The grandeur of the former Hemmeter Building is a fitting venue for the state art collection.

Museum opens with
impressive collection

Foundation winnows huge
collection to present the best
of 'the people's' art

By Amaury Saint-Gilles
Special to the Star-Bulletin

As an art critic I don't often grope for words, but the Hawaii State Art Museum debut collection is an intriguing melange of island art history weaving a full-colored tapestry -- and it's housed in a classic, historic structure that well frames the collection.

Most residents are probably as ignorant as I about how this collection came to be. In 1965 the Hawaii state Legislature created the State Foundation on Culture and the Arts. Two years later it passed the Art-in-State Buildings law requiring that 1 percent of the total cost of all state building construction be set aside for acquisition of artwork to beautify and humanize these buildings. Hawaii became the first state in the nation to enact what is commonly called the "percent for art" law, now emulated by 20 other states. This law gave Art in Public Places, a section of SFCA, funds with which to pursue its collecting mandate.

The second floor of the new Hawaii State Art Museum displays the state's "Art in Public Places" collection.

If there is a weakness to this fine idea, it is that since few of the appointed members of the SFCA selection committee have backgrounds in the arts, the collection tends to grow haphazardly. With infrequent forays off Oahu to view and acquire, the collection tends to focus on artists who are well known and closer to home. That same lack of grounding in fine arts leads to the purchase of a mixed bag of talent and quality -- a situation that demeans the overall high standards of fine art statewide. That said, the SFCA/HISAM staff has done an exceptional job culling a fine inaugural exhibition from a considerable archival trove.

The museum is well-situated in the No. 1 Capitol District Building (formerly the Hemmeter Building). It has been excellently redesigned for use as an arts museum, as the debut collection demonstrates. The open-air courtyard that divides the upper stories will certainly become a sculpture garden allowing for even more encompassing exhibitions. Saving the 1928 edifice was sensible for a host of reasons, but seeing how well HISAM has fitted into the second floor, one looks forward to having more floor space dedicated to culture and the arts.

The current show, "Enriched by Diversity" uses more than 12,000 square feet in three distinct galleries. The Ewa Gallery will give viewers a glimpse of the semi-permanent collection documenting Hawaii's art history while the Diamond Head Gallery eventually will focus on new acquisitions and thematic exhibits. A spacious lobby doubles as more display area.

"Far the Stillness" (1958), Tetsuo Ochikubo

The layout formula used for this debut collection does well to both introduce and encourage viewers to see each work in a context that might not have occurred to them. It segues from one medium to another almost seamlessly in a show defined by six sub-areas: Hawaiian heritage; Asian roots; traditions; social consciousness; land and sea; and global expression. While these groupings bind disparate images into a viewable route, each viewer will easily find a piece or two (or 20) that brings them to see art as a special experience. My own list topped out at 23 works.

Michael Tom's "Barge" (1991) was a seminal start to my HISAM journey, denoting a vessel intended to transport man to another stage of life.

Satoru Abe's "East and West" (1971), an idea that emerged from weather vanes always pointing in two opposite directions, shows Abe's resolve to connect his Eastern cultural heritage with his Western artistic environment.

The late Tetsuo Ochikubo's "Far the Stillness" (1958) reflects his multicultural education in Hawaii, on the mainland and in Japan. Viewing this one painting made my visit worthwhile. It resonates with such quiet color amid abstracted forms that I was primed to recall a host of his contemporaries whose works are found in museums worldwide.

Photography is often the bastard child of fine art appreciation, but "Anaeho'omalu Petroglyphs and Royal Waikoloa Golf Course, Waikoloa, Hawai'i" (1992), a gelatin silver print by David Ulrich, brings focus to a clash of cultures that is a defining trend today island-wide.

Photographer Allen Hori of Kauai used the same medium to delve into introspection with his "Query: Abjection" (1987).

"Cane Fields #5" (1991), Ward Davenny

Ceramic art is well represented with assorted vessels and sculpture. Claude Horan, founding teacher for both the ceramic and glass arts programs at University of Hawaii-Manoa is defined by a 1975 vase of goodly proportions and unusual glazing. Rochelle Lum, who teaches at the Honolulu Academy of Arts Annex, has a memorable example of her figurative sculpture with "Artist and the Swan" (1998) recalling a Japanese folk tale of a changeling swan/maiden.

