John Tanji Koga is being honored by the Honolulu Museum of Art as the 12th recipient of the Catharine E.B. Cox Award for Excellence in Visual Arts. The award was established in 1985 by the grandsons of Catherine Cox and is given biennially to a former or current Hawai’i resident. It grants the recipient a one-person exhibition at the museum. Koga’s exhibition titled Undulation: rise and fall will include recent paintings and sculptures that spur modernist tropes toward unexpected ends while paying homage to such eminent Japanese-American artists as Satoru Abe, and the late Tadashi Sato and Isamu Noguchi.
Perhaps best known as a sculptor, Koga is also a provocateur who delights in probing aspects of sexuality and socially uncomfortable topics that are associated with the body: his subjects for example have included male and female genitalia, orifices, and human excrement. His work alternates between irony and sincerity all at once and may be produced with improbable materials such as packing tape or beeswax, alongside traditional media like plaster, wood, and stone. Materiality is paradoxically often contravened, as in Koga’s monumental boulders that are sliced and stacked like loaves of bread, or bulky volumetric masses that seem weightless, floating on air.
For Undulation: rise and fall Koga has produced a series of paintings conjuring cloudscapes and landscapes. These images take on unmistakably corporeal forms, recalling the work of the late Chicago Imagist Ray Yoshida (who was born in Honolulu) and providing a sexual double entendre in the exhibition title. These new works also enlarge upon subjects and themes in Koga’s work based upon nature and natural forms and pay tribute to Sato whose lyrical abstraction represents a golden era of painting in Hawai’i. By producing an exhibition of paintings, rather than sculpture Koga also alludes to the career of Abe, which for decades has oscillated between painting and sculpture.
With a keen awareness of the legacy of art in Hawai’i, particularly by Japanese American artists in Honolulu, Koga addresses sculptural concerns in his work all the while challenging the limitations of materiality and stodgy propriety.