Thai-born, Hawaii-based artist Sanit Khewhok is the most recent recipient of the Catherine E.B. Cox Award for Excellence in the Visual Arts. This biennial award is named after the Honolulu Academy of Arts’ first director and rewards former or current Hawaii artists with a one-person exhibition at the academy. Let us be thankful that this undoubtedly difficult decision wasn’t left to the mechanics of "American Idol."
Khewhok’s "As It Happened" is a fantastically dense show made up mostly of highly detailed miniature sculptures, paintings and drawings. Tucked away in a quiet upstairs corner gallery, Khewhok invites the viewer into an intimate world that mixes European classicism, touches of surrealism and subtle contemporary artistic games of reference and appropriation. All of the works murmur to each other like an audience in the moments before a film begins, and as one follows lateral sequences of images from which a cinematic effect does indeed emerge, with each frame nodding to one or more of the artist he cites as influences: Hieronymous Bosch, Francisco Goya and Edvard Munch.
‘AS IT HAPPENED’
Works by Sanit Khewhok:
Where: Honolulu Academy of Arts, 900 S. Beretania St.
When: Through Oct. 10; 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays and 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays
Admission: $10; $5 seniors, students and military; children free
Call: 532-8700 or visit www.honoluluacademy.org
"Premonition" (and other paintings in this series) invites comparisons to Bosch and Goya with its hybrid creatures. The doting bird-man-thing is a self-portrait, while staff members of the Contemporary Museum: Georgianna Lagoria (former director), Alison Wong (interim director) and Jay Jensen (curator) hatch from eggs at its feet. The Jensen-dinosaur-thing (note the charming bow tie!) is the only one to have fully emerged, while Lagoria and Wong are just poking their heads out.
Khewhok was the Contemporary Museum’s chief conservator and collections manager from 1988 to 2008, and knowing that he is versed in European traditions of allegorical painting, we are left to our own devices (and respective political networks) to decipher the meaning of the 2004 painting. Even if one isn’t a Honolulu fine arts insider, the charm, humor and whimsy daringly coupled with the creepiness of the sampled mouth, the bloody ground, rich mountains and melancholy village in the distance is still evocative. It is guaranteed to have a role in the kind of cross-cultural, hyperlinked art history that will eventually emerge in Hawaii’s future.
Khewhok’s portraiture ranges from other local figures: former academy Director George Ellis, his own wife, and Satoru Abe, to (drawing on Goya’s political undertones) people on the contemporary world stage such as Gen. Stanley McChrystal and George W. Bush. "The World Is Flat" is another riddle that casts the former president as fallen saint, kept company by a skull beneath a pile of books (knowledge? secrets?) and a female toad-headed result of unregulated stem-cell research. The title references not only the ancient belief, but the book by Thomas L. Friedman, who cites technology’s ability to move, transform and represent people, information and goods as one "flattener" of the world.
The toad-thing sits at the edge of a precipice, Death separates it from the head of Bush. The scene can be read like a comic strip whose composition is as internally consistent and atmosphere is as timeless as any installment of one’s favorite ‘toon. But the punch line is evasive, and Khewhok’s technique is so serious, so clearly the result of mastery and his classical training in Thailand and Italy, that it cannot be written off as irony or a postmodern joke. Plus, such works are small — one leans way in to study the details that he’s laid in without the assistance of a magnifying glass. They can’t help but become bigger, more absorbing, more contemplative.
Which brings us to a fine detail of Khewhok’s life: the 100 days of 1985 he spent as an ordained monk in a Buddhist monastery in Thailand, during which he made his first sculpture under the influence of enlightenment. While walking in the woods, Khewhok turned a stick into a work of art. What he made is not as important as the freedom that making it granted him, and herein lies the lesson that has been learned by many artists over the years, including luminaries such as Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol, who also mastered the art of the found object/concept and the assemblage.
But here, Khewhok’s Thai identity and Buddhist foundation shine through all his European training, and his applied wisdom can been seen in his sculptures of fishbone and thread, and in the army of handcrafted insects with legs of wire and wings of fish scale. The untitled fishbone sculptures acknowledge and casually rival the mobiles of Alexander Calder, and knowing that they were once dinner elevates them on twin currents of humility and sustainability.
Meanwhile, the insects — tiny robotic mantises, flies and generic bugs — are surrounding and directing their attention at a lone comrade who is trapped under an entomologist’s glass. Keeping with the allegories that lurk throughout the show, this is perhaps a historical self-portrait showing us the artist not as an individual genius, but as a social organization. Here, think about the Buddhist concept of a sangha: community at the scale of a monastery and the universe as well.
This is one of the paths that a study of Khewhok’s well-deserved show can lead. Though someone else’s will surely be different, I’m confident that compatible conclusions will be reached.
David A.M. Goldberg is a freelance writer and cultural critic who teaches arts and humanities in the University of Hawaii system.