Painting Paradise: Artist Laura Kina's Aloha Dreams
Laura Kina invites the viewer to come inside the stories she weaves within her paintings. As the viewer, we are unaware of what we may be getting ourselves into.
The brilliant colors that mark her works exhibited in the recent exhibition at Diana Lowenstein Fine Arts' "Aloha Dreams" exhibition are especially inviting on a hot summer's day. Think palm trees, sunsets, cane fields at dusk. But looking further into the paintings, there is another layer - ” an underlying narrative that touches not only the family history of Kina's ancestors in Hawai'i, but the very history of Hawai'i itself. "Aloha Dreams" is a balance between the realities written in oral history and the projected perceptions of a conjured paradise.
Working with oral history and projected imagination as well as mixed-race subjects are not new to the artist's works. She has been exploring her own history for some time, including her mixed-race heritage. Kina, 34, was born in Riverside, CA, to her father who was from Hilo, Hawai'i and mother from Kingston, WA. In 1976, her family moved to the small town of Poulsbo, WA when her younger sister Alison was born with Down's Syndrome and her family needed to be close to her grandparents in order to help with her sister. In 1991, Kina moved to Chicago to attend the renowned School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She was able to attend the Early College Program and studied at the University of Illinois at Chicago for her graduate studies under Kerry James Marshall.
Since the early 1990's, Kina has been an active member of the Asian American arts community in Chicago with groups such as DestinAsian, the Foundation for Asian American Independent Media, as well as helping to create Project A, the visual arts arm of the Asian American Artists Collective.
On a very basic level, I create artwork to understand how I fit into the world.
Her first foray into working with her mixed-race background was with her Hapa Soap Operas series in 2002, in which as a self-proclaimed photo-fiend, Kina took snapshots of mixed race acquaintances that she would run into by chance. After explaining her project, she would learn about the subjects. In her studio, she would then lift the identities of these subjects and project them through her painterly realist style onto large-scale canvases. The images, enveloped in vibrant backgrounds of blue bubbles and red-orange sunsets, were larger than life, and reminiscent of mural paintings for Bollywood films. Within the series, she would position her subjects in relation to one another in which dramatic storylines could be imagined by the viewer - ” ambiguous, yet sweeping in nature.
Her work in "Aloha Dreams" brings with it a very personal note that is evidenced in her installation piece Mishpoche that references the Yiddish word for "extended family." This 12 x 12 piece created of 60 paintings covers the floor of the gallery. (see above main picture) The artist provides a row of flip flops for viewers to come and tread upon the colorful images - ” from vintage Hawai'ian fabric patterns to a design from a challah bread cover and tallis pattern to a Norwegian rosemaling pattern and Basque cross.
Even more striking may be her latest works that include Hana-hana and Raising Cane, two paintings that reference her grandparents' experiences in Hawai'i as plantation workers. In Raising Cane, Kina has replaced the main figure of a woman on the cover of the original sheet music for Scott Joplin's Sugar Cane Rag circa 1908, and replaced it with the image of a Japanese migrant field worker in Hawai'i. In Hana-hana, Kina references Gaugin's Man with an Ax and instead renders an image of her family cutting down papaya trees. Kina's paintings, in turn, cut down Gaugin's exoticization of a primitive Tahitian "other." Instead we are compelled to think of the history of Hawai'i and ultimately of the layering of myths and perceptions of place and subject within the painting. In these new works, the artist is revealing in both subject as well as in the masterly subtlety in which she is able to accomplish this.
Asiance caught up with Kina to ask her about her works for the show.
ASIANCE: What brought you to become an artist?
Laura Kina: I always knew I was going to be an artist. Even as young as 2 and 3 years old I was drawing and painting all of the time. My mom was trained as an artist in the 1960's and she and my dad really encouraged me in the arts. My mom would take me to museums on a regular basis and she spent a good deal of time working on creative projects with me. I must have started taking private art lessons around that time. I studied under a local artist named Phyllis Oliver at Sunshine Studios in Poulsbo. Phyllis's style of teaching was heavily influenced by a book popular at the time, Betty Edward's Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. In a very short period of time I was able to draw what I saw. The first "realistic" representation drawing that I did was a color pastel sketch based on a photograph of my family touring the Tillamook Cheese Factory in Oregon. We were all dressed in yellow rain coats and the cheese curds in the background were coming down a conveyer belt and they were very orange. The whole scene was analogous so I remember choosing to do all the line work in purple. Even at that young age I was concerned about color. After doing this drawing, that is when I decided that I knew that I wanted to be a professional artist. I still like Tillamook cheese too. You can always find a block of extra sharp white Tillamook cheese in my refrigerator.
ASIANCE: What are you doing in Chicago presently?
