Saturday, August 21, 2010

Allyn Bromley at "the Whitney of the Pacific": art, environment, age

["What Color is Invisible"]

One of the aspects of blogging--my own and others'--I most enjoy is the way in which personal and intellectual concerns weave together in unexpected ways over time. In recent weeks I've been thinking both about what it means to be a Haole artist in Hawai`i and about issues of old age and illness. Allyn Bromley's work provided a surprising bridge between them. This morning I attended a walk-through of her retrospective show at The Contemporary Art Museum in Honolulu; our docent was none other than Bromley herself. She's an 83-year old woman with bright red hair, a refreshingly irreverent view of herself and her work, and a lively sense of humor. At the point a baby started to cry loudly, she said, "I'll outdo the baby!" On one of her pieces about there being too many tourists walking up the Mānoa Stream, she declared that this was her way to say, "oh shoots." On the bottom floor we found a couple of mummy-like bodies, composed of woven strips of unsold prints: one is Mr. Pontificate and the other Mr. Knew It All. Both of them inert and fully recycled--Mr. Knew It All from her print, "Miloli`i," which is itself a commentary on over-development.

We get to know others through their repetitions, I suppose, as well as their reputations. Bromley pointed out that printmaking involves the creation of multiples, that it resembles what we see on teeshirts, that it is chamber music to the symphonies that are one of a kinds. So Bromley's repeated uses of words such as "personal" (as in, "this work is very personal") and "doubt" (her doubting dog was popular with the group of 60 or so who walked with her) and "indignations" and even "recycling," offered up a portrait of the artist as a cultural-confessional worker. While she claimed toward the end that she's not good with ideas (the ideas she ascribed to younger artists like Anne Bush, with whom she has collaborated), the most engaging of her artworks are idea-rich.

Many of Bromley's doubts and indignations center on Hawai`i. Born in San Francisco in 1928, she moved to Hawai`i at a time when it took over four days on a ship to get here, when you could smell Hawai`i before the ship docked, when the small fishing village of Miloli`i on the Big Island existed completely off the grid. She began visiting Miloli`i in the 1950s, but felt "anxiety over what was coming" not too long afterwards. Her print about Miloli`i starts on its left with a surveyer's stick, then moves rightward toward a lava field that has lines imposed upon it that demarcate "tracts." Let's face it, she said, developers here have not done a good job. She contrasted the rapacious development of Hawai`i with concern shown in Austria for keeping things Austrian. (Her intense localism is met by an equally intense internationalism, and the museum catalogue begins and ends with lists of places she has been. their longitudes and latitudes.)

Even her print of the doubting dog contains an indigenous coconut palm, and the yen scattered across the right side of the piece were inspired by Japanese real estate speculation in the 1980s. So a dog who began its art life in a children's book was then blown up 1000 or more percent by Bromley and entered into a very different scene from that of a children's book. It's a scene in which nature is under threat from yen, in which the doubting dog turns his nose toward great changes in Hawai`i.

That the dog began as French and forms part of commentary on Honolulu housing issues is apropos. Bromley, like the dog to whom she has given new, and larger, life, has stationed herself in a new space and has found valuable ways to intervene artistically. And so, after the print about bulk pickup and dumping, we find the print about Mānoa Stream, and then this piece that covers an entire wall:

In "Green Piece," 300 pieces cut out of recycled prints, which took some six months of cutting, is less direct in its intent on its audience than are some of the others. It's not "about" dumping or "about" development or "about" real estate, and yet somehow it engages all these issues. The piece contains what a poet might call refrains, or repeated images that serve to anchor the eye, even as it's invited to wander. If the piece is set up somewhere else, it will wander, as it can never be done the same way twice.

Then there are the prints of Waikiki, which were put into the Honolulu Convention Center by the SFCA (State Foundation on Culture and the Arts) and then taken out again because they were not the image the Convention Center people wanted visitors to take home with them. There is Bromley's large installation on homelessness, which brought out her own anxieties about audience (how about homeless people, the ones who are not here today?) and the value of art (where to put it post-retrospective). While no one on the tour was homeless, there were two or three women who know and work with homeless people (several degrees of separation that don't involve Kevin Bacon). "I can introduce you to the woman who sits on the steps of the building," one woman said. While something in me wants to use an ironic tone in telling this part of the story, there was a kindness to the artist's own questions that obviates the need for it. The truth is, perhaps, that most of "us" do not know homeless people, but are disinclined even to say so.

These pieces about the environment, development, and homelessness strike me as wonderful examples of what a Haole artist can do here, without apology. One of my past and future students, Alexei Melnick, mentioned the other day that there is a big difference between a "Haole" and a "white person." The Haole has grown up as member of a minority group; the white person lives an unmarked life, freed from the very notion of race. Though "post-racial America" may simply be an America where white people have a race, too. While her art is cooped up in the upper class art museum, Bromley attempts to make connections with communities in Hawai`i. Outside communities, those that live outside. That these linkages have not been made directly is not her fault, but that of a culture in which art is assumed to be divorced from the streets, even when it reproduces them on the museum's floor (as with the homelessness piece). She does not claim to be from Miloli`i, but is able to comment upon its loss of isolation from the world, perhaps because she was herself an intruder upon it.

The remaining pieces that struck me most were those about her parents. In recent years she has returned to them as her subject matter. When her mother was dying of cancer, her father came and sat with her. That love is a form of patience was the subject of one painting, in which a man and a woman simply look at one another, A at B. Then there was this painting, which you can see to the left, of her mother reading as she was dying of cancer. It's as if the Stevens poem about "reading in a chair" were being wrenched back into time through the title, "Mother With Cancer."

Bromley had thought that these "very personal" images, like the one of her mother, would not be seen, that they might be "offensive" to viewers. She was surprised at the positive reactions to her work on death and transition. I suspect that there are many viewers, like myself, who want to see this stage of life represented in art. While her portrait of her mother is not "realistic" in the way Elizabeth Berdann's portraits of old women are, the effects are similar. Yes, here they are, the old people; they are granted life in art, too.

The last piece she showed us was a collaboration with Anne Bush. Perched on clear ledges are shredded bits of colored paper, representing all the previous catalogues from the museum. There was something light about this installation, as if the death of catalogues made a beautiful material joke. Bromley talked of having a ritual burning of some of her art, including this piece (a perverse take on the 14th century Pope who burned books). To render them into mandalas would be a logical next step. But the audience was more taken by the idea of selling pieces at auction and giving the money to an organization that works with homeless people. The shredded catalogues playfully de-present Bromley's many concerns, with the environment, recycling, transcience, age, humor. They seemed a good place to stop. For now.

And here's "Breakfast Buddha."

There's a fine catalogue of the exhibit, with an introduction by John David Zuern of the UHM English department. John is on the board of Tinfish Press.

Ed. note: Anne Bush referred to TCM as "the Whitney of the Pacific" in a conversation with Allyn Bromley.

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