Google “contemporary art in Hawai‘i,” and you won’t find information on John Koga. You probably should though, since Koga is situated at the center of it all. (Trying to understand the art scene without consulting Koga is like learning about the solar system but not the sun.) He is an artist with a planetary personality, the former chief preparator at The Contemporary Museum, and, by his own admission, a string-pulling puppet master. He’s the guy behind the guy. One question artists and collectors ask me more than any other is, “Do you know John Koga?”
I meet John Koga at his childhood home in Mānoa Valley. We take a seat at a table on the lanai with iced coffees. Orbiting us are whimsical plaster pieces, sliced rock sculptures, and a bronze toilet on a towering stainless steel pedestal. I ask Koga about the origins of his work.
“A big part of me is more than my art,” says Koga, who redirects my question. “It’s a drive to make Hawai‘i known for its artists.” This, I discover, is Koga’s primary mandate. “We have talent that matches up with the rest of the world, and we need to get them on the map.” He is referring to Hawai‘i’s modern masters: Tadashi Sato, Satoru Abe and other local boys who moved to New York after WWII to study art. At the time, abstract expressionism eclipsed the city. Many of those NYC transplants returned home, bringing their versions of that American art movement to the islands. Hawai‘i’s art history, without question, begins with them. “They set a foundation for us that is unreal,” says Koga.
While it remains undeniable that Hawai‘i has its share of talented artists, it seems universally acknowledged that the lack of an extensive cultural infrastructure – specifically collectors – makes being an artist in Hawai‘i prohibitive. Not so, says Koga. “When I first met Satoru Abe, he said, ‘All you need is three collectors, and you’ll be OK for the rest of your life,’” Koga recalls. “So there are enough collectors here.”
Still, space is crucial. With limited places to exhibit work, connecting artists with collectors is challenging. Koga, however, has found a practical, ingenious solution: one-night shows, which he stages in any space he can acquire for a single evening. “I’m throwing a one-nighter this Saturday, by the way, so please come,” Koga says. I ask where. “I’m moving out, so I’ll have an empty house. You see how that works?”
Saturday arrives. I wander into Koga’s home in Makiki Heights. Works on paper by Lawrence Seward and Jason Teraoka checker a wall in the living room. Koga’s pieces and drawings by children plaster the walls of a bedroom. I go outside, crack open a beer, and meander around Koga’s sprawling property with a few friends. More drinking ensues.
I dive into the parade of pupus: pasta salad with tuna and capers, Foodland ahi poke, La Pizza Rina pies, kalbi, chow mein noodles, mixed greens, fruit and cheese platters, chips with goat cheese dip, mini potato croquettes, shredded pork sandwiches, desserts galore. A few dogs comb the vicinity for morsels that may have fallen from paper plates above. The alcohol consumption continues.
Soon, other artists show up, and Koga’s empty shell of a home transforms into a gallery. Tae Kitakata’s cursive letter cutouts, tethered to red balloons, float across the room. Sculpted plastic flowers by Maika‘i Tubbs bloom on windowsills. Abstract works by Aaron Padilla and Marc Thomas grow from walls. Works by the Sculpture Club alter ledges into pedestals. “Sold” signs appear next to pieces, money exchanges hands, and pieces leave with new owners. I marvel at this microcosm of the art world.
Later in the night, Koga weaves through clusters of people, his trajectory shifting every few minutes. A large blue sticker, in the shape of a star, is stuck to his forehead. The perfect metaphor, I thought: a star hurtling through a constellation of artists, collectors and museum people. So, did I get to know John Koga? Yes, as well as any one person can know a star.