Sunday, July 3, 2005

"Thicket," by Claudia Johnson.

Sincere experimentation

Inspiration links diverse
approaches in art biennial

It won't take an art-school education or inside knowledge to appreciate the work selected for the Contemporary Museum's Seventh Biennial of Hawaii Artists -- which is not to say that this year's collection is immediately accessible. Rather, the seven artists presented, as different as they are, all show work reflecting a mature relationship between idea and execution that illustrates what elevates objects from decor to the category of museum-grade art.

Seventh Biennial of Hawaii Artists

Where: The Contemporary Museum, 2411 Makiki Heights Drive

When: On view 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays, and noon to 4 p.m. Sundays through Aug. 21

Admission: Adults $5; seniors and students $3; free to 12 and under; free to the public the third Thursday of each month.

Call: 526-1322, or visit www.tcmhi.org

Also: At Maui Arts and Cultural Center, Kahului, from Sept. 15 through Oct. 15

ArtSpree 2005

The Contemporary Museum's annual family event features art-related activities such as fiber art, bookmaking, sculpting, printmaking, woodworking, collage and watercolor; demonstrations; and dance, music and poetry performances by Tangentz, slam poets, jazz musicians, Hawaii Opera Theatre, Onium Ballet Project, James McCarthy Irish Band, inSynergy dancers, synchronized swimming by the Mermaids, slack key with Jeff Peterson and rock and reggae with Thick Tubes. Visitors will also have the opportunity to view the "Biennial Exhibition of Hawai'i Artists."

When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday

Where: The Contemporary Museum, 2411 Makiki Heights Drive

Cost: Free

Parking: Museum parking will not be allowed, but free parking and pickup/drop-off will be available at Punahou School, where there will be free shuttle service throughout the day. Enter the school from the main gate at the corner of Wilder Avenue and Punahou Street.

Call: 526-0232

These qualities are all the more conspicuous for encompassing craft media such as wood and fiber alongside the more canonical forms of painting, sculpture, photography and printmaking. Curator Allison Wong, in her debut as sole curator of the biennial, has done an impressive job in seamlessly linking such diverse approaches around certain time-honored principles.

Wong admits that what attracts her in looking for work to showcase under the prestigious biennial format are "the basic art forms of early practice -- forms and techniques in process." That means you won't see much here in the way of polemical, cynical or conceptual work. The seven artists she has chosen to represent to the world "the significant achievements of Hawaii artists" all show an engagement with materials and technique that highlights the artist's role as medium and decision-maker, rather than broadcaster or revolutionary.

This disposition appears to flow most naturally from artists using craft media. Michael Lee, a wood turner of traditional Hawaiian calabashes, pushes his material a step beyond "beautiful use" in conjuring graceful, podlike creatures that seem to have sprung into existence through the material's sheer beauty, unveiled by the sculptor's intuition. They flaunt rich, natural greens, yellows, reds and blacks and intricate wood grains in whimsical, peaceful compositions that Lee enhances through judicious accents of silver or gold leaf.

Fiber artist Claudia Johnson describes what she does as "extending" nature's work in the tropical tangle of Upcountry Maui. A study of the properties of cat's claw turns the choking vine into a 13-foot "Jungle Curtain" suspended from the ceiling after being straightened, like kinky hair, by wrapping around tin cans. The stems that fall from shower trees -- another nuisance -- are wired into place where they drop around humps and bowls, creating sculptures of skeleton and air.

In Johnson we see both focused observation of the environment and that spark of genius that makes looking at the results a delight. Johnson says she always liked building things from nature but has recently taken a more "consciously responsive posture ... seeing what the materials might say."

Knowing when to take inspiration from a material and where to step in and mold it leads to such lucky planned accidents as her stripped, stained and mounted branches of strawberry guava, intricately carved by beetles' tunneling over time.

A "consciously responsive" approach produces quite different results in the process of painting. Yet Big Island painter Michael Marshall uses similar language in describing what he does: making marks that respond to other marks in a sustained contract with the visual field of a painting. Although his work looks typically Abstract Expressionist, Marshall describes his technique in the same concrete, materials-and-process language as the sculptors: color, form, line and shape.

"On the Beach," by Michael Lee.

Marshall says he made a conscious decision not to work with literal subject matter after he discovered, as a young art student, that one of his favorite museum paintings did not picture at all what he had imagined. Across three decades of paper and canvas, he has come to understand his activity as part of the natural ebb and flow of his daily life, and now adopts an open-ended, experimental approach to painting that he likens to musical improvisation.

