“Island,” 2011, By Jaqueline Rush Lee
Image: Courtesy of Honolulu Museum of art

A curious exhibition succeeds by reminding us of things we never knew

Entering Hawaii Art Now at the Honolulu Museum of Art, visitors are arrested by Dorothy Faison’s aptly titled “The Captain’s Lawnbed Courtesy of the Lawnboat Historical Society.” The piece, with apples arranged atop billowy quilting, resting on four layers of synthetic lawn, is a platform for the space between living and longing, and also between dream and memory. Or a vessel, if you prefer, for navigating those spaces.

It’s a nice opening riff for Hawaii Art Now, a new show presented in conjunction with the 10th Biennial of Hawaii Artists this spring as the former Academy of Arts celebrates its 85th anniversary with a new name. This exhibit, while intrinsically built on the past, is as often untethered from memory as it is rooted there.

Hawaii Art Now has an unusual profile for an Academy exhibit in several ways, chief among them the presenting of recent work by the 58 artists who have shown in previous biennials. In other words, the artists, rather than the works themselves, were the focus of the curation; further, in many cases it was impossible for curators to know what kind of work the artists were currently producing, or even whether they had continued to produce at all.

This approach has its limitations–there are a few contributions here that are less-than-recent, uninspiring, or both. But that’s surely to be expected in a show of this nature, and ultimately few of the pieces in Hawaii Art Now disappoint. On the whole, the exhibition feels, if not as vibrant as its Biennial companion, nevertheless rich and compelling.

After the initial power of Faison’s piece, what at first seems a possibly fatal flaw presents itself: These artists were selected on the strength of earlier Biennial contributions that are not visible here. It’s immediately–and intensely–frustrating. How can we think about this new work, and what it says about Hawaii art now, without seeing what came before? A thick-headed question in some ways, perhaps, but one it’s hard to imagine most viewers avoiding altogether.

But Faison’s piece of course addresses it, as does the obscured face at the center of Margaret Ezekiel’s “Awakening”, which appears alongside “Lawnbed.” Taken together, the two pieces offer a hint of what’s to come–a sense of something elusive, something both informed by and hidden from memory.

This effect is particularly powerful in the show’s context as an exhibition that, again by its nature, is grounded in but otherwise not specifically about Hawaii. All of the artists here were connected to the Islands at some point–where they are now, in both senses, is part of the show’s excitement.

The work of three prominent local photographers may speak best to this dynamic. The flocking geese in Wayne Levin’s three color photographs, taken in the American West, are far removed from the Islands, yet immediately recognizable as an extension of the themes explored in his 2010 book Akule. Franco Salmoiraghi’s muted series of clouds is more of a departure from our expectations, and yet its connection to Hawaii as clear and ringing as any of his previous work. Sergio Goes, who died in a diving accident in 2008, is represented here by three photographs, each of them heartbreaking in its own way.

Sculpture is refreshingly well-represented here, much of it built around the idea of repurposing. Jacqueline Rush Lee’s “Island,” a spiraling swirl of telephone books–she places them in the tradition of the palimpsest, a text that has acquired new meaning–seems to have rolled effortlessly into place, while Eli Baxter reinvents old tires as floral arrangements with a painstakingness almost painful to consider. His “The Garden Stories: Transitory” is, in its sprawling subtlety, among the show’s highlights. Another is the contribution from rising star Maikai Tubbs, whose “Memoring” installation, composed of unraveling magnetic tape, seems to emerge from the same dreamlike place as the exhibition itself.

Not all of the work in Hawaii Art Now, it should be noted, lives in these ethereal places. Kapulani Landgraf’s photographs documenting Big Sugar’s destruction of sacred Maui sites, and Gaye Chan’s sculptural exhortation to grow food–in the form of a desktop seed-distribution center–helps ground the show in the present and prevent it from drifting entirely into the mystic. Scott Yoell’s “When More is Not Enough” explores the assumptions underlying our growing reliance on pharmaceuticals. In some sense, even these pieces are about remembering who we once were.

Cade Roster’s 3-D animation “Caretaker,” a kind of sci-fi reimagining of something Shel Silverstein might have written with Hayao Miyazaki, begins to draw the show toward the future, but its motifs and themes, too, are rooted in the ethereal remembering that so many of Hawaii Art Now’s pieces share.

Here’s one that isn’t: The most fun you can have here is probably by following Sally French’s installation “99% Heroes” as it meanders throughout the gallery. French has taken her friends’ Facebook profile photos and redrawn her network as a gallery of superheroes, each represented by its own pocket-sized icon. As one Academy staffer pointed out, many of French’s online pals are part of the local art scene–as a result, more than one of her heroes is represented by his or her own work elsewhere in this very show. But you don’t have to be an art insider to appreciate French’s contribution: It’s funny and fresh and it speaks to the future as a place of promise and delight.

Hawaii Art Now runs through 4/22; Honolulu Museum of Art, 900 S. Beretania St., Tue.–Sat. 10am–4:30pm, Sun 1–5pm, 532-8700, [honoluluacademy.org]