Young Guns: Brushes Loaded

Oct 20, 2017

Painters are recording our lives in Hawai‘i today—what do they see? What do they have to say? Four young painters, survey the landscape, brushes loaded.

Credit Amber Khan

The Honolulu Museum of Art’s Abstract Expressionist show brought many of America’s 20th century painting stars to Honolulu and put them alongside Hawai‘i’s best known painters from that period. HPR’s Noe Tanigawa invited young painters Jan Dickey, Andrew Yamauchi, Alina Kawai and Kainoa Gruspe, to ruminate on that pairing and share ideas on why they paint in Hawai‘i today. Try their recommendations for painting and practice below.

Jan Dickey. Cover the Earth Painting 39
Credit Jan Dickey

In Jan Dickey’s paintings, preindustrial media, like eggs and milk pool, deteriorate, and decompose. He applies art skills to political activism but says paintings are another thing.

Dickey: I feel like my connection the viewer or potential viewer has changed over the years. I think I was a lot more interested in other people’s experience or their reaction or interpretation of what I was doing earlier in my life. The longer I’ve been doing this, the more it’s become about getting closer toward just engaging in something that feels like a meaningful use of my time. A lot of that meaning that this is something useful comes from just losing myself in the experience of making the thing, just curiosity about what the materials might do to each other or changing up something I’ve done before might result in something surprising.

Dickey: I’ve retreated away from an interest in pleasing or narrating or communicating specific things through the paint and it’s become more about moving closer in toward this space where I find enjoyment in the act of doing the thing and in satisfying my own curiosity about different variations on what I’ve done before.

Does this mean you’ve given up on making a living this way?

Dickey:(laughs) Yeah in a way, yeah. Also over the years I’ve become less and less interested in turning

Kainoa Gruspe
Credit Kainoa Gruspe

myself into a brand. I think everyone gets transformed in some way as an operative in the capitalist system we exist in. For me the pressure or the idea my artwork needs to have some market value or some consistency with a brand and some sort of commercial appeal was moving me further and further away from the experience I had originally getting into art, which was a pure exploration of my thoughts and my feelings and ideas.

Dickey: I’ve found that having to think about the packaging of a thing, and the system of marketing and distribution and purchasing artwork as a way of sustaining a living, is hard to do even if you’re able to make the necessary adjustments in yourself to make that happen. I found that to be collapsing the whole point of getting into it in the first place.

Dickey currently teaches at Honolulu Community College, and applies art to social activism with J-20+. Kainoa Gruspe recently graduated with a BFA from UH Mānoa, and has a show up at Hawai‘i Pacific University through November 10, 2017. Kainoa, how do you feel about the salability of your work?

Gruspe: I guess when I’m making something like Jan, I try not think about that. and a lot of times I’ll have ideas and my girlfriend amber will say that’s a horrible idea, no one’s going to want that. And I think that I like that part of making something that‘s so ridiculous, nobody could ever have that but when somebody sees it they get a laugh out of it or something. A lot of times my main focus is just making something that makes somebody else, whether they like it or not, makes them feel something or have some kind of reaction to it. Mostly when I’m working I’m just trying to make myself laugh while I make something.

Gruspe: To me they seem like more subtle jokes because they’re taking things in art history and other painters in art history, taking what they’ve done and spinning it around.

Alina Kawai. 1.Following the Trails of light, 2016. Acrylic and oil on canvas

That‘s why for Gruspe's work, people need to bring something to it. To really "get" it, they need some basic art history about depiction has been handled.

Alina Kawai mixes abstraction and figures in paintings that clearly indicate a narrative. She has just become the manager of Kapi‘olani Community College's Koa Gallery.

Kawai: I grew up in Japan so I’m used to a lot of visual narratives.. I wouldn’t say I’m trying to make manga or anime at all, but for me I do like representation, not 100% representational but something to grasp to that tells a story.

Kawai: Generally I try to strive for a story and through that I try to incorporate time, so past present and future moments, of individual experiences and community as a whole too.

Andrew Yamauchi. There You Are. Oil and Acrylic on Canvas; 58.5" x 54"
Credit Andrew Yamauchi

Andrew Yamauchi does large, painterly, local landscapes and themes. He and Kawai showed recently at Ars Cafe with their mentor, painter Russell Sunabe, painting professor at KCC.

Yamauchi: For myself I try to aim to be as honest as I can during the painting process. There is subject matter, there’s usually some kind of deeper meaning behind each individual piece, but I try not to force it too much either.

Yamauchi: With the painting, I think it’s important to talk, communicate to other painters as well. I’ll just

Kainoa Gruspe
Credit Kainoa Gruspe

be forthright, I think painting is relevant. It has its place and it will always have its place in sort of the upper echelons of what we call fine arts. A lot of times it’s hard to articulate why but I think people are always going to be drawn to making marks on a surface, it’s just part of who we are. There’s definitely a technique to it. As natural a process as it is, I’m still somebody who places a lot of importance on skill and technique. In a lot of ways it’s like a responsibility for painters to communicate to other painters, to expand the lexicon, the vocabulary of what we call painting.

Yamauchi: Like this Abstract Expressionist show for example, in Hawai‘i, you know, my friends, my non-art friends, my family, they could care less about it. That’s how I grew up as well. For this show, like I don’t know if it was intentional or they just couldn’t afford to get like big name artists into the show, but there was a lot of artists in there, Asian America artists with roots to Hawai‘i.

Yamauchi: I think that’s important, it shows local artists, this is the path that they took. A lot of these guys were influenced by the Abstract Expressionists in New York, they traveled, they migrated, they did a pilgrimage to New York and all that and it’s important to show local artists now days that this is what they did and you can do the same thing. It’s an ongoing thing, from generation to generation.

Jan Dickey. paint thing II. Reclaimed paper, rabbit skin glue, and milk paint.
Credit Jan Dickey

To learn more, Dickey recommends the film, "Pollock," with Ed Harris and Gruspe recommends "Painters Painting", about painters from Abstract Expressionism through Warhol. Yamauchi links to Vincent Desiderio on his tumblr page.

Please send any thoughts, questions, and ideas to ntanigawa@hawaiipublicradio.org . We hope to continue this conversation with your participation.