Artist's identity woven into works
By Marie Carvalho
Special to The Advertiser
By Marie Carvalho
"Like a moth to a flame," they say. Moths navigate by starlight; artificial light sources disorient and destroy them. Yet moths are resilient. In Hawai'i, despite the introduction of non-native plants and animals (and street lights), an impressive 955 native moth species remain.
"Moth, Nail, X," an exhibition of mixed-media work by Puni Kukahiko, uses repetitive visuals of the moth, nail and "X." Like a movie trailer, the cryptic title announces its themes in a burst of images. Strung together, they sketch a tale.
To Kukahiko, these images are a personal, powerfully symbolic antidote to the images more commonly associated with her Hawaiian ancestors: "plastic tiki, dashboard hula dancers and coconut bras."
But the moth?
Contemporary artists are often cited for obscurity. It's a rap they may or may not deserve. Perhaps, caring more about individual vision than sales, artists tend not to sample from a rigid menu of shared symbolic imagery, as their peers in, say, advertising do.
The trouble is, imagery personally significant to an artist may not mean the same thing — or anything — to a viewer.
"Moth, Nail, X" tells a story of Kukahiko's complex Native Hawaiian female identity, circa 2006. Her work can't, and doesn't attempt to, escape history. Yet it transcends a fixed historical identity through flexible, iconic images that shape-shift between the shared and the intimate.
In doing so, Kukahiko builds a convincing argument that an artist's personal iconography can also communicate meaningfully, and powerfully, to viewers.
The show's disparate media and aesthetics initially create a scattered appearance, but obsessive repetition of imagery binds it. That's its strength, both visually (many images have been distilled to their basic graphic appeal) and emotionally.
The images, like stuck moths, singe. They are haunting.
"My Moth for You" renders the insect, exquisitely drawn, beneath hard epoxy — a tender, amber-hued prison. In "Pule Lehua No. 5," four long, brassy nails are affixed neatly onto a tile, a row framed tightly by a flat black background. It's cold and simple, yet the nails appear eerily vital, even fierce.
An altered door, "Women Story," depicts a figure as negative space — an apparition created only by its painted outline, which looks like encroaching mold. Above it, a series of tiny, drawn vertical dashes resemble both nails and days ticked off by a captive. Though the door trope leans toward triteness (lacking a larger installation context), the piece's visual power is inescapable.
The exhibition's small tiles and door installations are raw and stylistically cohesive. The large-scale paintings are, in contrast, somewhat predictable. The most successful, "Ho'omana'o," integrates the artist's lush iconography into textural and metaphorical layers like those of her memorable tiles.
Kukahiko's images are well-chosen. The nail, for example, yields multiple, shared readings. There's the omnipresent association of Christ staked to a cross, and its latent sense of tortuous sacrifice. There's also the nail as construction tool.
Here, nails form crosses. Nail-like tick marks represent language — the birth of storytelling. Long, thick nails slide into hinges, propping dual doors into makeshift constructions that deconstruct the various connotations of shelter (a prison, built by sacrifice, the imposition of one culture's idea of shelter onto another's).
And then there's the "X": a mark of the cross, maps, the female chromosome, and removal (exile, extinguish, to cross out).
We understand those shared meanings. Kukahiko has smartly incorporated them into her own messy, visual identity. That's what makes her work compelling. But what distinguishes it is an iconography that simultaneously insists on more intimate historical meanings.
For example, when Kukahiko paints a cross, it represents, to her, "something difficult but true." Christianity may be a colonial construct to native peoples, but it's also a spiritual connection to Kukahiko's most recent, Christian ancestors.
While steeped in Western understandings of "X," she places the symbol within Hawaiian culture: the female form or pe'a used in kapa design. When she paints an "X" as military stencil or cross, she sees it as culturally superimposed over "the most basic version of pe'a: Hawaiian women's strength and sacredness."
The moth is both ethereal winged creature and pest. But to Kukahiko, the moth represents a visiting ancestor — and each is not a generic ancestor, but a specific person. That's the tradition in her family.
Moth is pulelehua in Hawaiian, probably, says Kukahiko, from the root lele, to fly. The artist has split it, alternately, into pule, meaning prayer, and lehua, which she says connotes redness — a pun that may inform her blood-red moths and nails.
About those nails: According to Kukahiko, the first European sailors who visited the Islands traded nails for sex, making nails — or sex — the first form of capital in post-European Hawai'i ("depending on which side you're on," she notes ironically).
To the artist, each nail, then, is a portrait of an anonymous woman in her genealogy. Each nail-like tick tells a story of ancestral love and sacrifice. No wonder they're rendered with such obsessive care.
"Moth, Nail, X" may be personal; but it's not obscure. Its iconic, layered images draft a tale worth seeing.
Freelance writer Marie Carvalho covers art and literature.