Meditations on an 'Arts Scene'

"Making" art is intensely more difficult than positing a conceit. It involves all sorts of physical manipulation, sensitivity to materials, revisions, spontaneous corrections, conscious and unconscious editings and hope. ~Don Dugal, instructor in drawing, painting and design, University of Hawai'i-Manoa


Paula Rath

Above the reflecting pool at The Contemporary Museum, British artist Paul Morrison has painted a black-and-white, large-scale botanical landscape. This wall of flowers, weeds and other foliage overflows with petals, leaves and stems at various scales that mingle extreme magnifications with long-distance views.

Thanks to its size and bold graphical approach, it captivates with a power that rivals that of the cinematic image. The resulting space creates a slightly monstrous air of some mad botanist's greenhouse.

Though the work is easily consumed as such, Morrison's title invites deeper consideration. It is called "Gamodeme," after a formal scientific term used to denote an isolated breeding community.

Is Morrison trying to say something about Hawai'i and our relative isolation?

The term "gamodeme" is not in itself negative. However, it implies an ecosystem that is stable and self-sufficient, so long as it stays closed. No new forms of life enter, emerge or leave.

Morrison's painting captures the scope of a gamodeme by crowding the frame not with color and texture, but harsh black and white, perhaps representing the balance between a fixed amount of diversity and limited seed stock.

Switch to a scene from the H-1 one might experience while on the way to view "Gamodeme": A public record of the never-ending battle between Honolulu graffiti writers and the state stretches from the Middle Street merge to well past the Punahou exit.

H-1's concrete embankments and retaining walls have become an accidental modernist canvas of institutional camouflage, hammered out by a giant sloppy typewriter. Irregular patches of gray, off-white and putty cover the tags, documenting their location in the same way that scars mark wounds, fillings mark cavities and lines of black ink erase paragraphs in declassified government documents.

What's the message here? That certain borders between public and private must be maintained, and certain forms of expression will not be tolerated.

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What do Morrison's "Gamodeme" and anonymously created Honolulu graffiti have in common? And how might their relationship inform an overview of the "arts scene" on O'ahu?

We can use the concept of a gamodeme to represent the limits and specifics of our art ecosystem, based as it is on the repetition of cliches circulated through a finite number of art spaces.

You know these images:

Diamond Head in the distance. Slippas on da lanai. A full moon refracted through a perfectly cresting wave. Various species of sea animals congregating in mystic rapture. The "old timey" aesthetics of mom-and-pop storefronts and nostalgic urban landscapes. The idle Polynesian beauty. The hula dancer as superhero and heroine.

At this point, the cloning of Hawai'i's visual art cliches can be compared to the graffiti writer's endless repetition of his or her alias, from one underpass or warehouse backside to the next. There is an interchangeability between one tag and another, and between many instances of local art. The ubiquity of a "Uno Mas" or "Phyto" tag is mirrored by the familiar rotation of semi-abstract landscape paintings and portraits of local flora in Chinatown galleries, Artists of Hawaii, and Waikiki hotel suites.

Anyone who engages the "arts scene" in Honolulu at a level deeper than that of ambience knows that the rate of change is glacial at best. There are only a few tried-and-true paths to being exhibited and collected, and these only for artists working in pre-approved media such as painting or photography — certainly not video, performance or installation.

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We are always competing with nature for people's attention. We compete with images that codify escapism. We compete as image makers with images that represent a certain set of brands. Artists emulate that brand model and find themselves "acting like little corporations." ~Rich Richardson, creative director, The ARTS at Marks Garage

Let's think about the "arts scene" from a different vantage point.

Speaking ecologically, the arts scene is like a compost heap, generating heat and energy as it breaks down egos, expressions and careers into raw constituents that nourish other egos, expressions and careers.

For the rest of the population, the arts scene is a shifting but reliable market for physical and conceptual furniture.

As decor, art helps to differentiate hotels and restaurants from each other, to make hospitals and state buildings less intimidating, to liven up the space in your cubicle or above your sofa, and to set the stage for sizing up cuties across the room on a First Friday.

To kids, it's something they are required to contemplate a few times a year in an institutional effort to impart adult ideas of "culture" and "meaning" and "significance" in the face of YouTube, the Nintendo DS, manga, cell phones and television.

Some of those kids might pursue art as a means of expression or a profession. Most of those that do will be firmly set on the rails of Western art history: executing landscapes, portraiture, some abstraction, possibly spiced with local flavor. Few get off this track, even if they're expressing themselves through ethnically, socially or historically specific idioms. Their first goal is to be recognized (validating their practice), their second is to be valued (initiating their career), and finally to be collected (converting their creative labor into signifiers of wealth and sophistication).

A tongue-in-cheek path from undergrad to initiation in the art minority would begin with inclusion in Artists of Hawaii, based on an ability to evoke the spirit of Satoru Abe, Pegge Hopper or Joseph Cornell (but not Manuel Ocampo, Kara Walker or Coco Fusco). Careers continue with juried shows at The ARTS at Marks Garage, and then various group and solo shows at commercial galleries in Chinatown. Though technical abilities may evolve over time, it's likely that style doesn't. And why should it? So far, repetition has been rewarded.

