The Contemporary Museum at First Hawaiian Center currently features three shows: "Crossings," with Andrew Binkley and Inka Resch; "In the News," with Bernice Akamine, Vince Hazen, Mac James, Deborah Nehmad and Pearlyn Salvador; and Suzanne Wolfe’s "Cuptopia." The breadth and diversity is initially overwhelming, but time spent with these projects allows for the discovery of substantial connections between them.
Sampling and remixing has a diverse history that includes Picasso, the Art of Noise, Andy Warhol and DJ Marley Marl. Reality television, talk shows and dramatic plots "ripped from the headlines" are also tributaries of the mighty river of appropriation. The curatorial effort here demonstrates the existence of a thriving "conceptual commons" that has matured in the decades since postmodernism’s high theorists bemoaned the "pastiche" of hollow, apolitical artistic forms and expressions.
Clearly the sky never fell, artists deepened their practices and, in the wake of the global cultural momentum of hip-hop, desktop computing and the Internet, audiences have become more literate if not smarter.
The fundamental accessibility of Wolfe’s work on the second floor is a great place to start looking. Her proliferation of glistening handmade ceramic cups critically mixes samples of art history, pop culture and slyly feminist quasi-aphorisms. Down the hall, Hazen’s portraits and landscapes, literally peeled from newspapers, are smudged and shaded with ink, the subjects sealed behind a flat glaze of Scotch tape. Their work shares a carnivalesque or paradelike quality that flips from a luscious, highly desirable optimism to a twisted echo of FBI most-wanted photo grids.
"Recent Photographs by Andrew Binkley and Inka Resch," "Suzanne Wolfe: Cuptopia" and "In the News: Bernice Akamine, Deborah Nemad, Vince Hazen, Mac James and Pearlyn Salvador"
When: Through July 15, 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays to Thursdays and until 6 p.m. Fridays
Where: The Contemporary Museum at First Hawaiian Center, 999 Bishop St.
Call: 526-1322 or visit www.tcmhi.org
OTHER ARTISTS’ narratives are more symbolic and cleverly play at the edge of visual puns. The leaves of Akamine’s politically charged kalo (taro) sculptures are made of reproductions from newspapers, including one that ran the day after the overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom. Salvador shapes mummylike figures wrapped in bandages made of copy from personal ads, while James paints the daily ecological crises he reads about in newsprint hues. Nehmad’s combustible "Bush Canon" lays out the annals of the George W. Bush legacy on handmade pages that have been tortured, stained and marked with spider web patterns, news transcriptions and her personal thoughts.
These works can be united under a general aesthetic and philosophy of the ransom note that treats entire bodies of knowledge, technique, history and narrative as letters cut from a magazine or newspaper. Pastiche has achieved depth through these artists’ careful consideration of medium, advanced techniques and, in Akamine’s case, the "genetic modification" of Western modes of artistic expression with non-Western values.
From struggles with indigenous rights to ecological collapse, reckless political adventurism and the cruel banality of popular media, the implication is that a richer, more just life is being held hostage by forces that are impersonal at best and hostile at their worst.
Binkley evokes these forces with his photographs of a Chinese alley taken from the perspective of a surveillance satellite. He captures the paths of bicycles, pedestrians, street vendors and mo-peds and digitally combines multiple exposures into assemblages of juxtaposed gestures, colors and form. The result is an expression of Chinese urbanism’s invisible calligraphy.
The subtly disconcerting implications of Binkley’s work are amplified by Resch’s stark images of luxury fortresses under construction in Dubai. These completely denaturalized and dehumanizing landscapes are bleak, bleached by sun and sand, and utterly beautiful.
She includes the construction workers turned iconic in their day-glo safety vests and helmets, dwarfed by raw infrastructure and frozen in a different version of the everyday imaged by Binkley. The presence of these laborers from the hive society of the future reminds us that our ultramodern air-conditioned ziggurats — First Hawaiian Center included — do not raise themselves, always begin with the infliction of terrible wounds on the landscape and, being made of concrete, steel and glass, are ultimately remixes of the earth itself.
Here we come full circle. The problems of postmodernism were first identified in architecture and urbanism as selected modes of expression with technicality and gusto but with little regard for history or humanity. Since then the rest of our media have followed suit, driven by a market of sequels, stereotypes, knockoffs and derivatives.
What these three shows have demonstrated is that in a place such as Hawaii, which has always struggled with the ransom-note effects of postmodernism, there are artists with the skills, talent and political will to take down the hollow design statement with a little aesthetic aikido.
We would do well to take this opportunity to work out with them.