News Column

Metcalf Chateau show

July 27, 2014

By Steven Mark, The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

July 27--It's always exciting when long-lost artistic treasures are brought into the light. Koa Art Gallery director David Behlke experienced that the moment he saw a treasure trove of works created and collected by Tetsuo "Bob" Ochi­kubo.

Ochikubo, born and raised in Wai­pahu, was part of a generation of Hawaii artists who, following in the footsteps of Isami Doi, went to the mainland to pursue a career as an artist after serving in the military during World War II.

Ochikubo studied at the Chicago Art Institute, lived and worked in Long Island and Syracuse in New York, Virginia, and eventually returned to Hawaii to teach at the University of Hawaii at Hilo. He died tragically in a diving accident in Hilo in 1975 at age 51.

Behlke was recently invited to see Ochi­kubo's collection at the family home and was overwhelmed by what he saw.

"I sort of felt like I was at my very first Communion ... like I was being spiritually fed," Behlke said. "And when I left I was exhausted. It was just one 'wow!' event after another."

Behlke picked out a few choice works and combined them with some Ochi­kubo works from other collections to produce "Tetsuo Bob Ochi­kubo and Friends," an installation on display through Aug. 16. The exhibit features Ochi­kubo's work along with contemporaries Doi, Satoru and Ruth Abe, Bumpei Akaji, Ralph Iwa­moto, Robert Koba­ya­shi, Jerry Oki­moto, Tada­shi Sato and Harry Tsu­chi­dana.

"This is my little effort to pay these masters homage and to say, 'Hey, please come and look at our legacy from the midcentury on, because these guys redefined art in Hawaii,'" Behlke said.

The postwar era saw the rise of a style known as abstract expressionism, one of the few artistic movements that started in New York and went to Europe.

"Not only did it go to Europe, it came to Hawaii," Behlke said.

Although such works are rich in symbolism and in basic geometric shapes like squares and circles, they were also seen as having a spontaneous, rebellious and somewhat playful sensitivity.

The artists from Hawaii, while studying and living in New York for a time, eventually formed a group that came to be known as the Metcalf Chateau after they displayed their works in a house on Metcalf Street that was headed for demolition.

Behlke's exhibit aims to capture the vitality and creativity of the Metcalf Chateau.

"I think it's essential to see them together, because collectively their energy was greater than the individual," Behlke said.

Ochikubo's works mix symbols like an egg for fertility and "pretend calligraphy" -- cursivelike scrawls similar to Asian characters -- to tie in to his Japa­nese heritage. The works are particularly striking for their use of color, Behlke said.

"When you see Ochi­kubo's work, what's so elegant about it is the blending of the color, the faint little brushstroke that was all Isami Doi," Behlke said, pointing to an untitled work that has squares of black and blue and a swath of pink against a green background. "(Ochi­kubo) was a colorist. But who uses emerald green against pink and magenta and plum? Nobody."

Ochikubo's technique is apparent in many of the paintings. Gesturing toward another painting, Behlke said Ochi­kubo applied some modeling compound to the linen canvas to "texturize" it, applied paint "and then he lets the paint drip."

"And I think he turned the painting to accentuate the drip," Behlke said. "It's almost a visual pun on Pollock or de Kooning."

Ochikubo also was a noted printmaker, having made connections early with the Tamarind Lithography Institute, now known as the Tamarind Institute, which was dedicated to preserving the art form at a time when many artists were rejecting it. The Koa installation has several of his prints on display as well as some on sale.

Ochikubo's son John remembers going to the studio as a youngster and learning the process.

"He kind of cut us loose and we could just do lithographs," he said. "It was crazy fun. We'd be drawing pictures, surrounded by these gigantic printing presses."

Though most of Ochi­kubo's works in the exhibit are abstract, there is one distinctively representational work, "Kilauea Caldera," a brooding portrayal of the Hawaii island abyss aglow with molten lava. Behlke considers the painting a masterpiece.

"It should be in some state collection somewhere," he said.

John Ochikubo, a 54-year-old computer expert, remembers visiting the volcano as a youngster and being able to walk right up to the crater's edge.

"You could walk up to the lava and poke sticks into it," he said. "We were just playing with hot lava, goofing around."

On one visit the family stayed until evening and saw the red glow of lava against the night sky. "It was like, 'Holy moly!'" he said, "one of those pictures in your brain that you don't forget in your lifetime."


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Source: Honolulu Star-Advertiser (HI)

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