The annual University of Hawaii Art department “grad show” exhibition opened a few weeks ago, displaying work by MFA students in glass, ceramics, textiles, painting, photography, and sculpture (am I missing anyone?). I was truly stunned, and blown away, by the skill and talent and sheer artistic creativity of my friends. … It is one thing to note that a work is skilled, masterfully made, impressive, but furthermore, a big part of what makes these works amazing is that they are not purely conceptual, but rather actually speak to their concepts – the ideas and concepts are evident in the works, or can be read into the works. They are not inscrutable, too abstract, nor too obscure, leaving the visitor genuinely capable of getting meaning out of the works, and having an emotional reaction as well.
I had seen some of the pieces, or at least the concepts, over the course of last term, as they began to germinate and develop, but in many cases the final project was honestly levels beyond what I’d imagined it to be.
The atmosphere, that is, the space, was great too. In a show like this, where each artist has one or two pieces, and you’re trying to show everyone equally, it can be really tempting (or just the most obvious option) to sort of section it off and make the whole gallery into corners and alcoves and tiny rooms, so that each artist can have their own space. But here, this year, they left much of the gallery wide open, allowing pieces to interact, creating a dialogue between the pieces, and also a more open, airy environment (a less claustrophobic one) in which the visitor can feel freer and lighter, and thus in a better frame of mind to enjoy the art.
Now, I’m only going to talk about a few of the artworks. I hope no one is offended if I leave them out; I love you, too, guys, and I love your work, I do.
Jessica Orfe is one of the few artists who did take/get her own alcove, and it was brilliant – absolutely necessary for the effect I assume she was seeking to achieve. A white rabbit painted directly onto the wall greets you as you approach her section of the gallery. Following the white rabbit, you are pulled into her world, her dream sequences. They melt and blend into one another, to create a dreamscape that still feels quite fresh and original, no matter what anyone may say about the core idea being tired or cliché. Jessica pulls it off in such a way that it doesn’t feel tired or cliché at all, but rather a nod to the classic amidst a very fresh, new work.
Ghostly figures, described only roughly, walk into a building that is itself not quite there. Shadows melt and flow, like puddles of ink on the ground.
A rectangular form serve, Escher-like, as both window and fridge.
And one sole burst of color, in sky blue, highlights a rope just about break. Is the unseen figure being dropped helplessly into dream? Or is she desperately trying to pull herself up and stay in this fantasy world, to avoid returning to the banal?
Against this monochrome background, it takes the eye a moment to realize that a string, a thread, connected to a sewing needle painted on the wall is itself three-dimension, emerging from the wall, an actual piece of black string that is not painted on.
This is work is just filled with the kinds of hidden touches and little things to find, each with their own meanings or clever tricks or amusing gimmicks to them, that I love. It means you’re not just taking in the work in one go, but you’re really examining it, really exploring it, venturing through the depicted environment along with the travelers depicted in it, like in a Chinese landscape painting, walking up the paths and into the mountains, towards the temple, with your eyes and in your mind.
Gideon Gerlt has constructed a deer or antelope of some sort out of metal, rope, and other materials, which is meant to recall ideas of totems and animal spirits. He called it a “boli,” which I assumed was a reference to an African native traditional practice, a concept akin to the totem of the Pacific Northwest Native American tribes; but Googling it now, I am having trouble finding any such term.
The creature itself is cute, its form really kind of amazing in how well done it is – a form fully recognizable as an antelope, out of scrap metal, rope, and whatever else – and cute in how small it is: maybe, what?, one foot off the floor, two at most. Cute, yet dangerous, its sharp, pointy antlers of wrought iron twisting all around. It’s easy to imagine emotions or expressions on its face, as it gazes up in awe or amusement at Gideon’s other work in the show, entitled “A Classic Example of Self-Defeat.”
I really appreciate his gallery text for the work, which reads:
“Eagles may soar, but this thing would never get sucked into a jet engine.”
“It looks like something da Vinci would have invented… if he were a dolt.”
