Pure optical experience—rich and nuanced as it may be—is not enough by itself… there needs to be additional content, to which and about which the visual can speak. – Marcia Morse from Contemporary Biennial Exhibition Catalog
Last month, The Contemporary Museum’s (TCM) 7th Biennial exhibition of Hawai’i artists opened at the Schaefer Gallery. As the gallery puts it, the exhibit “reflects the diversity and range of work being made in Hawai’i today.”
If this is the Contemporary Museum’s pick of best recent work by Hawai’i artists, I can’t believe they aimed high or looked far and wide. Most of the work lacked “additional content”—the heart, the core, the soul of the piece.
“Well-crafted” got into this exhibition but as Marcia Morse put so eloquently, “pure optical experience” is not enough.
The whimsical, found object pieces of Christopher Reiner may grow into art pieces someday but they aren’t there yet. The pieces are overworked and drift into confusion. His clever wordplay certificates are supposed to complement each piece, but they define the work in a way that the viewer wouldn’t get without them. However, the drawbridge table assembled to display his pieces is excellently constructed. But the pieces then need to live up to the “set up.” Instead, they wander off the theme and dilute themselves.
Jacqueline Rush Lee’s work looks like an experiment with old books set into gypsum cement. What’s the point of covering a wall with these exercises? If a piece was interesting, maybe 30 on one wall would take over and… What? One weak piece times 30 does not make for a strong overall work. More gypsum experiments with color swirled around on another wall still go nowhere.
TCM has settled over and over for mediocre. Why let Sergio Goes take up space in a gallery with photographs of a road trip across America? The presentation doesn’t involve the viewer in any way. Yawn. Photos enlarged are not art. Video on a wall larger than life does not make it an installation. He may have had a life-changing trip but it’s not translating into an art piece.
A fiber artist from Haiku, Claudia Johnson, had many pieces that must have taken lots and lots of time and energy. And so? Is it about pretty? Is it about well-crafted? I say, both.
The centerpiece of her work was made from dried vines painted blue and took the shape of a large waterfall. The vines hung from a metal rail about 12 feet high. Visually dramatic, Johnson’s work leaves you longing for more than generic.
Without content the artist isn’t personally committed to the piece. I want mind, body and spirit commitment. Ditto with Michael Lee’s skillfully carved, wooden pod-like shapes that you can hold in your hand. Pretty, but nothing beyond that.
Charles Cohan could have carried the entire Biennial. At first glance, one wall looks like symbols representing a language. It pulls the viewer in and gives you a glimpse of his clever mind. You can practically see how he organizes his brain. He’s not practicing at printmaking; this is what he does well. His topographical map piece, “Peaks,” is stunning. He has layered very transparent black ink to represent mountains with, as Morse writes, “each increment of altitude (twenty-nine levels in all) encoded in a cumulatively darker shade.” The effect results in an ephemeral quality to his series of six screen-printed images.
Michael Marshall puts paint to music, or music to paint, depending on how you look at it. Layer upon layer of images hint at a dialogue. What’s left is what floats to the surface. As practiced and experienced as Marshall is, he’s still in touch with a primal resonance in his work. His art is fresh and inspiring, an intimate recording of personal history. A commitment to the process and material is evident.
By mixing fine art and craft in one show, it blurs the distinction between the two. TCM didn’t do Marshall or Cohan any favors by throwing them in with the other exhibitors in this Biennial. They were showing fine art. Craft needs its own separate exhibition.
Marcia Morse did an outstanding job of writing the text for the catalog. TCM has little idea that art isn’t just purely optical but needs to contain content as well.
Good for Morse for putting it so succinctly. Without content the “visual” falls flat. Let’s hope that TCM gets closer to understanding what constitutes fine art for their next Biennial. MTW