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Cities of wonder

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    Maya Lea Portner offers stencil-and-cutout and wire mapped versions of the stretch of Oahu that runs from Kewalo Basin to the mountains above Makiki Heights, in “Urbanophilia/Urbanophobia|Love and Fear of the City,” on exhibit at the Honolulu Museum of Art through Sept. 13.
    The scroll “Whisper City,” one of three installed pieces, is an aerial grid that mixes streets, geographic contours and architecture.

Last week I took a direct flight from Hono­­lulu to New York. Seated in a middle row, I missed an early morning descent that transforms a bird’s-eye view of abstract geometric patterns and textures into the crush and rush of tangible reality. Navigating the JFK terminal, I was in culture shock from the sudden immersion into Armenia-to-Zimbabwe multiculturalism. I found myself feeling like an immigrant wondering at the marvels of America.

Upon my return, viewing Maya Lea Portner’s "Urbanophilia/Urbanophobia|Love and Fear of the City" produced echoes of the same feelings of wonder. Honored with the Catharine E.B. Cox Award, Portner’s triptych-installation of Hono­lulu "portraits" marries the privilege of aerial and offshore vantage points with the intimacy of her hand-worked interpretation. The results are simultaneously familiar and alien, and overwhelming in their own right.

Portner’s installation features "Whisper City," a wall-length horizontal scroll to the left of the gallery’s entrance; "City of Hills," a kind of first-person rendering to the right; and an anthropomorphic representation, "A City in Pieces," on the wall between them.


>> On exhibit: Through Sept. 13; 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays and 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays
>> Where: Honolulu Museum of Art, 900 S. Beretania St.
>> Admission: $10; free to ages 17 and under, first Wednesdays monthly, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. third Sundays monthly and July 31 for residents (closed July 4)
>> Info: 532-8700 or visit
>> Also: Gallery talk with Portner, 2 p.m. July 24 — the artist discusses Urbanophilia/Urbanophobia” (free with museum admission)

This is the impressive product of a single person painstakingly working with a sharp blade and the interaction of light, color and shadow to transform the satellite and photographic imagery in a set of maps, based on the removal of detail and texture (vegetation, streets, water and architecture). Emphasis is on contours, traces and silhouettes that are nevertheless recognizable — by residents.

As interpretations of the stretch of Oahu that runs from Kewalo Basin to the mountains above Makiki Heights, these are not "alternative" versions of the city planner’s grids, the architect’s blueprints or the developer’s zoning maps. Nor are these depictions of completelyimaginary landscapes.

"Whisper City" is a fluid aerial grid that mixes streets, geographic contours and architecture, while "City of Hills" is a puzzlelike arrangement of building profiles minus the slopes and ridges of the Koolaus.

Both feature Portner’s meticulous stencil and cutout technique, employing paper the color of the gallery wall on one side and a fluorescent orange on the other. Each is pin-mounted or hangs a short distance from the wall so that gallery lighting casts multiple shadows, creating an almost invisible landscape that glows.

"A City in Pieces" bridges these two vantage points: an extruded black wire frame that uses Portner’s language of networked curves and lines. Here lines leave the plane of the wall to become elevations, with three sections that sprout drooping, trunklike shapes that might be runaway skyscrapers too tall to remain straight.

These are not maps in which the viewer locates him or herself. They reject both the precision of GPS and the cas­ual "turn left at Longs" modes of navigation. The draftsman’s precision of Portner’s hand and construction projects a kind of authoritative fidelity; at the same time, it leaves much to the imagination in a way that cannot be satisfied by the basic gestures of locating one’s neighborhood, school or house.

Portner (who is local) has mapped Hono­­lulu from her personal memories and reflections, but these works’ roots in mechanically produced images create skeletons of familiarity that invite viewers to provide their own details. What is brought to that moment is by definition private and arguably sacred.

In this sense, Portner invites us into to a kind of dream that is roughly (but productively) analogous to the ways I imagine a Hawaiian cultural practitioner recognizes and organizes land, weather and water by "filling in" details and knowledge that explicitly ignore or edit aspects of the modern landscape.

There is great power in recognizing spaces that escape the mapping operations of ownership, bounding and control, and this is the power that native Hawaiians retain and protect, even in the face of its appropriation.

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