Indeed, an openness to experimentation -- being OK with not knowing what will be produced -- clearly guides artists who look beyond results to a territory mined with the risk of failure. Brazilian-born filmmaker Sergio Goes launched a pilgrimage across America after Sept. 11, 2001, driving 9,000 miles and shooting 75 hours of video in a zigzag path from New York, where he was living, toward Hawaii, where he was returning.

The road trip is "the biggest cliché," he admits, and he stashed the data for two years to work on other projects. Curator Wong says she initially had another body of work in mind for Goes to show, but the road-trip material -- including low-resolution digital stills and e-mail narratives -- had begun to take shape in Goes' mind. The distilled short video clip and enlarged photos of familiar and bizarre America as seen through foreign eyes is clearly a work in progress, material that Goes says he will continue to rearrange into different formats.

Goes is clearly a master of his photographic medium, but he flirts with uncertainty in his encounters with people, and it is here that his genius of decision-making comes through. "It's maybe what you call a talent," he says. "People talk to me."

Transfer that give-and-take to printmaking, and you get a beautiful metaphor in the work of Charlie Cohan, whose lifelong focus in one medium has evolved into a sort of reflection on the art of printmaking. Instead of people, Cohan draws from their traces, stamping signs from the natural and built worlds to tease out new meanings.

"Terminal Diagrams" is his series of collographs taken from diagrams of airport terminals around the world, lined up in a sort of table -- cryptic shorthand for a human experience that speaks of both freedom and fright. In "Peaks," Cohan screens ink through 29 levels of altitude based on the topographic maps of mountains he has known, producing a hazy abstraction that is at once fuzzy and oddly familiar.

Dan Hermon of Tangentz emerged from the pool at The Contemporary Museum during a performance at the museum's annual "ArtSpree" event in 2002. Tangentz, a performance art group, is among the many musical, theatrical and dance performers that will entertain visitors at "ArtSpree 2005" on Saturday.

Both Goes and Cohan work on multiple bodies of work simultaneously, as dictated by their media, and each exhibition is just a transitory, partial snapshot. Jacqueline Rush Lee offers a different kind of snapshot with each exhibit -- a moment in her long contemplation of the symbolism of the book. In past work, Lee has fired old books in a kiln, let them decompose in water and rolled them into giant maki sushi. Here, she presses rolled and flat books into slabs of wet cement. The heat generated by the curing gypsum draws the colors from covers and adhesives, leaving behind a mysteriously beautiful abstraction that she labels "impresco."

Lee says she is intrigued by the idea of transforming things so that people no longer know what they're looking at. "My hand is present in that I manipulate the work, but you don't always see it," she says.

The conceptual implications flow from her physical experiments: the idea of crossing categories between painting, printmaking and sculpture, or collaborating with the past through the ghostly traces left by the book owners.

Part of the delight that viewers experience in such artwork comes from recognizing the fun that artists seem to have in the making. These seven artists all give the impression of being at play -- but play carried to the level of work, where a whole world is assembled around a highly personal perspective.

Chris Reiner would be like a million other boys who mess around with gadgets and parts dug out of the trash, except that he takes it to an obsessive, labor-intensive level that most boys could not maintain. His "rescued" objects reassembled into ingenious mechanical contraptions come stocked with visual puns and clever commentary: "Mediacracy," a "mind molder" in his "Transportation of Situation Series," contains a child watching "TV candy" on a ticker tape, sheltered from the darker view on the reverse side. News stories have holes, readers are spoon-fed information. The vehicle is one in a room full of "modes of transport for happenings and situations that occur ... both introspectively and globally."

Reiner, like Jacqueline Lee, invents names for the worlds he assembles. This kind of personal vision is a tricky thing -- not all the work in this show will appeal; some of it will fall flat, but what does come across is the sort of creative assembly that distinguishes art objects from what Wong describes as "watercolors and Wyland" -- the art commodities most associated with Hawaii -- to a chorus original enough to represent the islands in a biennial format.

The fruit of technical mastery, sustained focus and that brand of luck we call genius, personal vision is presented here via a "truth to materials" aesthetic well suited to Hawaii's Asian/Polynesian heritage: honest, hard-working and timeless yet pledging a progressive attitude of sincere experimentation.

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