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No rainbows, no problem

The Artists of Hawaii exhibit has works that do not necessarily go together well

By David A.M. Goldberg / Special to the Star-Advertiser

LAST UPDATED: 2:25 p.m. HST, Aug 5, 2011

This year marks the 59th anniversary of the Artists of Hawaii, and it's the exhibition's best iteration of the 21st century.

Juror Michael Rooks manages collections and exhibitions of post-1945 art for the High Museum in Atlanta, but he lived in Hawaii for six years, working as a curator at the Honolulu Academy of Arts and The Contemporary Museum. Using his insider-outsider status, Rooks has done a brilliant job of curating Hawaii's home-grown and indigenous talent without including a single work that panders to, exploits or distorts our image of ourselves.

The first image is not a sunset, beach, flower or ethnographic moment; it is Ryan Lee's altered photographs of Hurricane Iniki bending palm trees. Remembering this historic disaster invites us to examine the role of art during the current storm of budget crises and environmental catastrophes.


» Where: Academy of Arts Gallery 28

» When: Through Sept. 25

» Juror's Lecture: 1 p.m. today in the Doris Duke Theatre

» On the Net:

» Hours: 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays

» Admission: $10 adults, $5 children, ages 4 to 17

» Phone: 532-8700


Beyond Lee, Rooks establishes Hawaii as a place that looks outward with a politicized eye: We see Osvaldo Brighenti's drawings of Russian anarchists, Rachelle Dang's large-scale portraits of Yemeni demonstrators, pieces from Marcia Morse's "Women in Black" series, Sanit Khewok's critiques-in-miniature and Steven Garon's stunning photograph of a blind Burmese boy printed on a page from a Braille textbook.

THOUGH THE show invites consideration of collective expression, it is by no means harmonious, for Rooks has not selected for an artificial unity that is neither plausible nor necessary.

Kapulani Landgraf's "Kahulumanu," a hypnotic alii-ready cape of photographed eyes ringed with handwritten Hawaiian lamentation chants, isn't meant to live happily ever after with painter Erika Luecke's dense and foreboding evocation of layered clouds ("Makuma"), Bruna Stude's equally dark yet richly layered underwater photographs or Aaron Padilla's "Union": a large, flowing, all-wood square extrusion that encloses a bundle of cable forms, all tied in a square knot.

But could we not divine a connection between Landgraf's tribute to her deceased mother, Luecke's possible evocation of grief, Stude's ocean of what could be tears of mourning and Padilla's visual implications of data transmission?

Elsewhere, Charles Bowen ("Homeless Homework"), Kloe Kang ("Invisible Cities: Hotel Makai 1") and Phil Uhl ("Urban Eye") present different, decidedly non-nostalgic views of urban Honolulu.

Bowen's homeless girl, photographed on Ahui Street before her community was purged from the Kakaako area, does her homework among improvised homes; Kang's haunting pencil rendering of Chinatown hovers between magical realism and digitally augmented reality; and Uhl riffs on the visual-effects technique of set extension to link the skylines of Waikiki and Hong Kong to a sprawling meta-city under total digital surveillance.

These examples demonstrate an investment of time and artistic intelligence that captures complex interplays of literal and figurative texture, color, force and rhythm that surround us every day.

Bowen's postindustrial landscape transcends photojournalism to marry the beauty of our skies to the gaudy tropical fish printed on a blanket used to shelter those who sleep on sharp stones. This de facto surrealism joins Kang's ghosts of lion dances, amorphous abstractions of social relationships, and the all-seeing eye that links the Renaissance obsession with perspective to the police cameras that stare down Chinatown — which is the power and vision that Uhl renders at titanic proportions, one pixel at a time.

The exhibition also features more abstract representations. One of Nu'a Bōn's two mysterious, vaguely allegorical canvasses places the figure of a female hula dancer behind a semitranslucent gray-white fog. In the foreground, colorful expressionistic brush strokes duel with a grid that could be star map, street map or 2-D echo of Kaili Chun's towering iron cages.

Meanwhile, Keith Tallet's "Flying Hawaiians" duet fuses the seductive aesthetics of the perfectly waxed surfboard with black tire tread patterns. Linking these repetitions to traditional Polynesian tattoos and gene sequences, Tallet has given us one of the exhibition's most successful evocations of and challenges to (post-) modern Hawaii.

This hybridity that mixes media, subject matter and aesthetic conventions carries the viewer from high modernism to contemporary indigenous to the borders of "outsider art."

Among these 118 works by 79 artists of sculpture, textile, painting, photography, drawing, digital and video, you will find pieces to love, shun and wonder "why in the world was that included?"

But I guarantee that you will not be able to write off the show as business as usual. Rooks has done our artistic community a tremendous favor by raising the bar for all future jurors, reassuring us that the artistic interests of our two museums will survive their union and loosening the constraints of our self-imposed artistic clichés and stereotypes.

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