Facing off — in a collaborative way Art calendar
BY DAVID A.M. GOLDBERG
Special to The Advertiser
From Miyamoto Musashi's "Book of Five Rings" to various cinematic showdowns, the crossing of contemplation and confrontation has always been an extremely fertile experiment.
Musashi's samurai wisdom demands that the disciplines and techniques derived from combat flow easily to other areas of life, and vice versa. This is not to say that artists Neale Asato and Joe Bright have faced off at Windward Community College's 'Iolani Gallery and are staring each other down with blades at the ready. If anything, they are back-to-back, facing the individual challenges of their respective projects and drawing on their experience moving between various media.
Despite a shared appreciation for working at large scales, there is no greater opposition than that between Bright's rigorous, precise geometry of grid and radius, and Asato's improvised accumulations of paint, plaster and paper. Bright's huge photo collage of the reclining Buddha, built from cropped square images of violent conflict in Tibet, strongly contrasts Asato's abstract monochromatic action paintings. Though both place works in the center of their respective spaces, Asato's walk-in microstudio, an assemblage of wood and metal scavenged from the roadsides of Windward O'ahu, is the ramshackle complement to Bright's concentric rings of calligraphy: "om mani peme hung" in Roman and Tibetan script.
Neither would say that the other's work is directly related to their own, but both would acknowledge that beneath their respective surfaces, there is a kind of shared respiratory cycle. All of their works rely on the viewer consciously perceiving the interchange of large and small, whole and part, inside and out, and the reward comes from moving slowly and consciously along those lines. Musashi refers to this approach as "rat's head, ox's neck," an incongruous image meant to force the consideration of dynamic opposites.
Each of these artists' pieces reveals more and less, becomes one thing or another, depending on viewing distance. Bright focuses on creating a functional linear relationship between granular suffering and aggregated compassion, while Asato makes fractal moves from geological scales down to the minutiae of color patches, flakes, cracks and fault lines.
Both perform a great deal of labor. The results are broad, powerful gestures built out of innumerable tiny decisions, selections, moves and adjustments. Bright selects and places the right instance of bloodied robe to complete the Buddha's bottom lip, while Asato meticulously shaves the tops of his miniature mountain ranges to reveal pure white scythe lines and cresting waves. Theirs is a shared art of repetition and accumulation.
Like martial artists or anyone else who walks a disciplined path, Bright and Asato understand that the practice is just as meaningful as the goal. But, being from decidedly different schools, what allows their work to function together as an effective whole? Surprisingly, it is the weaker aspects of their respective installations.
The mantra repeated in Bright's central mandala is recited, read and viewed in order to invoke greater energies of compassion. In Tibet, it is as ubiquitous as the West's electronic images which serve as a different route to the emptying of the mind ... which brings us to Asato's arrangement of scavenged televisions running pixilated sequences shot with a decade-old video camera. Though thematically true to each of their efforts — Bright in the context of Buddhism and Asato in that of abstraction — neither piece has been sufficiently pushed past its primary role as a technology.
However, taking a holistic view of weakness and strength, these pieces are like exhalations, and function as gateways to their complementary projects. Television screens are the primary source of color in Asato's installation, and like Bright's collage elements, are heavily saturated. Their arrangement evokes the principles behind the collage, and though they do not form a coherent overall picture, the same ox-rat function emerges when one studies their individual patterns.
This act of closer study, of contemplation, links back to the mandala itself, which is powered by focus and repetition. One is literally and conceptually moved back and forth in the gallery space, with the televisions and mandala serving as rest areas between intensely textural experiences.
With a completed circuit, we return to the overall figure of warriors circling back to back, and Musashi's study of interdisciplinary strategy. Though aimed in different directions, Bright and Asato explore physical and conceptual layers, and the gestures of peeling them away, grinding or breaking them down. Echoing a facet of Buddhism, in confrontation and contemplation they reveal the hidden, which consists largely of whatever you bring to the moment.
David A.M. Goldberg is a writer, cultural critic and lecturer at Kapi'olani Community College.