Jared Yamanuha takes a closer look at the world of contemporary art in Hawai‘i.
Jason Teraoka in his home studio. Photo by John Hook.
Last September, weeks before the opening of the Biennial of Hawai‘i Artists IX at The Contemporary Museum, I met Jason Teraoka, one of the featured artists in the exhibition in his designated gallery space. “This is gonna be a long process,” confessed Teraoka. His plan was to construct a false wall – a floor-to-ceiling wainscoting of exposed wood grain – around the gallery, and then submerge his artwork into the faux wall. So far though, his installation amounted to a few strips of lumber, a silver ladder, and a few power tools, scattered haphazardly across the space. He was not kidding.While Teraoka busied himself with construction, I took a closer look at canvases and works on vellum, which were propped up against the wall and fanned out on the floor. Although I knew that he drew inspiration from movies – especially those made in the ’50s and ’60s, shot in grainy black-and-white and gaudy Technicolor- there was a dreamlike quality to them, a quality that was unforeseeable based solely on photographic reproductions, of which I had seen many. Each face was brought to life by hundreds of thin, diaphanous brushstrokes. Skin tones appeared translucent and hair undulated like thin ribbons of seaweed on the ocean floor. Tiny bubbles, which percolated on the surface of the canvases, seemed analogous to the pixels on a television screen. Teraoka summoned these anonymous people to life, an act of acrylic prestidigitation.
Teraoka, truth be told, is no newcomer to the art world. He’s exhibited work since the ’90s; he’s witnessed the local art scene fluctuate over the years; and most importantly, he’s cognizant of the problems that face every contemporary artist in Hawai‘i. One of the biggest, he told me, was the outside world’s one-dimensional perception of Hawai‘i as a tourist destination, and nothing more.
“See that’s the thing with Hawai‘i,” lamented Teraoka. “There’s definitely traffic happening through here, and it’s influential art and business people. The problem is, they come here and they just want to vacation.” Teraoka told me about a gallerist who begrudgingly visited his studio while on vacation and informed him that his time in Hawai‘i was strictly reserved for rest and relaxation, and not for looking at art.
“I think that happens a lot,” Teraoka said. “And it’s really rough for contemporary art here. It’s always been an uphill battle.” Was there, in his opinion, a way to mitigate this situation? Could it be possible, just for a moment, to pull Waikīkī out of the spotlight, and in its place hoist contemporary artists of Hawai‘i onto the world stage and into the limelight to lay claim to their proverbial 15 minutes? “I’ve been thinking about this for decades, the past 20 years maybe!” Teraoka said, with a mixture of excitement and frustration. “What can make Hawai‘i’s art scene more successful?”
Deborah Nehmad in front her exhibition at The Contemporary Museum’s downtown location. Photo by John Hook.
Weeks later, on a rainy day in East Honolulu, I drove up a vertiginous hill punctuated by shower trees to visit Deborah Nehmad at her studio to discuss her latest body of work, which she told me was political.“I’m an unabashed progressive,” said Nehmad, who years ago worked as a lawyer in Washington, DC. “So when I turned to art, I always wanted to find a way to articulate that political side of me, but in a non-pedantic, non-ideological way.”
She opened a nearby closet, took out a tall tube of paper, and removed the plastic covering. Carefully, she unfurled sheets of rough, highly textured paper on a worktable, as an architect would with blueprints. She ran her fingertips across the paper. “This,” she said, “is a piece about Darfur.”
At first glance, Never Again appeared purely abstract, even beautiful. It possessed the formal qualities of a centuries-old map of Sub-Saharan Africa lined with the vestigial traces of rivers. I looked closer. Numbers, thousands and thousands of them, written in pencil emerged. Nehmad said each number symbolized a person killed during the civil war in Sudan. “At the time I completed this, the number of deaths were 213,000,” she said.
Then it hit me. My admiration for the piece’s aesthetic qualities collided with my sudden comprehension of the immense scale of the atrocity in Darfur, which was spelled out in the endless numerical kudzu that crawled across the surface of the paper. It was a truly unique feeling of ambivalence, one which I later realized could only have been generated by a work of art.
