From Disco to Soho
By Marcia Morse
(also newspaper's and state's only art critic)
(upscale)Oahu Magazine, 1986
Few places on earth inspire more dread than the dentist' office, and it takes a person of some genius to transform that environment into an amusing, off-beat artistic statement. Rodney E.J. Chang, DDS, a.k.a. "Disco Doc," did just that in 1979 when he created a disco dance setting in his waiting room. With its D.J. bboth, mirrored glass walls and running track lights, "Da Waiting Room" is the most famous work to date of a man whose cultivation of his own persona is one of his best art products. Chang's promotional flair, and his sincere commitment to artistic expression, have now produced Honolulu's most eclectic new gallery - SOHO Too, located right in the heart of Kalihi.
For months a rather too well kept secret, SOHO Too is beginning to come into its own, in theory the focus of Hawaii's avant-garde artistic community and in fact the site of exhibitions that are of variable quality, but of constant interest. The gallery is located at 2026-3 Stanley Street in a warehouse fronting a narrow lane running parallel to King Street and two blocks south between Kopke and Gulick Sreets. The haole (white) street names seem incongrous in a part of the city with a sizeable immigrant population and a strong representation of Hawaiians and part-Hawaiians. The neighborhood dotted with numerous auto body shops whose inventories spill into the streets as the areas moves from residential to light industrial land use. SOHO Too placed its own version of big city culture on this inner city doorstep.
For Chang, whose dental offices are only a block and a half away, the small warehouse which shelters SOHO Too was ideal. He took a quick liking to the lively if somewhat rundown locale, which he describes as "a Hawaiian-style ghetto, where the gallery's interior sound and visuals fuse with an external environment of low rentals, industrial warehouses, immigrant kids on the streets and Hawaiian music from the regular drinking bouts next door, punctuated by the sound of pool balls ricocheting off each other in the back of a garage."
The gallery opened in August 1985, with at least a two-year commitment from Chang to support Island artist working in a more avant-garde or experimental mode, artists who (not coincidentally) were probably not finding too many other opportunities to exhibit their work or whose needs for space didn't fit either a conventional gallery or a more flexible alternative space. Clearly, this was work that ran counter to the stereotyped attitudes about Island art, and might even confound the expectations of the more seasoned gallery-goer as well.
Honolulu's avangt-garde still seems rather conservative by New York standards, but it was the spirit of that artworld hub that Chang wanted to capture. The emulation is first visible in some of the external trappings of the gallery. The main facade and long side wall on the gallery's end of the warehouse are adorned with graffiti - the art world's lingua franca - contributed by some of the older kids in the neighborhood who may never have been off-island, much less to New York, but still know how to speak the language. A small sign on the pipe-fence enclosure in front of the new unused rollup entrance indicates the presence of a subway crossing below, and looks like it belongs there.
Inside are the standard-issue white latex walls and pedestals, sections of endearingly unmatched carpeting on the floor and a scattering of direction spot lights. The main gallery room, just inside the entrance, is a two-level space, with a loft above enclosed by a low railing. The ground floor level also has a small alcove that is the gallery office and a second gallery space. A stairway, lined with an every thickening collage of business cards, personal notes, clippings and exhibition announcements from around town, leads to the second floor space, with one enclosed room and the L-shaped loft. There are numerous other small spaces, private and off-limits to the public, that provide the glalery with storage and Chang with work space and a pied-a-terre. Somehow it is not quite clear how all this space fits into the shell that contains it - and that is perhaps an apt analogy for the gallery itself in the midst of this particular neighborhood.
Since its opening SOHO Too has maintained a schedule of monthly exhibitions, generally two and three-person shows representing a mix of media. The small downstairs room is now devoted to a changing exhibition of ceramic and computer graphic works by Chang himself. This evident self-promotion is, somehow, not objectionable; Chang is admittedly taking a lot of risks in this gallery venture, measuring the drain on personal income against the slow realization of the laudable goal of getting Honolulu on the art map and providing a point of departure for those artists who may want to venture into more cosmopolitan terrain.
To the multiple risk of being an artist and a gallery entrepreneur, Chang added the calculated risk of locating in a neighborhood which has, no doubt, a rather different definition of culture than his own. That risk, like the others, seems to be paying off. Chang and his gallery director Evyn Moss work on the principle of inclusion where the neighborhood and the community at large are concerned. The graffiti murals probably forestalled some vandalism, and a newly developed "docent' program for the children who with increasing frequency hang out at the gallery has essentially taught them some gallery manners. Moss has recruited several of the children who live near the gallery to serve as guides for others, taking them through the gallery at specified hours, talking about the work (based on information and comments provided by the artists themselves) and teaching them about looking at and touching (or not touching) the artwork installed there. SOHO Too has also just begun a monthly "Friday Nite at SOHO" - a kind of pauhana/talk-story evening for artists and musicians and the neighborhood as well. Artists who may be invigted to exhibit their work come first to talk about it - part of low-key screening process for Chang, Moss and their selection committee.
Chang is already talking aobut branching out from SOHO Too, not just elsewhere in Honolulu, but on the mainland as well. One of the most interesting possibilities being explored is the "Honolulu Bridge Gallery" proposed for New York, which Chang thinks will be the way to "get local artists to New York in an innovative way without taking the total risks of relocating and making a living with one's art." In parallel fashion, Chang also envisions Honolulu as a bridge between Asia and the mainland in the flow of contemporary art. All this is speculative and visionary, perhaps, but if you can put an art gallery in the middle of Kalihi, anything is possible.
Drawing/Photos by Rodney Chang of SOHO too, 1980s