John Koga, at one with nature. Photo by Maile Koga.
All photos courtesy of the artist.
Here’s some food for thought: John Koga, one of Hawai‘i’s best and most established artists, was once a young emerging artist who carved depictions of the female anatomy out of avocado seeds. Yes, the man whose name is synonymous with contemporary art in Hawai‘i was, years ago, a loose cannon, a badass with a penchant for ripping up the rulebook and hoisting his middle finger at pesky protocol. He churned out work at furious pace, often staging six to seven shows in a single year. His prolific output, let it be said, would be the envy of large-scale sausage factories.
For newcomers to the contemporary art scene (this writer included), Koga seems an intrinsic part of the establishment rather than an institutional troublemaker. I realized this was a silly misconception when I looked through Koga’s archives and saw his progression over the past 20 years: everything from the aforementioned avocado carvings to monolithic commissioned pieces to radical installations that would be impressive even by today’s standards. (Reader: it took me several nights to sift through everything and, according to Koga, a substantial number of his shows weren’t even documented!) With that in mind, here’s a closer look at nine of Koga’s exhibitions that should, in my opinion, send your follicles aflutter.
Kirsch Gallery (Punahou School)
found objects, stones, bronze, adobe
Fresh comes close to describing what Koga (sculptures on the right) and Lawrence Seward (wall pieces on the left) were up to over two decades ago. Koga collected stones from his mother’s home in Manoa and caged them up; Seward gathered white and black detritus that drifted ashore along the reef runway on Lagoon Drive and boxed them up. The artists seem to be in cahoots conceptually: both take pre-existing forms and, sans alteration, corral them in rigid, rectilinear boundaries. They’re like canvases painted with objects, or landscape paintings painted, quite literally, with the landscape.
UH Art Gallery Rooftop (Mānoa)
shipping pallets, wood, bronze, stone, metal, crushed glass, reeds
Koga’s thuggish-ruggish tendencies, which included shrink-wrapping the Art Department, earned him a reputation as a pain-in-the-ass provocateur. He stipulated that his MFA exhibition would be in the main gallery, not the commons gallery; it would be on display for months, not the designated two weeks; and, of course, it was his way or the highway. So when the powers that be told Koga to hit the road, he thought outside the box: the rooftop! Of course! (Koga, you diabolical genius!) Using his pickup truck, Koga collected approximately eighteen hundred wooden shipping pallets and built a complex environment for his sculptures. (Reader: it should come as no surprise that Koga received his MFA in ceramics, yet his MFA exhibition consisted of, you guessed it, exactly zero clay.) His outdoor pièce de résistance transformed the rooftop from ho-hum to “Ho nah!”
Borders Books and Music (Ward Centre)
In the late ’80s and early ’90s, the reef runway, on Lagoon Drive, was a veritable goldmine of supplies for Koga and crew. Why buy expensive tubes of paint and canvas when the ocean offers material free of charge? Koga, alongside architect Dean Sakamoto and others, made each and every piece in this show in-situ, down at their seaside art store. What better way for artists of Hawai‘i to make art in Hawai‘i that’s about Hawai‘i?
River Street Artist Spaces (Chinatown)
Although he wasn’t a stalwart cigarette smoker (what sane smoker would sacrifice so much precious cigarettes in the name of art?) Koga was an occasional clove smoker with a habit of making sculptures. In fact, it’s shocking that Koga didn’t develop a hardcore addiction to nicotine, since it absorbed through his fingertips during the long and tedious process of constructing his tobacco towers. When the shop on Young Street, where he purchased packs from, refused to sell him any more – they thought he was an undercover police officer – he replied, “No! I need it!”
Sisu Gallery (Chinatown)
As Koga made his foray into fatherhood, he quickly mastered the art of a completely different nature: changing diapers. “I got obsessed with doo-doo,” Koga told me, as the daily routine inadvertently triggered his preoccupation with poop. This scatological exhibition, made out of what some have dubbed “Kogadobe,” may be a sly, subversive commentary by the artist about the amount of crap that’s displayed in galleries. In any case, this was one shitty show – but in the best way possible.
Bishop Square (Downtown)
paper, plastic bags, string, sticks
Taking discarded items and turning them into art is one thing; gaining inspiration from the actual physical qualities of garbage is, well, something else. Leave it up to Koga to find insight in the unconventional ways his friends stacked and balanced trash in the corners of a communal workspace. For this exhibition, organized by Dean Sakamoto, Koga stuffed paper into plastic bags, tied them together into tightly crumpled balls, festooned them with sticks, and presented them on the floor. Garbage never looked this good.
BOOM Gallery (Chinatown)
This brobdingnagian plug and socket set, built by Koga and a cohort, was constructed, painted, then subsequently broken down and reassembled in order to get it into this second-floor gallery, only to be thrown away after the exhibition. Kudos to Koga and Charles Valoroso, owner of BOOM Gallery, for staging a complicated exhibition with more “wow” factor than commercial appeal. (There were, however, manini maquettes for sale on the back wall.) The gallery’s four-letter name, written in majuscule letters, seems the perfect way to describe this colossal commentary on being connected.
Workspace Gallery (Kaimuki)
clear packaging tape
Nature is Koga’s BFF. They’re like this (writer crosses his fingers together). It’s the one component that remains constant throughout his entire career, from early woodcarvings to rock sculptures to this exhibit. Using cases of packaging tape, Koga’s friends mummified his entire body before cutting him out. Imagine their surprise when, after removing Koga from the thick plastic carapace, they were greeted with cascading rivers of perspiration. Sweaty souvenirs aside, Koga spruced up his hallow doppelgängers with facsimiles of the natural world: one replica is augmented with a branch sprouting from its torso, while another duplicate is locked in an intimate embrace with a large tree. If artists of Hawai‘i can’t compete with nature, why not join it?
Japanese Cultural Center (Mō‘ili‘ili)
Koga’s recent puka-laden plaster sculpture forms, which straddle the divide between flora and fauna are, for the artist, a return to beauty. Plaster, Koga’s material of choice, seems the perfect platform for the exploration of handmade forms that could easily be mistaken for alien life forms on a distant planet. The installation itself resembles an intergalactic field dotted with prehistoric cocoons, out of which unknowable things will inevitably hatch – but what? Like Koga’s own artistic development, no one knows for sure. I, for one, can’t wait to see what emerges.