Museum / Anyone who thinks that contemporary art has forgotten the magic of craftsmanship should see two solo shows at the Honolulu Museum of Art–Little Worlds: Video Sculptures by Tony Oursler and Undulation: rise and fall: Recent Work by John Tanji Koga.
Oursler is on the culture-radar right now for directing “Where Are We Now?”, David Bowie’s first music video in ten years. But Ourlser has experimented with video since the early ‘80s–just way outside the MTV genre.
Along with Bill Viola, Oursler was among the first generation of videographers to take the medium beyond the documentary form into a full-fledged vehicle for immersive art. His skill lies in isolating footage and manipulating its projection to line up precisely with sculptural forms.
The nine works included in Little Worlds, mostly from 2007 or later, demonstrate how Oursler keeps pushing the technical envelope. Pieces from the 2007 series Anomalous Bodies, Resonant DustandWorms feature LCD videos that project onto fiberglass sculptures with multiple curving surfaces. The projectors are calibrated so precisely that they leave only a thin, uniform halo of color and shadow on the gallery wall behind. These shadows relate to a recurring theme of storytelling in Oursler’s work. (Fabulist is the title of a 2012 painting included in Little Worlds that references a teller of fables and his puppets.) The shadows present the sculptures as humorous, if angst-filled, beings.
The digital projectors that throw the animations onto the sculptures also seem to control them. Clearly spoken, barely audible psychobabble such as “What is happening to me?” emanates from the projector. With all of the sculptures seeming to speak and move at once, the room is filled with competing and cacophonous solipsistic monologues that allegorize the alienating effects of media on the human psyche–the stuff that connects us also feeds into our self-absorption.
Ourlser’s newest pieces are the most impressive. Tiny, iPhone-sized projectors split moving images into eight to ten vignettes, some smaller than the size of a penny. In one single beam, a community of oddities is projected onto custom-made “stages” no bigger than a foot in diameter, composed with an assemblage of kitschy dolls, figurines and crystals.
The sophisticated precision of these little worlds draws attention to a questionable inclusion of Blue Negative, 2000, a blue hand-blown glass statuette that hangs close to the ceiling. Blue Negative might represent Oursler’s earlier work–two bouncing faces–but it didn’t seem necessary in an otherwise tightly curated show.
If Oursler’s talking creatures become too much, head upstairs to find reprieve in the bosom of Koga’s Undulation. Nine new oil paintings (all 2011–12) and two sculptures (bronze and plaster) meditate on the levity of Hawaii’s landscapes. Titled after the seasons and times of day, they capture changing light on rolling hills and clouds. Installed in the back of the Hawaii gallery, the entire suite has a retro 1940s biomorphic beauty; the cloud forms of the sculptures recur in the horizons of the paintings behind them.
Don’t let Koga’s simple use of analog media deceive you. The pieces are complex and skillful in their technical and historical references.
A legend in the local art scene, Koga is respected as a homegrown fabulist of sorts. His facility with a wide range of media (usually composed with an irreverent sense of humor) and his role as promoter of both historical and emerging local talent has long connected threads of contemporary art in Hawaii.
For this show, Koga chose to honor his artistic lineage of Satoru Abe, Tadashi Sato (both revered Hawaii-born modernists) and Ray Yoshida (also Hawaii-born and a hugely influential artist and teacher of the Chicago Imagists). Koga’s paintings have the lyrical, abstract and textural qualities of Abe and Sato and the comic and graphic sensibility of Yoshida. There is also a hint of American abstract symbolists like Arthur Dove.
Koga makes these references his own by negotiating his reverence for the symbolic weight of the island’s landscape with whimsical humor. Confectionary clouds and solid-looking oceans rest lightly in the arms of mountains and fields. The delicacy of his colors and modulation of form makes everything look as if it is floating–a trick achieved by subtle application of paint and repeating brush strokes that add a luminous texture. The paintings have form without weight. They remind us that Hawaii’s horizon doesn’t simply recede into the distance, but comes to meet us.
Koga is the twelfth recipient of the prestigious biannual Catharine E.B. Cox award (established in 1985 and given to former or current residents of Hawaii). Undulation also initiates a new series launched by the museum that will feature three to four solo shows each year by Hawaii-based artists. Support of more established, mid-career local artists (beyond the now streamlined conflation of the Hawaii Biennial and the Artists of Hawaii exhibitions) has been a long time coming, and the choice of Koga as the first featured artist is undoubtedly deserved. It is a pleasure to be taken in by his sleight of hand.