Laura Kina: After I graduated from the University of Illinois at Chicago, I started teaching art on the college level. I am currently an Assistant Professor at DePaul University where I teach studio art and I am also an Asian American Studies affiliated faculty member. I have been involved with the Asian American arts community in Chicago since the early 1990's.
In 2003, I started working with eight other DePaul faculty and staff members from across the University to found an Asian American Studies program. We debuted as a minor in the Fall of 2005 and hopefully we will be able to build to a major program. When I'm not working on my own artwork or teaching art classes, my time has been going towards helping build this program and organizing events and speakers for the program
My current research interests are increasingly focused on the multiracial movement. I'm still active in "Asian American" but I am also finding a home in the emerging mixed race movement. I am interested in the intersections of identity and experiences that multiracial folks have with transracial adoptees and how the civil rights issues of the Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court case extend to marriage equity today.
ASIANCE: Do you travel a lot for inspiration for your work?
Laura Kina: My current show, Aloha Dreams, is inspired specifically by travel both as a tourist and specifically as a heritage tourist to Okinawa, Japan and Hawai'i. On a very basic level, I create artwork to understand how I fit into the world. What that "world" is changes based on my travels. I think my artwork gets to travel more than I do though and it has been very useful for me to see how my subject matter does or does not translate across cultures. The gallery that I show with in Miami, Diana Lowenstein Fine Arts, recently took my work to Art Cologne in Cologne Germany. It makes perfect sense that a gallery specializing in contemporary Latin American Art would show artwork about Hawai'i done by a person living in Chicago in the context of an international art fair in Germany right?
ASIANCE: Your work has often touched upon being "hapa." Can you explain why it is important for you to address the topic of mixed race within your images?
Laura Kina: Until I started my "Hapa Soap Opera" series in 2002, I had always framed my work under the banner of "Asian America." It's not that I did not explicitly incorporate images and references to my multiracial heritage, it's just that in the 1990's when I was first exhibiting professionally that was the home that first accepted me. I know a lot of other mixed race artists who do not address issues of their identity in their work. It has always been a touchstone for me though. You could also say that color, decoration, references to popular culture and working with the portraiture genre have had equal importance too as threads through my work. Despite this, the first thing most people comment on is my subject matter. I think this is similar to the experience of being mixed-race. I'm a lot of other things besides my racial mix but when I first meet people, I still get that "What are you?" question.
ASIANCE: Why do you title this exhibition with reference to the Hawai'ian term "Aloha." Why is this?
Laura Kina: "Aloha" like the word "Shalom" can mean "hello" and "goodbye." I wanted a title that implied coming and going but that also specifically referenced Hawai'i. My great-grandparent's immigrated to the big island from Okinawa, Japan in the early part of this past century. My grand parents and my dad grew up in Piihonua Camp 5, a sugar cane plantation near Hilo, Hawai'i. My dad was the first to move from the islands to the mainland. We return there for family reunions and vacations. My little brother recently moved to Hawai'i too.
Despite growing up in a Norwegian town in the Pacific Northwest, Hawai'i has always felt like my point of origin. My maternal grandparents also lived there as newlyweds right before WWII when I Grandma Smiley was serving in the Navy. The works in "Aloha Dreams" weave together stories from these divergent backgrounds but they are also about more general desires for the exotic and paradise. I tried to allude to the colonial and economic realities of these dreams of paradise.
ASIANCE: When do the works range in date?
Laura Kina: 2003-2007. I painted the Tina Hyun giving me a Pedicure, Me and Joe at Paradise Cove, Sam, and Mequitta Ahuja last summer at a residency at the Cooper Union School of Art. At that time, I thought what I was doing was continuing to paint portraits of mixed-race Asian Americans much like my Hapa Soap Opera series but with a different format. I was trying to push the format of the portrait to emphasize the space in which the subject inhabits and their actions in that space. I was also increasingly concerned with how the viewer can be part of or enter the work. Do they need to know or even care about the subjects' racial or ethnic identity? As I was creating these works, I kept thinking back to Gauguin and 19th Century Orientalism. In terms of the history of painting and a place of origin for thinking about the intersections of East and West and representations of race, ethnicity, and gende. Gauguin's Tahiti series seemed to be something that I needed to look into more taking into account the "problematic" position his work inhabits in terms of post-colonial and feminist thought. "Tina Hyun giving me a Pedicure" exemplifies this. In the painting, Tina, an Amerasian woman who is my nail technician, is both the painted and the painter. She is just finishing up my pedicure and you see my small wide feet at the bottom of the painting. Tina has painted them with a decorative nail art design and she is looking up to see if I approve of the design. The background of the painting merges together a nail salon sign from the 1980's and a decorative Vietnamese landscape painting of a waterfall and cranes. The painting positions the viewer as if my feet could be their feet. The relationship between the two painters then is very close yet very distant. Could this also be a self-portrait?
