Before I ever went to Hawaii I learned about it at the flea market through the incredibly loud shirts and Polynesian-style menus people brought home from their vacations. I envisioned the archipelago as one interminable Elvis film with a giant Tiki bar on the beach selling hula-dancer lamps and the other tchotchkes of colonialism to fat pink tourists.
Then after a few years of living in California, I began visiting the islands myself: first Maui, then Kauai, and finally the Big Island. I remember sitting on the beach in Maui where the trade winds would role in at 3pm everyday like clock work, and realizing how the flea market got so full of all that ridiculous memorabilia. The beauty of the place gets under your skin, and you want to keep that tan after it fades.
I never felt the urge to commemorate my trips with anything more than a pound of Kona coffee. I already own too much junk to start buying manipulative tourist trash. And most of Hawaii’s contemporary art—the thing that I really sort of collect—is dreadful; but the historical pictures that document the representation of the Islands by western visitors over the centuries are beautiful, painful art objects aerated by biblical myths of paradise that eventually bog down in the eternal return of western gentrification. These are worth having. They are very different from other new world landscapes, in which we celebrate euro-centric painters who rolled through imposing their increasingly ratiocinated modes of perception on the landscape. By the time we get to the depiction of Hawaii's evolution from paradise to tourist zoo, we're mostly watching ourselves doomed again to kill the thing we love.
It's that Groundhog Day perfume that I look for in those landscapes and I get it from this little painting by Gage Taylor from the 70s that I bought last week at Alemany from someone who knew him at the time. Taylor is one of a small group of painters from the San Francisco bay area who came to be known as visionaries, after a show curated by Walter Hopps at the San Francisco Museum of Art. Working in the late '60s and early '70s, they painted hallucinatory dreamscapes with pantheistic undertones that translated Haight Ashbury drug culture into a formalist painting project. Like the Pre-Raphaelites, they were a quirky group of aesthetes going against the grain of the conceptual art and performance experiments which dominate their age.
This watercolor by Taylor lacks the alien fantasia that energize his most complex and entertaining magic kingdoms. However, the low-key naturalism allows the heightened rhythm and compositional unity which covers the paper like a DNA code to occupy center stage. Like so many counter culture people from the San Francisco bay area in the 1960s, I'm sure Taylor fled to Hawaii when it became clear that the utopian aims of the 60s were being replaced by the nihilism of the 70s. You can sense his passion for this patch of pristine landscape. But the grey clouds, and the absence of twinkling hallucinations imply an older, sadder artist, and one who probably senses the impermanence of his present paradisal view.