Every human culture that has ever interacted with another can tell a story of aesthetic infection, exchange and surrender, but the global dominance of European empires through the 19th and 20th centuries produced a unique brand of aesthetic superiority that claimed art was and would forever be guided by White male genius.
The accelerating industrial forces and colonial relationships of those empires ultimately undermined this “grand narrative.” Alternative perspectives of the formerly colonized, including artistic ones, continue to emerge from this collapse. Independent of content or intent, this happens every time Carlton Kupaʻa Hee works with porcelain, or Carl F.K. Pao picks up a paintbrush.
Hee’s “Etching in Echoes” and Pao’s “Maka” (at ii Gallery and Māhoa Gallery, respectively) are double-headed expressions of aesthetics and politics in contemporary art. They recollect Hawaiian concepts and cultural content, and present opportunities to explore the power of lineage and connection. (Hee is a former student of Pao’s.)
“Etching” looks and feels great. The gallery vibrates with contrasting concentric starbursts that energize, frame and connect five wall-mounted porcelain plates and four gourds suspended from the ceiling by red plastic “blood lines.”
Four of the plates feature solo figures: Pele with her flame, Maui with his snare, Kamapuaʻa with Olopana’s chickens, and Hāloanaka in his pre-kalo state. They are stylistically unified by line quality, the figures’ anatomical style and pose, and Hee’s use of repeated graphical motifs that reference the story being told. The hanging gourds work similarly, divided into three sections that tell the stories sequentially. Maui snaring the sun is the strongest of the set as Hee perfectly captures Maui’s monumental effort, and the rogue star’s aggression, frustration, and eventual conciliation.
Because his work is equally dedicated to message and medium, Hee flirts with the didactic literalism that can arise when art is deployed or interpreted to serve decolonization strategies. Hee’s skillful appropriation of the classical Greco-Roman visual idiom largely avoids this pitfall because the effort is free of cynicism, and charging objects of everyday life with greater meaning is universally human. Nevertheless, his etching of Hawaiian culture into one of the most cherished sections of the shattered grand narrative of the West produces a brew of satisfyingly rich irony.
Pao’s work is no less “two-headed” than Hee’s, but where Hee’s ceramics present stories whose content is effectively fixed, Pao’s paintings deal with a personal exploration of the word maka. The term is a daunting assemblage of meanings that include vision, beginning, edges and points, teat, raw, and one’s beloved. One can see aspects of all these concepts in Pao’s canvasses. Spheres and diamonds represent piercing gazes, bulbs at the ends of stalks evoke virility and nourishment, and saw tooth edges add subliminal threats.
The majority of the paintings are powerful abstractions that reduce some visual elements to black schematic lines, some to superflat color cutouts, and others to carefully rendered 3D objects. Many start with a brushy, semi-translucent layer of resin the color of kapa or sand, upon which Pao adds layers of black sweeping curves, blocks of contrasting color, geometric patterns, and ink-like spatters. Every painting is bursting with totemic energy, but many of the smaller ones seem constrained by their frames.
Pao’s stylized translations of Hawaiian artifacts (the Ku figure for example, or a warrior’s club, spear, or helmet) remind me of art I grew up with in peoples’ homes. Many Black artists in the 1970’s appropriated West African idioms (in masks, textiles, sculpture and scarification) and leveraged the flexibility of painting to connect the contemporary power of symbolic communication with pre-colonial cultural expressions. Such paintings were intended to nourish and protect a people who had been disconnected from their roots, and I read a similar intent behind Pao’s work.
At the risk of stating the obvious, it is still worth asserting that Pao’s and Hee’s work doesn’t appeal to stereotypical notions of Hawai’i or Hawaiians. Of greater significance is the opportunity to escape the colonizer-colonized axes by considering how Hee and Pao relate as student and teacher. With their formal differences rooted in shared concerns, they create new trajectories for contemporary art’s role in Native Hawaiian representation.