ASIANCE: There seems to be two aspects of your work that stand out. One is that there seems to be a very personal history-related element in your work, such as meeting people to be a part of your project and learning about them. Such as with your Hapa Soap Opera pieces. But also, there are references to your own background as hapa. Why is personal history an important part of your work?
Laura Kina: I have my mom to blame for this. She has always been an obsessive photographer of all family and social events. These photographs are then carefully edited down to one photo album per calendar year. I also seem to live with a camera around my neck but I create multiple albums a year (now I'm more into blogging and digital albums). Much of the source material for my paintings starts from this habit of constantly documenting my life the lives around me. As a result, personal history becomes part of the work. I am also quite conscious that I'm not just an individual making my images to put out into the world. I'm part of a lineage of both my personal family and a participant in an art historical lineage. A combination of narcissism and community connections may be the most honest answer as to why my personal history is important to my work. I paint to see where I belong in the world and how I relate to the world and other people.
I have a desire to see myself reflected in the world but not in a direct reflection such as a strait forward self-portrait, that would be too obvious and too "real." The process of reflection always involves an element of fantasy. Painting is a very different creature than photography. The artist hand and the burden of paintings own history are always present.
ASIANCE: Another aspect is size and format. Many of your works are large-scale. And even, as the Mishpoche floor piece, can be interactive as well. You had mentioned that it somehow made the pieces more present in the room before?
Laura Kina: Scale has been something that I focus on a great deal in my work and in my day to-day life. Maybe it's because I'm under 5 feet tall, a little person making big paintings.
In the Mishpoche installation, viewer can literally enter the work by walking on the painting. The scale is that of a large living room rug (12x12 feet). It is meant to include more than one participant at a time. The work is composed of 60 individual panels though. Formally then the work can be both about community and individuals (the panels together vs. looking at one particular panel). Mishpoche is Yiddish for "extended family." In this installation, the viewer dons beach flip-flops and is a tourist in this family heritage quilt.
In my Hapa Soap Opera series most of the works are 6x4 feet. The large-scale references both history paintings and bill boards. These portraits are significantly bigger than life-size. This is important in that the size alludes to grandness. These are not intimate portraits in which you see yourself. The Hapa Soap Opera works have to do with fantasy and fame. In contrast, my Loving series is to scale. The ten charcoal drawings in this series are done in a photorealist manner. The individuals in this series are seated cross-legged and there is not background represented. The viewer than is left to relate to the figures in a very direct and individual manner. This series is about real life. It is about you and me and how we relate to each other.
In many of the other works in the Aloha Dreams series, a more traditional picture scale has been used. Part of this grew out of practical necessity of my current studio and shipping concerns but I also consciously choose to shift my scale to reference the idea of a painting being a window into another world which was fitting for this series. In works such as Me and Joe in Paradise Cove, the proportions and scale of the snapshot are also important. If my source and inspiration is a photograph or another artists painting, I take that into consideration when I choose the proportions and scale of my works.
ASIANCE: What are you presently working on?
Laura Kina: I still have so much source material that I wasn't able to include in the Aloha Dreams show and I still want to continue working with the format of a 30x30 in. wood panel. My parents just got back from a 50th year reunion of the Piihanua sugar cane plantation community where my dad grew up. So much of that history is oral and the first generation is gone now. My grandparents and my father were concerned with economic survival and for many of their generation, assimilation was part of that equation. Since I wasn't able to attend the event, I asked my parents to gather stories and images. I anticipate that the new panels for this series will join the six Aloha Dreams panels. My tentative title and concept for this new branch of the work is "Ikegai," roughly translated from Japanese as " a reason to live."
I have also been working on another series which I don't have a title for yet but the works are inspired by 18th Century Mexican Casta paintings and the subjects include an Ashkenazic Israeli man living in Dallas Texas who is in the process of adopting a baby boy from Guatemala. I know that the series will touch on issues of mixed-race, transracial adoption, and marriage equity. Ultimately they will be about family and relationships, how we connect and love each other and how race, religion and sexuality intersect.
ASIANCE: When is your next show planned?
Laura Kina: Back in 2001, I created portraits of my extended family by paintings their refrigerators (from mega-sized Sub Zeros to modest Frigidaire models) and all of the accompanying refrigerator art to scale in a trompe l'oeil fashion. Three of the works from this series, The Rosenfelds, The Aronsons, and the Kina-Aronsons, will be part of a show titled The New Authentics: Artists of the Post-Jewish Generation curated by Staci Boris for the Spertus Museum in Chicago. The show will be open at the Spertus November 30, 2007 - “ April 13, 2008. It will then travel to the Rose Art Museum of Brandeis University in Waltham, MA May 9-July 27, 2008.