Rodney Chang is the dentist who installed a disco in his office waiting room, complete with flashing lights and rock music. Now's he's put...

A Bit of Soho in Lower Kalihi

By Lois Taylor

Honolulu Star-Bulletin Writer


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March 24, 1986


And just when they thought they'd made history by opening art galleries in the more rundown parts of downtown Honolulu, along came Dr. Rodney Chang. Also known as "The Disco Dentist," Chang opened Soho Too in a warehouse at 2026 Stanley St. That's in the middle of lower Kalihi, a half-block off Gulick Street, which is off No. King. it's a place where Art Nouveau is the part-French bouncer at the corner bar and Dutch Masters are a brand of cigars.

Chang is the dentist who seven years ago brought a glimpse of fast track living to his patients by installing a disco in his office waiting room, complete with flashing lights and rock music. There are some who may argue that sitting there with a toothache or contemplating a root canal, loud music and pulsing lights do not supply solace, but they can find another dentist.

"My dental office is a couple of blocks away," said Chang recently in his art gallery. "I roam the neighborhood during my lunch hour and I found this place last year. The warehouse was built two years ago, replacing a junkyard of abandoned cars. It started as my art studio, and I hung my work at the dental office. But when it began to spill out the door and the disco began to turn into a museum, I knew I needed a gallery."

Chang uses one small room to show his own work, an eclectic display of bronze sculpture, computer paintings, portraits and pottery. In his unique "artist's statement," Chang writes, "My current exhibited body of works is my latest development in the various media. Although each medium has its own intrinsic visual quality, I am satisfied that the collection of works conveys a more complete introduction of Rodney Chang, the artist, the humorist, the dentist."

In the main gallery he usually exhibits the work of young and unproven artists, giving their work its first exposure to the public. Right how, however, he is showing the batiks, paintings and light boxes of Jerome Wallace and the sculpture of Gwen Lux. These two have works in major museums and private collections around the world, and agreed to the Kalihi show to help Chang's gallery.

"He's got the only gallery here doing something innovative, a place with a chance of something happening," Wallace said. "In other galleries, one show moves out and another one moves in, almost the same. The gallery has a local flavor - guys are drinking beer in the garages in the same block, eyeballing the cars that come into the parking lot.

"But I don't know why Chang wants to be an artist when he can be a dentist. A lot of people think of an artist's life as one of glamour. If I had any sense, I'd be a plumber at $40 an hour. In my business, you lock yourself away for 14 hours a day, and if somebody else made you work that hard they'd be arrested for cruel and inhuman treatment. Then you hope that somebody will come and look at what you've done, and even more that somebody will buy it."

Chang said the sales at Soho Too have been minimal, and his major goal for 1986 is to "show some income." A second goal, "to establish the gallery as a place for artists to socialize and exchange ideas and encouragement," he is accomplishing with his monthly soirees.

These are held in the parking lot in front of the gallery. "I can't afford air-conditioning, so we stand around outside," Chang explained. The decor includes an abandoned and wrecked 1957 Chevy - a piece of conceptual art with weeds growing under it, and orchestrated graffiti on the wall. Chang outlined it to be derivative of New York's Soho district graffiti, and provided paint and brushes for the neighborhood kids to fill in the color.

The result is a cheerful pastiche and includes some work that Chang did not order. "Dear Dr. Chang, Thank you for letting me paint three times" and "Blood Rules" are among the latter. "I paint it out once in a while," Chang said, "but it has a way of coming back."

Chang changes shows every month, and on the weekend between the old and new, he has an individual cultural event called "Friday Nite at Soho." Undiscovered artists are invited to bring their work - or slides if it won't fit in a car - or video tapes of performing arts including dance, music, poetry-reading or drama.

Over light refreshments the guests have provided, each has his moment in the spotlight. "Everybody has a chance to show and explain his work. The guest mingle," Chang said, "and there is an exchange of thoughts, of philosophy. I think of this as a New York experience, an East Village experience."

To expand the experience, Chang had New York subway signs posted around the parking lot, "but they got stolen along with the lawn chairs," he said.

With an M.A. in community leadership from Central Michigan University, an M.A. in psychology of counseling from the University of Northern Colorado and a Ph.D. in art psychology from Union Graduate School in Cincinnati, Chang should be well qualified for dealing with both his artists and the vandals. These are among the nine college degrees he holds, a record that go him into "Ripley's Believe It or Not!."

After having auditioned on a Friday night, prospects for a gallery space must submit a statement about their art and a resume. Many are called but few are chosen. "We are a contemporary avant-garde gallery," Chang said. We have artists that work in a non-commercial way, experimenting, really trying to get started. I think my work has influenced some of them.

"It started with my own experience, having the most weird pieces in a given show. So I rally around the other pieces that are the most radical. You form a group around you."

Wallace put it this way. "Most of it is so avant garde that people don't know what to do with it. The show before ours featured an artist who worked with paper cups, whittled chop sticks and melted plastic forks. But it's inventive."

For a look at the cutting edge of contemporary art, Soho Too is open free to the public between the hours of 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. every Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Chang would be thrilled if you bought something.


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