COURTESY DANA FORSBERG
Dana Forsberg presents composite drawings to illustrate the subjectivity of creating the sketches. Each drawing bears the label of the person who offered the description.
Beyond the photographic
Fresh off the energy of its 10-year retrospective, The Contemporary Museum at First Hawaiian Center launches its next decade with a strong triumvirate of artists that illustrate Hawaii's strengths in traditional painting, crafts and conceptual art.
On view: "Viewpoints: Paintings by Kirk Kurokawa," "Drawn to Remember: Project by Dana Forsberg" and "Pattern and Form: Wood Work by Sharon Doughtie and William Ichinose)
Place: The Contemporary Museum at First Hawaiian Center, 999 Bishop St.
Hours: 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., Mondays to Thursdays, 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Fridays, through May 29
Call: 526-1322 or visit www.tcmhi.org
Of special interest is the pairing of Kirk Kurokawa's portraits in the bank lobby with Dana Forsberg's exhibit upstairs on memory and perception -- a synergistic lesson on the issue of verisimilitude in art, especially in depicting people.
There has long been a split among serious artists in Hawaii between those who paint or draw realistic portraits -- and thus are categorized with landscape, Hawaiiana and other (commercial) genres -- and academic fine art, which remains prejudiced toward abstraction.
Admiring a painting in a Waikiki tourist shop of doe-eyed dolphins frolicking on the reef, Joe Blow will often be heard to gush that the details make it "look so real" -- which a scuba diver would agree with only after a dose of hallucinogens. What Blow means is that the painting looks better than real.
At the opposite end of the appreciation spectrum are art snobs who dismiss paintings that remain faithful to the way things "really look" as lacking in depth, as though likeness were inherently conservative, as in the bumper sticker "Reality is for those who can't handle drugs."
So it comes as no surprise that as a commercial illustrator Kurokawa was largely ignored by the academic art community until he won the $15,000 Schaeffer Portrait Challenge award last year with a nuanced painting of fellow Maui artist Tadashi Sato -- leading one critic to grumble about the jurors' preference for "conservative painterly likeness."
COURTESY KIRK KUROKAWA
Kirk Kurokawa's paintings, sourced from photographs, bear the humanism of the artist.
Kurokawa's show at the First Hawaiian makes felt, however, how energetically his work reaches beyond the photographic. Although these portraits of ordinary people at ordinary moments are obviously sourced from photos, it's just as obvious that his original photo was not the source of their emotional and aesthetic power. It is not a matter of the painting looking "so real."
Beyond the skillful rendering of people as believably natural -- always a challenge in portraits -- Kurokawa's paintings are soaked through with the painter's heart and eye. Through their odd framing, dramatic use of light and shadow, subtle modulation from sharp perspective to dreamy abstraction, and especially in the faces (mostly of children and old people) that capture the "just so" nature celebrated in Zen Buddhism, we cannot help but feel the painter's compassionate humanism and invitation to appreciate the magic in the everyday.
COURTESY KIRK KUROKAWA
Kurokawa utilizes light and shadow, and modulates the sharpness of the images, to convey emotional and aesthetic power.
Couldn't the original photograph have communicated those same things? What about a straightforward sketch by a police artist who tries to strip his work of all but "just the facts, ma'am"?
Forsberg offers an intriguing (if unplanned) response in "Drawn to Remember," an exhibit of police sketches of five people as described by those who know them best: parents, friends, employers, spouses. Of course, we expect some variation here in how well people remember and communicate facial details, but what the results suggest more pointedly is that "the facts" of perception end up portraying not only a subject, but a relationship.
Subject One (the artist herself) appears polished and professional in a colleague's eyes, studious and unformed to her mother, and sinister and hardened to her ex-husband. Which looks most like Dana Forsberg? You would probably get as many votes as there are drawings. Would a photograph be more faithful? We all know how photos can lie. Where, then, is the "real" portrait of how she "really" looks?
Not only does this ambiguity in the facts of appearance point to the subjectivity inherent in composite drawings and police lineups used to establish guilt; it also points to the creative, collaborative role that can never be completely stripped from the human hand and eye.
Just as physics has demonstrated that even scientific phenomena can be influenced simply by being observed, and photography as an art form acknowledges that the product of the camera depends on the human user, so we must agree that the act of painting a face -- no matter how carefully copied from another source -- filters through a plethora of individualistic decisions.
The power of a portrait depends not only, crucially, on the painter's skill and taste, but also everything that has gone into his makeup -- the way he is affected by vision, light, perspective; his musings about God, nature, humans and their objects -- as well as the affinity he establishes with the viewer and her
personal and historical makeup. All contribute to make the portrait a pure product of the imagination, whether its subject is abstract or concrete.
Take away the deliberate "art" in this rendering, and you are left with the framework for the artistic process itself: the subject as a clean-cut, impressionable young man in his grandfather's eyes, and an inscrutably defiant hipster to his employer. How does this discrepancy reflect the reality of the subject or viewer?
The answer must be that, to the extent that we are moved at all by depictions of the real, the artist's part is not so much about making something "really look" like an object or person -- a formula that Forsberg proves nonsensical -- as to subtly evoke that which, in the painter's audience, is really the most important.