Hee and Pao: four eyes, four hands, multiple visions
In November 2013, Charlton Kūpa'a Hee and Carl F.K. Pao had parallel shows running in Kakaako; at ii (“Two Eye") Gallery and Māhoa Art Gallery respectively. A year later, “Maka Lua" presents the results of their ongoing interactions as teachers and artists at The Arts At Marks Garage.
It's not uncommon for artists to collaborate to express a shared vision, and theme-based group shows are the lifeblood of the independent arts scene in Honolulu. But Hee and Pao's joint effort taps something deeper than a common medium.
The show's foundation is Pao's ongoing exploration of heavily abstracted Kū figures and power-charged geometries of spiritual vision, each executed in large-scale acrylic and shellac paintings. Hee's ceramic sculptures do more than riff on Pao's colorful rhythms and stylized references to the teeth of Hawaiian gods and weapons. They elaborate on and extend them.
This “2D-to-3D" conversion is striking, and the viewer is encouraged to discover lines of sight that combine Hee's sculptures with Pao's paintings in a kind of three dimensional collage or theatrical staging. A more flexible gallery space with more breathing room for this assembly of works could support a more intentional exploration of these interactions. But the results of their collaborative effort are clear.
In the modern commercial practice of developing intellectual property or creative content across multiple channels, someone creates a character, world or a narrative and others come along to populate, or adapt it. Pao has accomplished something similar by inviting Hee to extend and interpret his style, symbolism and aesthetics.
Hee creates surfaces on his works that emulate the shading and contours of Pao's figures, but the textural nuance of his aerosols applied to the precise edges, nicks, and slices of his ceramics are compelling on their own terms. Hee skillfully manipulates asymmetries of mass and color, and the works take on different tones depending on the viewing angle. These moves are native to Hee's own investigation of form, but also reference dimensions in Pao's paintings; dimensions that only brushwork and the sheen of shellaq can evoke.
Both artists are negotiating an established tradition of challenging the exclusion of indigenous expression in art history. While Hee's ceramic works are more contemporary in tone and style, Pao's paintings use modernism to express an explicitly socio-political perspective.
In this show Pao's work represents clear links to an overtly anti-colonial tradition that goes back to Harlem Renaissance artists adapting African aesthetics to European schools of painting.
Pao's works are, effectively, portraits, lined up like ki figures and meant to function as objects of power rather than decoration. They favor hard lines, bristling edges, panoptic triangular networks and radiating forces of second sight. They capture many facets of the concept of “maka," the meanings of which include eye, face, center of a flower, teat, edge, point and source. Each work is not simply a variation on a theme, but an effort to create a self-contained personality.
This underlying sense of living energy that Pao invests in these figures is “Maka Lua's" prime mover. It is the call that generates the sculptural response.
Hee begins the cycle again with a second set of forms that shed the mass of ceramic and color in favor of webbed skeletal structures that are hung from the ceiling, evoking Native American dream catchers and ancient Polynesian navigation tools. They are not exactly skeletons or wireframes (surfaceless versions) of the ceramic pieces so much as they are a further-minimalized iteration.
The show can be read as a dialog between Hee and Pao recorded by art objects, but it is more than a mutual agreement to look at the fantastically polyvalent Hawaiian concept of maka, or to “see what happens."
“Maka Lua" is a contemporary art show—or an intentional appropriation of its formalities—by Hawaiian artists who have chosen non-indigenous media and modes of expression for their work. Significantly, the idea of maka is not deployed as if its indigenousness auto-validates any art made in response.
Hee and Pao make work that is clearly informed by being Hawaiian, and they pursue practices that reference but are not necessarily governed by tradition. But the work invites experiences and interpretations that are not tightly bound to an obligation to take the artists' ethnicity, politics or traditions into account.
“Maka Lua's" joint approach unites multiple perspectives, including those of generational difference, mentorship, being a peer, being a student, and having shared cultural ties.
In “Maka Lua," they are exploring with great depth and with living cultural significance. They are adapting approaches that might be typically applied to traditional craft or practical arts to the kind of process and remix-oriented production that characterizes contemporary artistic practice.
This could be a blueprint for collaboration strategies that bridge the gap between recognizing the artist as an individual and as the representative of a group of community.