Koi Ozu uses clay to mock criticism of earlier work featuring the female body with "Burning Gaze" (1999), meant to represent how men look at the world -- a phallic tower of eyes and lips. Shigeru Miyamoto combines disparate cultures in his stoneware "Spirit Catcher" (1996), symbolizing channeling power collected by hand through the body and into the house, the receptacle of human experience.

HISAM uses a contemporary trend toward mixed media in a variety of pieces, including Lori Uyeda's "In His Place" (1993), a fanciful treatment of environment and man where the symbol of human nature (a dog) is housed (restrained) inside a building form. Fred Roster's "Eye of the Storm" (1994) was sculpted of wood, stone and bronze, creating a blend of emotions and materials that speak of human existence.

Carol Yotsuda created an equally unusual piece in her 1985 "Tunnelvision," which deals with "looking for the positive when faced with the negative," a symbolic construction meant to convey this daily dichotomy of life. Roy Venters "Without You 1-9" (1998) memorializes one of Hawaii's contemporary muses, the late Laila Twigg-Smith. His assemblage of broken artifacts, formed into nine multihued hearts, attests to both her spirit and her untiring support of island arts.

A diminutive "Aura and Black Hole" (1998) by Sanit Khewhok encourages the viewer to look closely so he might achieve a sense of personal balance focused more on the necessities than the trivialities of life. Atop a backdrop of indigo suggestive of night and its inherent dream state, Timothy Ojile combines drawing, painting and collage in his "3 Night Boxes" (1989).

The cropped close-up of "Pickled Mango/Tamashiro Market" (2000) by Doug Young brings the onlooker directly in contact with the pulse of local neighborhood life. His realist manner strikes a positive chord, but it is a style carefully orchestrated and presented. Hanae Uechi Mills, on the other hand, lavishly decorates "Night Pears" (1990), a piece meant to represent a peculiar but believable vision of a situation that happens only at night and in darkness.

Delicate but oversized, "Waterscreen" (1982) by Brian Isobe is yet another example of combining Eastern and Western ideals in a painting presented like an outstretched folding screen. In another innovative use of paper, Deborah Nehmad incorporates opposites in her "Papered Over" (2001) where repetitious letters and numerals are seen as both ephemeral, fiery ghost images alongside equally repetitive handwritten or typed text. A lush charcoal drawing, "Cane Fields #5" (1991), by Ward Davenny, evokes the imagery of acres under sugar cultivation in a black and white presentation akin to a fading but memorable dream.

Crafts have certainly made their mark on the fine arts establishment and my final examples are several of the best HISAM has to offer. Jean Williams' "#10 Wallhanging" is a dimensional woven piece that allowed the artist to emulate sculpture and painting with her use of fiber and feathers. Derek Bencomo is a self-taught woodworker whose "Pink Valley" (1996), a vessel of rare African pink ivory wood, is magnificent and demonstrates a direction in turning that elevates vessels beyond function to an almost holy sense of sculpture.

Last of my memories is a piece I have coveted since first seeing it in Wilfred Yamazawa's studio. "The Sea Before Me" (1998) is a tour-de-force of his skills in the difficult art of hot glass, where color, shape and applied decoration present myriad possible permutations but only a few exquisite outcomes. His jade-green vase is one of those creations.

The HISAM collection, with less than 10 percent of its total holdings, offers the promise of equally fine collections to come. A passage by Eugenio Valdes Figueroa favored by artist Michael Tom (1946-1999) illustrates this opportunity for Hawaii citizens at HISAM: "It has always been Man's dream to live on through the objects he makes and fabricate his own transcendency in a bid to resolve his own finiteness in the fatal cycle of birth and death."

Amaury Saint-Gilles is an art critic, author and dealer who lives on the Big Island. He can be reached at

State art museum

The Hawaii State Art Museum's inaugural exhibition: "Enriched by Diversity: The Art of Hawaii."

When: Open 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday, except state and federal holidays.
Where: No. 1 Capitol District Building, 250 S. Hotel St. (just Ewa of the state Capitol)
Admission: Free
Call: 586-0900
Web site:

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