Liz Miller On Lawrence Seward’s ‘The End of the Rainbow’: It Fills a Void
Lawrence Seward has said that the humor many see in his works is unintentional, but by looking at his current exhibition, The End of the Rainbow, on view at SPF Projects in Kakaako, this admission is hard to believe. The show is diverse in form and content—it uses photography, sculpture, and painting just about as much as it puts tongue into cheek—but is unified by this humor and its cultural commentary.
As soon as you enter the gallery you’re met with a dominating, imposing kinetic sculpture. Fountain consists of a large scale carved wooden mask mounted over a pool of water. PVC pipes pump water from the pool, pouring water though the ocular and oral cavities of the mask, creating a cascading effect.
The work conveys a rough, tribal aesthetic reminiscent of the ceremonial masks, idols, and totems from nonwestern cultures, which are displayed as fetish objects in western museums and private collections. Accordingly, the work defies the formal conventions of European art; its composition conveys an awkwardness found in naïve and “indigenous” artworks. This fetish object, however, responds to the cultural context in which it has been placed: It confronts the gallery audience simultaneously spitting, drooling, and crying.
Two photographs and a single sculpture are installed around it. The photographs are documentation of three-dimensional outdoor sculptures, comprised of driftwood, garbage and other found objects. Subtly resembling figures awkwardly twisted together into contorted sex positions, Seward’s guerilla assemblages are gestural abstract works. The suggestive and humorous undertones of the works give them character and separate Seward’s compositions from the lengthy tradition of junk sculpture initiated by Robert Rauschenberg decades ago.
Space upstairs contains additional sculptures produced by Seward in collaboration with Paa Joe, a world-renowned Ghanaian coffin maker. These works are the discernible highlight of the show.
In Ghana, wealthy people commission custom-made coffins to represent the passions of the deceased so that their bodies can remain eternally encapsulated in something they love. For example, a sports car enthusiast might be buried in a casket shaped like a Ferrari. Seward commissioned Paa Joe to create miniature coffins in the shape of different types of tropical fish found in local waters via correspondence.
The cartoon-like fish are colorfully painted in great detail, and look like intricately ornate stash boxes. Each tiny coffin has a hinged door, which opens to a chamber filled with Mary-Jane molasses candies, simultaneously an obvious pun on the slang term for marijuana and an allusion to the last fall’s Matson molasses spill, which killed an untold number of fish in Honolulu Harbor and Keehi Lagoon.
Viewers are urged to placate themselves by indulging in the intoxicating sugary sweets contained in the vessels. The fish are mounted on synthetic bases that contribute an added element of whimsy to the sculptures. One fish is mounted atop a drink cooler while another sits on an automotive tire; Styrofoam sculptures of sea coral serve as bases for the other fish.
Although Joe’s coffins are visually appealing and convey a pop aesthetic, a smug, yet morbid, sense of irony lies in the relationship between the conceptuality and content of the series. Polluted seas have contributed to the steady decline of global fish populations in recent years, and Seward displays native aquatic life upon common pollutants of the Pacific. Here, the cheerful iconography of a tropical destination camouflages a toxic reality.
Five paintings depicting floating paper lei hang on the walls surrounding the collaborative sculptures. From a distance, the two-dimensional works are overshadowed by the fish and seem peripheral. The paintings feel dark and austere compared to Joe’s vividly animated production style, yet Seward’s two-dimensional works add conceptual complexity. Look closer and you can see a lyricism to the works; the unexpected metallic palette used to portray the dark water in which the gestural lei float adds depth to Seward’s flat painting style. Furthermore, the juxtaposition of the paintings against the fish sculptures creates a dialogue about effects of globalization on life in Hawaii: the contamination of natural resources, loss of authenticity, and the dilution and hybridization of cultures.
Seward delivers social commentary by interweaving a labyrinth of materials and methodologies. His witty discourse between form, content, and context is both thought-provoking and unpredicted. The End of The Rainbow is an intellectually stimulating show, and it fills a void in Honolulu’s much-too-often homogeneous contemporary art scene. Can the local art market expand enough to support more challenging exhibitions like Seward’s? I certainly hope so.
The End of the Rainbow is on view through March 2 at SPF Projects, 729 Auahi St., Tues.–Thur., 7–11pm, Sunday, 1–5pm, and by appointment.