There have been great shows of Hawai‘i artists this year, such as The Contemporary Museum’s “20 Going on 21.” Now we have “Existential Pilgrims” at the Academy Art Center, which is getting raves, from people like Theresa Papanikolas, our Curator of European and American Art. So we’re biased, but the fact is that the Existential Pilgrims—Keiko Bonk, Duane Preble, Russell Sunabe and Noe Tanigawa—are, as the British say, bricks. They are foundations of the arts community in many ways, as talented artists, but also as teachers, activists and promoters. For one thing, Preble has taught, like, 95 percent of the artists in Hawai‘i over the age of 35 at one time or another. He’s professor emeritus of the UH art department and the author of the nationally recognized textbook Artforms (I had it in high school and at university). He’s also a trustee of the Academy. And he’s never stopped making art. He has a slew of new works—paintings and one sculpture—in this show. Fine self portraits, landscapes, cityscapes. I love the juxtaposition of his two works “Raratonga People 18th Century” and “Broadway, New York City.”
The artists are sitting the show and today I caught Preble in the Academy Art Center gallery. He pointed to the New York scene and said “These people are isolated from each other.” Then he pointed to the Rarotonga scene and said “These people are united, but they’re wondering who’s coming in on the boat.” He went on to explain that the Rarotonga painting is based on a photograph that was in a trunk full of stuff that he found in an abandoned, caved-in house on Maui. He estimates that the photograph is from the late 180os, and interested him because he saw a tension in it. “People are confused about what they should be wearing. The guy in front looks like he’s mixed race, and may be a luna. One guy is wearing lei and two have a gun. The women’s dress ranges from Mother Hubbards to topless.” Preble explains that this image captures a pivotal point in time that has particular meaning for him as a descendant of the missionary Bailey family.
Keiko Bonk reveals a wide range of styles in her painting, from the bold color statement of “Spirit in the Sky,” which changes a pack of pestilent pigeons into swirling beauty, to the Twomblyesque frenetic yet ethereal lines of “Mourning Dove.”
Noe Tanigawa continues to explore encaustic (basically painting with wax), but she leaves her familiar loti behind as in this work “That Fish at Halawa,” the colors luminously layered.
Russell Sunabe, known for his wild boars (one was in Artists of Hawai‘i 2009), also forges new ground with his intriguing statements on mortality, time, and generations, as in “Same As It Ever Was” (pictured top).
Through Sept. 30
Academy Art Center, at Beretania Street and Victoria Street, FREE
Tue-Sat 10am-4:30pm, Sun 1-5pm