering of craft into art that has taken place during the past two decades, it's Neda Alhilali. Her retrospective exhibition, at the Municipal Art Gallery through May 19, celebrates the work of a woman who has turned traditional fiber crafts inside out.

Once identified as a weaver and then tagged with the more fashionable euphemism, fiber artist , Alhilali must now be known as an artist. Her training in crafts--in Europe and, more intensively, at UCLA--was only the beginning of a career that moved into painting and sculpture with intelligent disregard for confining labels.

Her flat weavings and tight little macrame hangings of the 1960s led to spooky, room-size fiber environments. Then came immense brown-paper "Tongues," installed on the Venice beach, and cascades of profusely patterned paper, draped from patio roofs and indoor beams. Lately, Alhilali has been working with aluminum modules, fashioning large wall-pieces that resemble shimmering fields of pastel grass or silvery, feathered cloaks.

Alhilali was born in Czechoslovakia and has lived in Baghdad, but the Southland has claimed her since she moved here in 1961. (We have had trouble getting her name right, however, leading her to roll the two parts of Al Hilali into one word.)

Now the Muni has seen fit, as is its wont, to honor a distinguished citizen who deserves attention but is unlikely to get it from other local institutions. As it turns out, the retrospective was a terrific idea. Even those who have followed Alhilali's international exhibition record may be astonished at the range and authority of the show's approximately 50 works, which span the period from 1968 to the present.

The retrospective as a genre has the virtue of presenting enough work to illuminate seemingly contradictory phases of an artist's career: change and constancy. We expect to see growth and development, even experimentation, but not in scattershot fashion. The parts need to feed into a whole sensibility for the panorama to be a cohesive view.

That happens at the Muni, where Alhilali's oeuvre weaves itself together into a sumptuous fabric--now delicately restrained, now effusively florid, but always quivering with complex life. The earliest works shown, two small, flat weavings, are neutral in color and quite rigid in geometric form, but they contain hints of what was to come when she gave up the loom. Repetition, woven structure, symmetrical design, layering and, of course, fine craftsmanship are all here.

In the catalogue essay, Alhilali calls her art "foot tracks of prolonged attention and energy," a description that could hardly be more apt. Inherent in everything from her pod-like fiber hangings to pressed paper grids is intense, extraordinarily hard work. Thousands of woven, knotted threads and thousands of crosshatched lines on surfaces that are themselves the result of laborious processes make each piece something of a marvel of handwrought labor. This art looks like so much work that mystics may suspect it of springing full-blown from a ritualistic trance.

All this effort wouldn't add up to art if Alhilali lacked the vision to organize the parts. She does so by balancing fields of intricate detail in two basically simple forms--symmetrical pods that later blossom into flowers and wings, and gridded rectangles. The pod becomes everything from a "Trippy Doormat" (many times removed from its namesake) to a red-and-blue volume suspended from the ceiling.

This organic form then grows like kudzu, filling one gallery with an ominous installation called "Black Passage." Its central parts resemble animal heads, and the whole puts one in mind of a hidden altar--the engulfing sort of tentacled shrine that one might expect to find deep in the jungle.

The grids never achieve that high drama, but they are as adventurous in their way. Alhilali takes them from basic fiber warps and woofs to massive paper structures with rhythmic protrusions. In "Arilodis," squares of painted paper on canvas curl like petals as they project from the wall in a giant hexagon.

Alhilali also echoes actual woven structure in drawn and painted lines that seem more integral than applied. Even when she works with iridescent, painted aluminum strips--assembling them in wind-swept fields, hairy masses or feathery components of the massive, phoenix-like "Mantle"--she weaves separate elements into unified wholes. Only "Naly's Return" looks stringy and too literally related to nature to rise above its physical self.

The exhibition is open from 12:30 to 5 p.m., Tuesdays through Sundays. Alhilali will talk about her work at 3 p.m., May 11, at the gallery in Barnsdall Park. Information: 485-4581.

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