Nehmad, like Teraoka, is somewhat acquainted with the art world-at-large and is intimately familiar with what it means to be a contemporary artist in Hawai‘i. What made her career in Honolulu particularly difficult? “There’s a real geographic problem with living here,” Nehmad told me, explaining that shipping her artwork to cities like San Francisco or New York to show potential gallerists entailed exorbitant shipping costs. Plus, when galleries in those cities have immediate access to thousands of artists nearby – indeed artists whose studios they can visit without purchasing a plane ticket – why would they bother showing an artist from Hawai‘i?
During my conversations with Teraoka and Nehmad, they both stressed the importance of getting their work exhibited elsewhere, beyond the borders of the island. It was absolutely imperative, since aside from the museums and a few key galleries and venues, there were very few places to exhibit work locally. I began to wonder, how they approached the seemingly implausible act of being seen outside the state, and so I looked closer.
Here’s the good news: If you’re a contemporary artist, living and working in Hawai‘i, and have absolutely no intention of moving to Los Angeles or New York, then yes, it’s possible to exhibit your work outside the isolated confines of the island chain. This process, however, is at once difficult and circuitous, time-intensive and frustrating, and can make living in “paradise” seem anything but Edenic.
“I’ve actually hit the pavement a bit, and tried to hit up galleries, and it’s really painful!” said Teraoka, who likened the experience to visiting the dentist to have teeth painfully plucked. “But if you want to make art a bigger part of your life, then at this point, you have to get your stuff outside Hawai‘i,” he said, with total conviction. “Whatever it takes.”
Nehmad agreed. “You have to do your homework. You have to look for galleries, or alternative spaces, or even museum venues that are interested in your kind of art. If you’re interested in New York, go to New York. Walk the galleries in Chelsea. See who shows work like yours.” Nehmad went to New York and is now communicating with one gallery that just might, if everything aligns, exhibit her work. “Whether something happens, I don’t know, but it took years to get to that place,” she said. “And it took pounding the pavement, and doing the homework.”
Even though their struggles may suggest otherwise, Teraoka and Nehmad have enjoyed considerable success outside Hawai‘i. Teraoka has representation in Tokyo (Tomio Koyama Gallery) and Seattle (James Harris Gallery); he’s exhibited in countless cities, including New York, Los Angeles and Chicago; and he’s had a solo exhibition at the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo. Nehmad has exhibited in the US, Korea and Spain; her work sits in major collections, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York City; recently, she was mentioned in a New York Times art review in an exhibition alongside the likes of Jasper Johns, Sol LeWitt and Richard Serra.
Contemporary art collector Geleynse’s private collection.
On a breezy Tuesday afternoon in the middle of December, I paid a visit to Dean Geleynse, a contemporary art collector at his home in Honolulu. He had graciously invited me over to view his collection, which he has been assembling for more than 20 years. I knocked on his door, unprepared for what was on the other side. A few seconds later, the door swung open.
—To take a closer look at Dean Geleynse’s collection, click HERE.—
“Hey! Come in, come in!” said Geleynse, who promptly invited me into his spacious, brightly-lit apartment. The second I stepped inside his home, my jaw plummeted to the floor. I was in awe. The white walls were adorned with paintings, drawings and photographs, the marble floor dotted with sculptures. Up until that precise moment, I had no idea that people like Geleynse existed in Hawai‘i. Silly me.
I wanted to know everything about his collection. His focus, he told me, was on young, emerging artists from around the world and that included artists from Hawai‘i too.
“When you buy young artists,” Geleynse said, “it’s always a crapshoot. Sometimes they have a career for one or two years, and then they disappear.” Some artists in his collection have dropped off the radar; others still make art to this day.
He led me on a slow peregrination through his apartment, and we made pit stops at each piece, where he gave me the name of the artist and the provenance of each work. This was a photograph by Luisa Lambri; that was a sculpture by John Koga; those, over there, were drawings by Sean Alexander. By the end of the tour, I had exhausted my vocabulary of superlatives and resorted to the repetitious use of “wow.” We sat down at his kitchen table to talk about collecting art.
