Troubling works for a troubled time
By David C. Farmer
Special to The Advertiser
By David C. Farmer
It's been observed that our country has a profoundly divided soul, a deep division that surfaces especially in times of war, dating at least from the Civil War.
In case you haven't already sensed it, the art on view at the University of Hawai'i's Graduate Exhibition 2005 will tell you that we are experiencing yet another national rift in consciousness and conscience.
Not since the 1960s has an exhibition in Hawai'i expressed such pain and anger and anarchy: brother against brother, dissension writ large.
And in the process, it has created an installation that speaks movingly as a whole while simultaneously highlighting individual excellence.
The urinal that is the exhibition's logo warns us to buckle up for what may be a rough ride.
Isaac Parker and Miles Bohas' "Burlap Family" is today's headline reality transformed into powerful art: a mixed-media middle-class family with suitcases, the picture-perfect American father-mother-two-children unit partially blasted by IEDs or suicide bombers, the group gazing at a plaster of Paris pile of human rubble, their iPods offering perhaps some soothing — or maybe numbing — sounds.
The piece is a kind of agit-prop in the cause against the Iraq war. But it is also more.
In a show that is strong on environmental pieces — works that literally invade the viewer's space — this one is a standout by its sheer mysterious presence, transcending its political message to create haunting afterimages of strange, inexpressible power.
Robert Molyneux's three-screen video installation "FRACTIOUS" features high-contrast black-and-white moving images of a drawing hand, a beaten drum and an apparently nude figure sharpening a pencil with a knife.
What does it mean? Or are we to just experience it, because, as Archibald MacLeish admonishes us in "Ars Poetica," "A poem should not mean/But be."
Soaking in the space the piece creates, one feels off balance, uneasy, troubled.
Recourse to a quick Googled definition of "fractious" confirms the feeling and the artist's apparent intention: "tending to cause trouble; unruly; irritable; snappish; cranky."
Avoiding an overt political message, the piece nevertheless speaks eloquently of this time and place.
Which is not to say that this show is all sturm und drang.
The irreverent "Art for the Senses" by Na'a Makekau is a lively reconstructionist view of art history, including da Vinci's "Last Supper" complete with real candy and Michelangelo's Adam being told to "pull my finger."
In humor like this, dissent can subversively bloom by following the Joycean imperatives: silence, exile, cunning.
The seductive yet dangerous surfaces of Derek Irwin's "Blind Faith" — made of ceramic, acrylic and rubber — mine similar territory in a subtle display of technique and expressive power that titillates the subconscious.
What is extremely interesting about this show is its ability to create a palpable mood while allowing individual pieces to shine in their own light.
Maya Lea Portner's "Anatomical Wax Models: 1. (Honolulu) Joints and Ligaments of the Foot 2. (La Spezia) Digestive System," a mixed-media piece consisting of a light table displaying body parts made of beeswax, paper, pins and pigment, creates a sense of delicate, cold horror.
Calvin Collins' "Invisible," a concoction of oil and mixed media on canvas, is clearly the best in the show for its fine painterly technique and imagery that disturbs and disquiets.
Yet around the corner is Kiley Smith's "where it began," a small, understated acrylic painting that hardly explores new territory but effectively restates for today the impulse that informed Edward Hopper's best work.
Some misses are certainly to be expected in any show of this ambition.
Alan Ness' "Georgie's Radio Flyer" suffers not only because its basic conception is painfully literal, with its twin towers rising out of a coffin filled with real oil, but also because it lacks basic craftsmanship, with its leaking oil being caught by paper plates on the gallery floor.
Similarly, although Mark Maresca's untitled assemblage may be well-intentioned, in the end it is about clutter and chaos, not authentic art in the service of either beauty or transformation.
Yet both pieces contribute in their own funky way to the overall thematic ambience that owes its excellent design coherence to a core group of the exhibiting artists who worked as an installation team with all the artists.
Come see this show if you're open to being shaken and disturbed by artists who fearlessly articulate the anxiety and rage of our troubled time.
Their courage and talent and sensitivity as expressed in the works themselves are cause for hope and celebration in an otherwise dark and dangerous world.
David C. Farmer holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in painting and drawing, and a master's in Asian and Pacific art history from the University of Hawai'i-Manoa.