Pressed up against the plastic bag that held them, 35 little toy soldiers gazed out at the surrounding scene. From their view next to the dishwashing soap and beef sticks, they could see a half dozen Spam musubis warming under a glow of light and a lanky figure making its way toward them.
“Each time I do a project, I need at least ten bags of Army men,” says Kenny Lui, who collects the two bags remaining on the convenience store shelf. “Each 7-Eleven only has like two or three bags, so I have to make couple stops. … I can probably order them online, but when I want to do art, I just do it. I don’t plan anything.” Lui, a painting major at University of Hawai‘i, has been using plastic Army men in his work ever since he stumbled across an old can filled with them while cleaning out a storage room at Nu‘uanu Elementary three years ago.
“A lot of people have asked me if I’m from any of the war zones because I’m doing art about war,” says Lui, who’s originally from Hong Kong. “But this is just what I’m interested in. I want to use my art to make people think about the war—and maybe myself, also—and to have to feel it.” Lui says that much of his work is, however, influenced by Reem Bassous, a drawing and painting instructor at University of Hawai‘i who draws on memories of growing up in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War in her art.
Although Lui didn’t grow up near any conflict zones, his work appears forlorn, as if he’s struggling with some internal strife. From far away, Lui’s paintings appear as a wash of textures. Once up close, the shapes of the plastic toy soldiers can be made out, but they are drowned in paint, their limbs cut but continuing to grasp for something far out of reach or struggling to crawl somewhere in hopes of escape.
It’s hard for Lui to identify his reason for being fascinated with the toy soldiers, but perhaps he sees a little of himself in each figure. Perhaps these toy soldiers are, as English novelist and pacifist H.G. Wells suggested, a way to avoid actual warfare whether in his own life or elsewhere. “How much better is this amiable miniature than the Real Thing!” Wells wrote of playing with toy soldiers in Little Wars. “Here is a homeopathic remedy for the imaginative strategist. Here is the premeditation, the thrill, the strain of accumulating victory or disaster—and no smashed nor sanguinary bodies, no shattered fine buildings nor devastated country sides, no petty cruelties … that we who are old enough to remember a real modern war know to be the reality of belligerence. This world is for ample living.”
Lui will work on a large-scale painting for the 2014 Bachelor of Fine Arts exhibition at UH Mānoa, opening April 27 and on display through May 16. For more information, visit hawaii.edu/art. To keep up with Lui, follow him on Facebook /kennylui808.