It was 11 years ago. A couple from somewhere out-of-state walked into our gallery co-op in Kailua. They stayed for a while, longer than most, looking carefully at every single piece of art on the floor.
“Excuse me, we’re interested in this whale sculpture. Can you tell us more about it?” the woman politely asked.
I was puzzled for a moment, until I realized the woman was pointing at my work, a ceramic sculpture near the window.
“Oh that, that’s not a whale, its actually an abstraction of a leaf,” I said.
“Really?” she huffed, turning to her friend, flashing him a look.
“You see, that entire body of work there takes inspiration from flo…”
Before I could finish my sentence and impress them with big artsy words, the woman tersely said, “Thanks, but we’re not interested,” and out the door walked a potential three months of gallery rent.
I learned a valuable lesson that day. Artist’s intent and viewer interpretation often do not align (and never insult a potential buyer’s intelligence). Over the years, I’ve seen this same scenario play out again and again. Differing opinions, deductions, explanations, and interpretations over a single image, object, or experience.
How easy it would be if it were just spelled out, made lucid and put into context. Words arranged on a label perhaps, like a title or something. This Is a Leaf could have changed everything that fateful day right?
Fast forward ten years to last October—I pop into a dark warehouse in Kaka‘ako to view some art. I have the cavernous place to myself save for two volunteer gallery sitters. Thinking it uncool not to chat them up and say thanks, I stop by their table to engage in superficial conversation. Turns out one of them is an artist (imagine that) and he gives me his card (of course). I get back to the office, recite the peculiar website in my head as I hunt and peck letters on my keyboard. A smile stretches across my face as I see Bennett Lieberman’s work for the first time—an image of a color chip from the hardware store, sporting three shades of blue and a poem (I think) superimposed over the hues in sterile san serif font.
Corey flashed a spectrum
onto Dana’s slinky dress with a prism
he stole from an exhibit at the planetarium
The work is so simple and concise; the variables few, and as abstract as an Al Held painting. “Brilliant,” I say out loud and show everyone in the office my computer screen.
I knew I was going to revisit the literature/language arts theme for my fall 2015 exhibition, but I was at a loss as to how I was going to approach it. Dress Blue, Planetarium, Spectrum Blue (the name of the piece on Bennett Lieberman’s website) changed that. Lieberman’s work not only reminded me of another memory that had to do with that gallery from 11 years ago, paint swatches, and a Bon Jovi song (too long and extraneous to recount here) but also a fun semiotics exercise from an expanded arts class in college. (Too long and academic to recount here.) I decided the exhibition would be about making sense of and finding meaning in images and objects and experiences and words. What is it about the message we seek and interpret in visual and written texts? (Hence, the title TXT/MSG.)
Soon after inviting Lieberman to be a part of the exhibition, I contacted O‘ahu artist Tae Kitakata, one half of the tumblr sensation Low Commitment Projects (and former registrar of The Contemporary Museum). Through a nonlinear exchange of emails and text messages, I got Tae and her collaborator Brittany Powell Parich to redo their Portlandian hipster installation paper chatter this side of the Pacific. Hundreds of paper-cut conversational words and phrases make up the installation, hung from the ceiling at Tae’s and Brittany’s height, as if the words came out of their mouths. Could a coherent conversation be gleaned in that room of words? (Can’t wait to finally meet Brittany IRL when she is here for LPC’s DIY workshop on Nov. 21)
Then there was this need to include the ubiquitous marriage between image and text, comics and cartoons. Need fulfilled by visiting Theresa Papanikolas, the museum’s curator of European and American art, and selecting prints by French master Honoré Daumier, and then driving out to Hawai‘i Kai on a Saturday morning to shoot the breeze with cartoonist Lorenzo Trinidad. We browsed through 40 years of work by Lorenzo’s late, legendary father, Corky, and picked drawings similar to Daumier’s. I am still amused/amazed how some themes and sentiments remain the same after two centuries (politicians are dumb, war really sucks).
Maybe that image/text, comic/cartoon need wasn’t satisfied, as I next pursued a Los Angeles artist whose work I first encountered on the walls of the late thirtyninehotel club in Chinatown while dancing to house music late one night in 2009. More comics, but this time, chopped, sampled, and blasted big on the walls. Like BAM! POW! Wow, I went there. In all seriousness, the work Aaron Noble created for TXT/MSG is thoughtful, calculated, and nerdy. It also harbors a secret narrative (the docents know what it is, but they took an oath of silence) that might possibly be revealed if you can decipher the accompanying soundtrack crafted by Aaron’s collaborator David Goldberg.
All the while, I was engaged in conversation with local artist/activist Gaye Chan. We explored more options than one does when reading a choose-your-own-adventure book and finally arrived at a quirky installation that serves as (1) an interactive component for museum visitors and (2) a (sort of) survey of projects by EATING IN PUBLIC (the umbrella name of the collaborative efforts by Chan and her partner Nandita Sharma). The installation centers around four booklets that visitors can put together by stamping sets of instructions onto paper and stapling them together. During the installation in July, I hung out with Chan as she measured and arranged. I attempted to teach her an improved clinch knot as we secured everything that might walk away over the course of the exhibition to a table.
“Are you going to include instructions on how to put these booklets together?” I asked.
Chan laughed and replied, “Why? Can’t make it too easy. I like it when the viewer has to work a little.”
Her retort buttresses a notion of mine and I, too, decide to “make the viewer work a little” by removing key bits of information in each gallery in the hopes that viewers will provide the context to all of these works in the exhibition. I even go so far as to install a gallery of abstract paintings without their accompanied tombstone labels, daring viewers to dream up their own titles and back stories. Whether they google for answers or construct their own based on their personal perspectives/biases, it really doesn’t matter here. By filling in the blanks, the viewer is actively processing and interpreting what they see, which is the conceptual focus of the exhibition. (A simplified, sneaky version of that semiotics exercise I opted not to explain earlier.)
In the end, my goal was to put together a fun and interesting exhibition with introspective and instagrammable moments, and that is accessible and relevant to a first grader and possibly useful to someone who might need some visual aids to explain the work of Saussure or Barthes. If TXT/MSG is seen and interpreted in a completely different light, that’s fine too.
As long as it has nothing to do with whales. #stillbitter