The sculpture and works on paper in Wendy Kawabata’s exhibition at the Contemporary Museum at First Hawaiian Center explored the idea of critical mass, the point at which a simple gathering of marks or things becomes a larger, coherent whole. This calculation is integral to her work, which invokes a feminist agenda emphasizing strategies of reiteration and accumulation. As the artist notes in the exhibition catalogue, “My process of making is closely related to both drawing and to the history of utilitarian feminine craft. Repetitive and meditative acts—wrapping, poking, folding, stacking, hooking, pulling—all make space for quiet association and attentiveness.” Kawabata’s engagement with these activities creates a tension between their employment in a purely domestic context—daily work that can never truly achieve completion—and their use in art-making, where one might expect to arrive at a point of resolution.
Kawabata manages the tension effectively in the wood-and-wool Preoccupation (2009). Working with cut sections of small logs, Kawabata crochets wrappings, like little sweaters, for each. They were displayed together in a big pile. She carefully accommodates the unique branching patterns of the individual logs, which she characterizes in the catalogue as adopted children. This lovingly obsessive approach is also evident in Withdrawn from Circulation (2008), a wall installation that refers to the habit of turning down the corners of book pages to mark one’s place. Here, the artist took books (removing hard covers) and folded both the top and bottom corners of every page. The resulting shapes look something like paper lanterns and were arrayed with the spines flat against the wall.
Kawabata, who teaches drawing and painting at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, applied methods of repetition in several groups of works on paper as well. The 2009 graphite-on-paper series “Constellating” (the title emphasizes process rather than fixity) presents dark circular fields filled with white orbs. “French Leave” (2008), a watercolor series, not surprisingly accentuates absence through large areas of negative space. Here Kawabata renders softly rounded, irregular forms in pale blue, gray and cool brown, suggesting rocks but also body fragments—a bent torso in one, extended legs in another—that convey a subtly erotic sensibility. The interplay of positive form and negative space in the watercolors, in contrast to the pileups of logs or the patterns of book pages, leads one to contemplate the many ways that Kawabata chooses to fill space—stone by stone, stitch by stitch, mark by mark.