Sunday, March 7, 2010

Words Off the Wall [Pre-Write Tour of Honolulu's Contemporary Museum]

[Quala-Lynn Young, left]

[Judy Fox, "Sloth," from "Snow White and the Seven Sins"]

[Fay Ku, from "Burden Lightens Piecemeal"]

[Elizabeth Berdann, "Emma"]


Today, Quala-Lynn Young (or Lynn, or Q), Curator of Education at the Contemporary Museum on Makiki Heights, gave a tour of the current show to a group of 12 writers in hopes that they will write poems on the art for an event called Words Off the Wall on April 18. Among the writers was my colleague, Anne Kennedy, and many of my students, fresh from poetry boot camp. Lynn, who took Form & Theory of Poetry from me last semester and is currently the "salty" one in my undergraduate Poetry Workshop, has been imagining this event for months, and has talked up the current exhibition for as long as that. The museum describes this as "four exhibitions concurrently in which the artists work in different media and styles but have a common denominator in their interest in the figure." These artists are Fay Ku, Elizabeth Berdann, Judy Fox, and Allison Schulnik, the first of whom is herself in residence in the gallery.

Lynn told us that when Fay first arrived at the gallery she drew several faces on a sheet of paper. Several days later, Lynn looked in and all the faces had been erased. Ku says that she always begins from the face (but never works from photographs or live models) and goes where the faces take her, erasing until the lines are right. On her studio wall at present is a drawing of three women at the top of a palm tree, at the bottom of which an octopus curls itself like a root system around the tree's trunk. Ku explained her love of octopi (including her love of their taste), as well as her fascination with palm trees, which she encountered during a residency in Las Vegas (the seventh of the Hawaiian islands, since so many people here travel there to gamble and take in shows). The palm trees, she admitted, are cliches, but she opts to "own them in some way." The octopi she found at the Waikiki aquarium, and likes their mirroring of the palm's tree's fronds. Ku works with large pieces of paper when she can, since such large sheets present her with "her own world."

Ku is an artist who can talk poetics. When asked to talk about her large piece, "Burden Lightens Piecemeal," which features a woman with long braids dragging what appears to be her dead double, who is being pecked by crows and ravens, she told us about the autobiography of the famous 19th century Siamese twins, Eng and Chang. But not only did she tell us about the twins, the one who died and the one who remained attached, but also about the ways in which we attach ourselves to our pathologies, her research on funerary practices in China--where unmarried women and children are not buried, but left out for birds to consume--and talked about how definitions accrete for us over time.

Fresh from Ku's room with its "Mad Dash" and "Where Ghosts Live" and "Alarmed Mermaid" and "Taking Down a Giant" drawings made of graphite, ink and watercolor, we moved into room of work by Elizabeth Berdann, an artist obsessed by "the plasticity of bodies." Berdann has the portrait of a buttocks inside a gold frame, the kind you might put grandmother's face in; she makes tiny pieces you have to peer at; she uses found objects from flea markets. And she has an old chair called "Chair of Insults" (1992). On this old chair are doilies carefully sewn with sayings like "Let me know when you've written your book" or "If I loved you / I would tell you" or "You're the dog in the photo" and so on. Heirloom of insult. But from insults and tongues we moved into "the dog room," where Berdann's loving sketches and paintings of dogs are on display. As a new mother, she discovered a world at the height of her daughter's stroller, the world of the canine. Her portraits of these dogs are detailed, loving, and odd, as are the later pieces done after she developed breast cancer.

Around the corner from the dogs are the old women, a row of them on one side of a corridor, the other side of which is the wall to the outside. One of them, Emma, can be seen at the top of this post. Berdann painted these women (on copper plates) when one of her residencies placed her across the street from a nursing home. I was most struck with these portraits, for my own reasons, and want to go back to visit them. Each face peers out of a steel frame that is either in the shape of a heart or of a diamond. The faces are wrinkled, fallen, lovely in their age, yet off-putting because we are not accustomed to finding beauty there.

The attraction-repulsion effect of the nursing home corridor was heightened when we moved to the work of Judy Fox. Fox's "legendary beings" range from Krishna and Lakshmi to Snow White and her Seven Sins, surreal dog-like gnomish objects in bright terracotta that combine the qualities of vegetables with those of sex organs. Odd effects. One of the two men on the tour spoke of the feeling he got looking at these objects knowing that someone might be looking at him, wondering if he found them arousing. They were more, as the artist herself says, "icky cute" objects, funny/disturbing "characters," some of whom looked to be zipped up in surreal symbolic vests. By the time I arrived at Allison Schulnick's short videos of appearing and disintegrating hobos and clowns in states of nature I could handle no more.

On April 18 at 2 p.m. the Museum will host a reading by the writers, with a reception to follow.

1 comment:

Shantel Grace said...

I love reading your blog. I used some of your quotes for an piece I'm writing. (Just on the poetry perf. this sunday.)

Wish I would have read this before the Weekly story came out last week. There's a lot of juice here!