“I would look at art anywhere,” he told me. “I don’t care if it’s a coffee shop, a bookstore, somebody’s living room.” He enjoyed the hunt for new artists doing original things with different materials in brave new ways. (He specifically liked to discover artists prior to their entering the gallery system, where prices then soared and availability of works diminished.) He had a penchant for things that were tactile, art made by hand. A certain indefinable quality persisted throughout each piece. Nothing felt out of place.
Geleynse, and collectors like him, represent the other side of the art equation. They are the ones who support, quite literally, the artists and their careers. They purchase works of art and by doing so, help provide artists with the income and encouragement necessary to create new work. They complete the cycle.
As I looked around his apartment, I noticed something interesting. Geleynse situated works by Hawai‘i artists, like Jason Teraoka, right next to works by artists from San Francisco and Seattle. Given his first-hand knowledge of art scenes in various cities across the nation, I asked him how Hawai‘i artists, like Teraoka, stacked up against artists from, say, Los Angeles or New York City. “Teraoka is one of the artists whom I have followed for a while, and his work gets better and better,” he said. “It would hold up anywhere on a national and international scene.”
Days later, I visited another collector, Herb Conley, whose collection includes works by both Teraoka and Nehmad. His opinion paralleled Geleynse’s. “Jason and Deb work in a contemporary style that appeals to collectors around the world,” he told me. “Not as Hawai‘i regional art, but as international contemporary art. This is why their works have been in shows from Tokyo to New York City.”
With a surplus of great contemporary artists in Hawai‘i and the monumental effort they devote to getting seen outside the state, it’s worth questioning why more attention isn’t being placed on developing audiences here – tourists and locals alike – for contemporary art. To help me answer this question, I turned to three people in Hawai‘i’s art world who’ve enlightened and educated me about contemporary art.
Jay Jensen, deputy director of exhibitions and collections at The Contemporary Museum, was first on my list. (He curated the Yoshihiro Suda exhibition of hyper-realistic weeds and flowers, which to this day remains one of my favorite art exhibits, anywhere, ever.) What did he think of Hawai‘i’s potential as a destination for contemporary art?
“Cultural tourism is mentioned a lot now,” said Jensen, “and I think for Hawai‘i to keep visitors coming back, we have to offer alternatives to the sand and sea cliché.” There is, he mentioned, the ongoing question of whether tourists could be an overlooked market for Hawai‘i’s contemporary art. “A surprising number of visitors from elsewhere approach TCM with an interest in buying works they see in the museum’s exhibitions,” he told me. “So there is a market there.”
David Goldberg, a local freelance writer and cultural critic whose articles I’ve been consuming quite religiously, helped elaborate on the notion of kick-starting a new, unforeseen market for contemporary art in Hawai‘i. Interestingly enough, he envisions it beginning with those making art. “I think local artists just need to focus on making dope work,” Goldberg said. “In the long run, we’ll develop our own markets for it, and if surfing is any indication, if we do it right, people are going to by copying Hawai‘i.”
Wei Fang, a curator of contemporary art and design, for Interisland Terminal, rounded out the trifecta. (She helped organize a site-specific installation at UH Mānoa by Whitney Biennialist Heather Rowe; it was the most radical and exhilarating exhibition of contemporary art in Hawai‘i in 2010.) What could differentiate Honolulu from the major hubs of contemporary art, given its obvious disadvantages vis-à-vis New York City or Los Angeles?
“We are unique in that we offer almost an antidote to the megacity-artists’ havens of the world,” she said. “And so perhaps Hawai‘i is poised to attract a certain kind of creativity and certainly, there is a widespread passion here to craft an infrastructure for our arts ecosystem that is uniquely suited to the conditions of our site.”
Honolulu’s greatest strength, I realized, resides in its artists, the Teraokas and the Nehmads of Hawai‘i. Even if galleries couldn’t stay financially afloat by selling it, if critics had no inclination to write about it, or if collectors didn’t want to purchase it or if people had no interest in seeing it, artists would still make it. Unbeknownst to many outside the archipelago, great contemporary art is being made right here in Hawai‘i. To see it, you just have to look closer.