If artists are lucky, they may get the attention of the State Foundation on Culture and the Arts and receive an Individual Artist Award, or accept a position in the UH art department to start the cycle of approval or disapproval, inclusion or exclusion all over again.

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Practice, however, is personal, while career is political. ~Michael Rooks, curator of American and European art, Honolulu Academy of Arts

Returning to our agricultural/ecological model, if the emerging artist is thought of as a seed, then it is typically cultivated on a controlled plot of soil. Though it is tempting to imagine each space for art (university, gallery, hotel, courtyard, office building and museum) as an independent "art farm," I find it more productive to see them all as a single plantation: hierarchically managed, conservative by nature, and entirely based on the intense labor of the artist.

There may be variety on and between plots: four types of papaya here, corn over there, and the farmers may attempt to distinguish themselves from each other in terms of their politics, target audience or individual history.

Someday, we might honor and respect the hard work of artists in the same way that we do the first generations of plantation labor. But even this is secondary to recognizing that the key issue is that of domestication. For it is the selection of plants with "desired traits," coupled with the struggle against "weeds" (an entirely relative term) that produces the current "state of the arts" with its prize- or commission-winning vegetables and fruits ... and their iconoclastic alternatives. Weeds, however, have survival and reproduction strategies that might be worth reconsidering.

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Unlike graffiti, the works of traditional artists are not subject to periodic obliteration at the hands of state workers, or even in the way that a young Robert Rauschenberg erased a William de Kooning drawing and called it his own. But the reality of "the buff" drives graffiti, and there is no equivalent in domesticated art practices.

It isn't enough to be seen once, so the graffiti writer's labor is one of tenacious repetition in the face of inevitable erasure, and this gives him or her a quixotic edge that even the most "frustrated" artist lacks.

In slightly exaggerated terms, a graffiti writer risk life while the traditional artist risks integrity. A graffiti writer can gain street fame based on the tag's public visibility and the risks implied by its location.

Institutionally granted fame is based on domesticated repetition, which is generally rewarded in Hawai'i's cultivated art context, while taking risks is not.

Variety and risk must be presented in slow-motion, long-term contexts. A successful plantation market — and the arts scene is indeed successful — couldn't operate otherwise. Until consumers demand something else, it must supply exactly what they expect.

And yet there is a certain level of dissatisfaction expressed by members of the art minority, all of it revolving around the local dominance of "shallow" commercial and decorative standards.

"Where," some ask, "can we find experimental works? Challenging, serious, unpopular projects that demand a engagement that is deeper than surface aesthetics? Like in New York or Paris!"

For some, this is a genuine crisis; for most, it is a straightforward matter of wanting art spaces to address issues of under-representation in specific areas. In this, Honolulu is no different from any other contemporary city with a reasonably reliable infrastructure, a university, and a population with enough time to pursue and express a lifestyle. Issues of artistic diversity are current in major cities all over the world.

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So, is the situation truly problematic or just reflective of a free market, expressing its tendencies? I will not answer that question and invite a battle over how I might bring closure to this issue. Instead, as I close the door on our little gamodeme, I'd like to pose a simple question, pile some others on top of it, season it with conceptual enzymes and let the composting begin.

What would the "art scene" in Hawai'i be like if there were no market for it? By this I do not mean a lack of social or cultural purpose for producing, curating and viewing art, just a different one — one that does not force or expect artistic production to operate on the same financial terms as other professions or industries.

It's not like the arts (which appear in our lives as if by magic) play as vital an economic role as tourism or the military, or as if most artists are financially supporting themselves with their work.

What if some forms of "fine" art were created in the spirit of graffiti, and seized space on their own terms, without regard for consequences? What if "fine" art in Hawai'i no longer required the conceptual artifice and centralization of a gallery or institution?

Without a market that commodifies art, some Hawai'i artists and art spaces might begin to relate to their audiences differently. Freed from a reward system based on anticipated cliches, they might take bigger risks to hint at a world of struggle with the act of creation against the odds. Such is the indelible ink used by strong art, and it isn't always decorative, comforting or suitable for children.

Could we turn our isolation into an advantage and prove that things are genuinely different here? Or is that something else we might be playing cosmopolitan make-believe about?

If we were to eliminate the market, letting the fields grow wild or go fallow, a new art might emerge as new species entered the ecosystem: a nostalgia-free art that might more naturally dialogue with Native Hawaiian theories that connect artistic expression with the land, the people and everyday life.

This isn't the state of the "arts scene" as it is, but a vision of what it could be.

David A.M. Goldberg is a cultural critic and writer. He thanks Gaye Chan, Don Dugal, Jaimey Hamilton, Rich Richardson, Michael Rooks and the TZA for their encouragement, thoughts, ideas and criticism.