GLENN KAINO: Fish Out of Water
by Charles LaBelle
Stealing fish. That’s how it all started, recalls Glenn Kaino, sitting on the battered couch in his equipment-strewn, downtown-LA loft. “As a kid my friends and I would steal fish. You know, the real expensive tropical fish. We’d go into a fish store with a Slurpee cup filled with salt water and when the guy wasn’t looking just scoop ‘em up and plop ‘em in.” Kaino relates the thefts with a disarming grin. “There’s something liberating about being a liberator,” he explains.
More than a decade on, Kaino’s fascination with fish continues. His recent show at LA’s Rosamund Felsen Gallery presented lush, brightly hued polaroids of various tropical fish along with abstracted, fish-like forms carved out of Boogie-board foam. Dominating the main gallery was a large installation featuring, among other elements, an acrylic tank holding 700 gallons of salt water, an upside-down model of the city of Atlantis, florescent lights, C-stands, black flags and four, remote-control powered “Super Soaker” squirt guns. Titled “Full-Forward Deployment: Discovery at Dolphin Ridge (BSL IV)” (1999) the piece commented on fin-de-siecle urbanism and the growing militarization of social space via an elaborate, ad-hoc construction of movie-making materials. Turning the tables on Hollywood’s light and magic show, Kaino’s work, in his own words, “makes the tools used in the production of the spectacle part of the spectacle.”
A native Southern Californian who holds a BA from UC Irvine (1993) and MFA from UC San Diego (1996), Kaino’s art quickly caught the eye of curators and gallerists in Los Angeles. Recognizing his ambitious, subversive spirit, people such as artist and curator John Boskovich (who included Kaino in “I Candy,” a group show of young artists at Felsen last year) and Daniel J. Martinez (Kaino’s former teacher with whom Kaino co-founded “Deep River,” an alternative gallery in downtown LA) have become great supporters. For his part, Kaino sees his work as possessing similar aims as both Boskovitch and Martinez, whose own work is famous for their astute social commentary. And yet, while Kaino’s work is deeply indebted to the previous generation of artists whose work directly dealt with the difficult questions of race, sexuality and gender, he is unique in his insistence on putting politics in the service of aesthetics. “The last fifteen years have been characterized by a lot of important work whose ideas of inclusion have allowed me to do what I am doing,” Kaino states. “But I think the overtly political stuff is over. It shuts things down.”
Working to open up a fresh dialogue, Kaino manages to challenge our basic assumptions about “political” art. Citing influences as diverse as Damien Hirst and Fred Wilson, he fuses the social critique of the latter with the corrupted minimalism of the former. His work in “I Candy,” for example, was both beautiful and intellectually rigorous. In it three aquariums filled with tropical fish and lit with cobalt blue lights had the words “embrace you dearly” etched across their glass facades. On tiny monitors suspended over each tank, an image of Kaino’s hand, grasping but empty, played on a continual loop. Infused with a hopeless longing, the piece spoke of a desire for contact and a wished-for moment of tenderness that would never happen. And when we learn that the phrase “embrace you dearly” was in fact used by Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci to close his prison letters, this reading becomes, literally, etched in history.
One of the strengths of Kaino’s work is its ability to embody difficult paradoxes. And considering the fine line separating history’s parade of selfless revolutionaries from the tyrannical despots of the world, there is another, darker, aspect to this piece-- one where the liberating embrace Kaino so tenderly offers his fish might just as easily be an oppressor’s stranglehold.
It is this willingness to look uncompromisingly at the fundamental dualities of human nature (and his own) that sets Kaino’s work apart from the slew of other, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink, art emerging from grad schools today. Looking towards the future, the artist’s current project comes full circle. “I’m making a film,” he says. “It’s about three kids who steal fish.”