From Sept. 17 to 24, Wendy Kawabata was in the John Dominis and Patches Damon Holt Gallery—specifically in the rear right antechamber reserved for contemporary Hawai‘i artists—working on her installation Grow in Light. The installation and a drawing series called In the Land together make up Kawabata’s focused solo show, also called In the Land, on view through Jan. 3.
Last week, assisted by her student Alina Kawai, Kawabata methodically affixed crotcheted flowers on Gator board using thread-thin insect pins (the kind entomologists use to display bugs). The blooms, made of wool and painted in shades of grey, silver and black, look like the classic crotcheted accent on a million 1970s cloches, and over a week grew into a thick monochromatic meadow on the wall. (Pictured above are Kawabata, left, and Kawai, on day two of installing In the Land.)
This isn’t Kawabata’s first Grow in Light. The concept was born in 2011, while she was at the Nes Artist Residency in Skagaströnd, Iceland, on the Arctic Circle. While there, Kawabata was struck by the incongruity between Iceland’s expansive, wild nature and its pockets of industry, especially its smelters, using geothermal energy to turn imported bauxite into aluminum amid rugged fjords and snowcapped mountains.
“I traveled to this less inhabited corner hoping to hear more clearly amid the quiet,” says Kawabata about the inspiration for Grow the Light. “I found quiet, but it was tempered by the resonance of land as potential commodity. As always with travel, I went looking for something, and found something else. These flowers are not something else, or somewhere else. While born from a search for the wild, they have become routine and domestic. In this way they become the insistence of interior experiences—the constant pressure of something hidden but not forgotten.”
Kawabata did the installation a second time at the Sydney Contemporary international art fair earlier this month, where she was one of five exhibiting artists for the Auckland-based gallery Sanderson Contemporary Art.
Each time she does Grow in Light, the work sprouts a little differently. “This is the first time that it has about 80 cast aluminum flowers and something interesting came out of it,” says Kawabata. “Some of the casts look just like the crotcheted flowers while others have imperfections that happened in casting process. That wasn’t expected, but I didn’t edit them out because I thought that they show more of the material, and they related really well to the idea of their inclusion in the work, which is about the process of extracting from nature to manufacture and degrade the landscape.”
Kawabata is also tickled that guests at her studio haven’t been able to tell the wool flowers apart from their metal counterparts.
The artist, who is an associate professor at the University of Hawai‘i School of Art and Art History, made the flowers while she was on the go, grocery bag filled with wool and a crochet needle in hand. “I’ve made a lot of modular work and part of that is living in Hawai‘i and wanting to make work that’s going to contract into a box and expand in another place,” she explains, “and being a mother and finding a way to work in the time I have. It’s important that the way I create dovetails with everything else in my life. It’s made my process more of a hybrid activity—it’s rooted in drawing. That portable element has allowed me to keep creating and stay in contact with my studio practice, and I make sure I also have my extended studio time.”
The rest of the work—applying paint to the flowers, building an installation mockup—happened in her studio at UH.
The accompanying drawings are done with ink and acrylic on paper. They are little trompe l’oeil masterpieces—from afar they appear as tiny bucolic landscapes. You expect a Constable-like image to come into focus as you approach closer. Instead, you find expressionistic fields of grays and blues.
“The exhibition is also, in part, a meditation and conversation with the work of Agnes Martin,” says Kawabata. “The majority of her paintings were 72 inches by 72 inches square, and the constructed wall piece is intentionally the same size to dialogue with painting, Martin’s specifically. Also, the soft blue in the drawings, and slight rosy glow of the frames, reference the two dominant colors in Martin’s work—blue and pink.”
Kawabata earned her MFA in Studio Art at the University of New Mexico, where Martin also studied, eventually living in Cuba, Galisteo, and Taos. “We share a history of time in New Mexico, an interest in making work that in a sense turns its back to distraction, and is elemental, and so, minimal. But, I would concur with Martin that the work isn’t strict minimalism, it’s expressive,” says Kawabata.
She calls the drawings “visual condensations; materializations of landscape as a means for mining the remnants of what is physically inaccessible.” They are at once accessible, even pretty, and foreboding and enigmatic.
In the Land underscores this subspace of the John Dominis and Patches Damon Holt Gallery of the Arts of Hawai‘i as a place to see exciting, contemplative contemporary work. This latest installation follows a string of notable shows, curated by contemporary art curator James Jensen, that have each transformed the gallery with thought-provoking, engaging pieces, from Kapulani Landgraf’s Ponoiwi in 2013, to the just ended Urbanophilia/Urbanophobia | Love and Fear of the City by Maya Lea Portner.
“Even though I’ve shown iterations of Grow in Light before, I haven’t done it in Honolulu yet,” says Kawabata. “It’s been a few years since I’ve had a show of my recent work here, and I get to do that now. It’s a nice space for my work because it’s intimate in scale and my work is quiet work, and the site lets it retain that quality.”