Kaua‘i artist sees world in grain of sand

Mark Van Wagner’s first visit to Kaua‘i was in 1984 with subsequent visits in the late 90s. Like so many, he fell in love with the island’s beauty and made Kaua‘i his home just over a year ago. Born in New York in 1959, he moved throughout the country with his family. He attended Colorado College from 1977 to 1979 and then moved on to receive his bachelor’s degree from the Art Institute of Chicago in 1982. While attending the Art Institute, he studied under one of the school’s toughest and most influential teachers, Ray Yoshida. As it happens, Yoshida grew up in Kapa‘a on Kaua‘i.

“I took his class almost every semester, he was tough and critical, but very useful to me at that time. I’ve tried to reach him but can’t track him down,” Van Wagner said. “He was influential to many young artists in Chicago and often spoke of Hawai‘i and introduced many of his students to Asian art as well as encouraged them to be open to all forms of art from around the world.”

Van Wagner showed his art in Chicago for 10 years and exhibited at many prominent art galleries (Randolph Street Gallery, Nancy Lurie Gallery). In 1993 his art dealer, Nancy Lurie, died and he found himself at a crossroads in his life. He dropped out of the Chicago art scene and made a decision to move to Boulder, Colo. to deepen his meditation practice.

Now, 12 years later, Van Wagner has found himself living on Kaua‘i full-time, engaged in making artwork again and showing at TimeSpace Gallery in Hanapepe. “One of the reasons I’ve been able to commit to living here as a working artist is this hip little town of artists in Hanapepe,” Van Wagner said. “It has made me really excited to be a part of what’s going on here. Antonio is attracting talent through his gallery that focuses on serious working artists. It feels like what happened in Chicago in the late 80’s.”

Van Wagner’s work has been greatly influenced by living on Kaua‘i over the past year. “My work is conceptual, the idea is the foundation and then the form comes through the free process of creation. Aesthetics are a direct reaction to what I am thinking about or investigating.”

Van Wagner’s deep study of Buddhism and his liberal arts background in “investigation” and “scientific method” informs his artwork, which is about the “breakdown of matter, the breakdown of the perception of things. In Buddhism you use the mind to release the mind — in these pieces, you use the perception of an object to break down the ‘reality’ or meaning of that object,” he said.

While Van Wagner is simultaneously working on multiple series, the “Sand Box/Construction” series directly borrows from one of Kaua‘i’s most immense and present phenomena — sand. “Sand represents so much. It’s taken so long to become what it is — from big matter to tiny matter. It’s a metaphor for so many things. On one level it is very creative and childlike — and in another way it is the call of impermanence,” he said. Working in paint, construction and collage multi-media, Van Wagner has incorporated sand as a symbol of the seemingly opposite themes — childhood and timelessness.

In another series of works, loosely defined as “botanical abstractions” Van Wagner takes traditional botanical drawings, “mostly from hotel room renovations, beautiful prints I found at Island Liquidators,” and blurs the line between representation and science with abstraction and improvisation.

By painting over the prints and then scraping away with abstract, fluid movements “once again, the boundary definitions between presence and memory, between improvisation and preconceived, or between natural and artificial are brought into question,” he said.

The artist writes: “Alternating between concealing and revealing what lies beneath the painted surface, the viewer is asked to engage in a study of investigation, challenging their memory, awareness and perceptual judgments seen through ‘the abstract’ and ‘the illustrated’.”

It seems fitting that Van Wagner’s roots in both Buddhism and science, urban and rural, and his most recent move from mountain to sea have provided his work contrasts and opposing realities.

Van Wagner’s philosophy of “putting two contrasting themes together and investigating a new meaning from them,” is akin to seeing the whole world in a grain of sand. TimeSpace presents Van Wagner’s first Kaua‘i show opening tonight, running through the end of May.

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