“It’s just sad, really…”
There’s something wonderfully amusing in the idea of an artist intentionally creating a failure, intentionally creating something he might consider “sad” or “made by a dolt.”
It’s an intentional failure, with a wonderful sense of whimsy. Does it have deeper meaning? Perhaps.
The simplicity and naturalness of the wood and rope combines with the clean and manmade but still very pre-industrial, for a nostalgic, romantic sort of aesthetic. Knowing that Gideon is from Alaska, and likes to draw upon the aesthetics or environment of that part of the world, we can sense the dense woods of the Pacific Northwest in this work, alongside the Renaissance Italian workshop. It is held down to the ground by a very raw section of tree, more tree really than “lumber” or “wood” as material, as media.
I hadn’t realized that it spins. I don’t tend to touch artworks, especially if I’m nervous about breaking it or something. I need a sign that says “please touch me,” or even better, someone present in the gallery verbally telling me, encouraging me.
Gideon’s work plays well off of that of Chad Steve.
Chad has explicitly spoken of these ceramic constructions as reminiscent of Polynesian voyaging canoes. He fills them with unpainted, unglazed pieces in the form of Greek or Phoenician urns or amphorae or the like, calling to mind maritime trade and commerce, shipping these jars from the center of ceramics production to another city or another island, where they are to be painted. And in doing so, he evokes the voyaging aspect inherent in all our histories, connecting peoples and cultures across time and space.
The wooden scaffolds and ropes, like a drydock for the boats, somewhat plain, simple, and straightforward, play off of Gideon’s work quite nicely, reflecting some of the same aesthetics, and implying again a romantic pre-industrial past. The sentimentality for the homemade and artisanal nature of trade and life, society, back “then”, whenever and whereever that might be.
And then there was a piece by my good friend Katie Small.
Katie’s work (almost?) always deals with themes she encountered doing volunteer work in Kosovo. Her works can be kind of abstract sometimes, though the tar paper ground and other aspects do an excellent job of evoking the right emotions or atmosphere. The more you examine her works and really think about them, they can be quite dark and serious. They’re certainly not what one would expect from a smiling, bubbly, sunny girl like her… but then, these are very important messages and themes, and it’s obviously very meaningful and important to her to address them.
Here, she uses many of the same elements as other works of hers that I’ve seen – heavy black tar paper, torn and burned, recalling the damage and horrors of war and of genocide. But where her previous works portray somewhat abstract scenes of burnt-out cityscapes, here she reproduces something more concrete and lifesize, which one can easily imagine having actually existed, almost exactly as it is portrayed.
Coats, nearly all of them small enough to belong to children, hang on a wall, covered in orange, which drips like rust onto the wall below. Orange and black as though the coats have been chemically altered and merged into the wall by the extreme heat and flame of a dramatic bomb blast, or just by unnamed ravages of war, weathering, over time exposed to the elements after being abandoned, the shop window long ago smashed.
I gasped when I first saw this work, and was immediately reminded of the piles of shoes and suitcases at the Holocaust Museum in DC, and of photos of the storefronts of German cities after Kristallnacht.
The gallery label describes a storefront, but this could just as easily be a schoolroom. Where have the children gone? Are they safe, having fled? Or are they truly gone, these coats an eerie and terribly upsetting reminder of their lives, their existence, their great potential, so innocent, cut short by violence and evil?
I do apologize to end on such a note. I would like to congratulate and applaud all my friends in the show – Megan Bent, Abi Good, Shiori Abe, Kumi Nakajima, Mark Enfield, Gideon Gerlt, Jacob Guerin, Michael Hengler, Sheri Lyles, Noah Matteucci, Jessica Orfe, Katie Small, Chad Steve, and Jonathan Swanz – for their amazing technical skills and astonishing creativity and insights.
The Graduate Exhibition will continue to be up at the Art Building, here at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, through.. whoa. Only February 4? I’m sorry. I really thought it was going to be open longer. I guess it takes a full 3 weeks to install The Reformer’s Brush, the modern Chinese calligraphy exhibit that opens on Feb 27 (and which I am super excited about!). Well. Come and see the Graduate Exhibition while you can!! Last days!!