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Charles Kay Jr.,“UNSEEN” 2022, installation at Kaneko. All photos courtesy of the art unless indicated otherwise.

A current Kaneko art center exhibit, “UNSEEN: Emerging from the Currents of Assimilation”, steers a passage into one of immigration’s neglected, but most intimately consequential estuaries.

Tucked unceremoniously into a part of The Kaneko’s second-floor gallery is this multi-media installation by one of Omaha’s most accomplished professional photographers, Charles Kay Jr. Now extended until April 17, “UNSEEN”, is an eloquent, stimulating personal project with topical currency, that avoids the current flotsam of debate about immigration law, border wall, and legislative gridlock.

In his own words Kay describes the installation’s multi-purposed vison: “I am a first-generation Thai-American. It’s taken me five decades even to describe myself this way and claim my identity. I was born in Omaha, Nebraska, to Thai immigrants who sought education and opportunity in an unfamiliar country.”

Growing up in middle America in the 1970’s as the Vietnam War drew to an end, the artist tried to fit in to be part of white American culture, at the cost of his own heritage.

“I continued to respect and honor my parents while washing away the parts of me that they could not pass down, the parts that made me unique.” Kay says, “I became invisible.” Or “UNSEEN” until now.

The individual elements of “UNSEEN” are lucid representations of the emotional and psychological circumstances of integration, adaptation, and adjustment. The steadfast use of waves and whitecaps is a strong allusion to Asian imagery, as in works by Hokusai for example — an homage to Kay’s forebears and the Eastern origins of his heritage.

Charles Kay Jr., “Taeng I + II” Diptyque 2022, archival pigment print, detail from “UNSEEN” Photo by Kent Behrens

From the outset, Kay’s imagery pitches us into the unfamiliar – the disassociation one feels when traversing from daylight into dark. Just as your eyes start to adjust, this discomfort is joined by additional turmoil, an intense cacophony of sweeping lights, and strange whooshing sounds. There is no sign of calm or release, and you anxiously sense you are lost, adrift in the darkness, with no familiar outlets or landmarks.

Within a slight lull of perception, you discern a poetic, but slightly disconcerting, ballet of sweeping images of waves, and ocean sounds played against stark, flat-black, indistinguishable voids of walls and ceilings.

Once you find your land legs, it becomes easier to traverse the forest of translucent, fabric screens hanging throughout the room. The vacant, black walls let the flowing images of seafoam roil and splash; mirror images of waves embrace on the floor, then suddenly and repeatedly separate, as if repulsed by one another.

Navigating past the sounds and images of water and waves, eventually revealed are several prone, slab-like sculptures on pedestals. Under subdued light, they resemble scoured land, as if someone dragged a rake through the mud.

These formations morph into miniaturized models of altered shoreline; the dirt and sand carved and coiffed by the tide’s constant debate, complete with rivulets, tide pools and a fickle terra firma. There are several of these maquettes, each illustrating a frozen moment of that mutable relationship.

Accompanying these sculptures are several 4 by 5 foot, black and white photos of waves and the dark emptiness of the night shore, captured from above. Primarily presented as diptychs, each photo is individually lit by a strong spotlight, emphasizing the void of the flat black walls. The overriding presence of flat-blackness, evident throughout the exhibit, is a potent reminder of emotional dislocation and dissociation.

Charles Kay Jr.,“UNSEEN” 2022, installation detail, steel panels, water bowls, lettering brushes.

A final element of this voyage is a wall displaying three, rusted, rectangular steel panels, reminiscent of the steel hull of a ship. Each panel is accompanied by a small bowl of water and a paintbrush. According to the posted instructions, here you are to place your hand on a panel, meditate on what “makes you feel seen”, and with the wetted brush, share your epiphanies.

Kay’s intentions with this are clear, — they are written out — but if the rusted realizations of the patrons were meant to be visible, they are not. Still, it’s a fitting conclusion, a reinforcement of community, and it invites the viewer into a part of his excursion.

HIs installation does not touch directly on the considerations and emotions of leaving one’s ancestral home, though that is certainly implied. The artist was born here in the U.S., but he is the first American-born generation.

There is a fair amount of wall text at the start of the installation, mostly explaining what drove the artist and the work, providing some background and emphasis. You may think it too much of an interruption to stand and read this, especially in a darkened, compact room, with so much visual and auditory stimulation.

A viewer might also feel that too much explanation at the beginning of an exhibit diminishes the joy and value of discovering in the work one’s own meaning, allusions and associations. But, as eloquent and informative as this introductory text is, it may be meaningful at the end of the show, or in a pamphlet — as a memento. The wall text was comfortable to read and seemed very appropriate where included with the touching, inspiring family memories at the end of the show.

Charles Kay’s “UNSEEN: Emerging from the Currents of Assimilation” shows through April 17. Be sure to visit the exhibit page on Kaneko’s website for Kay’s biographic essay and scroll to the bottom so you don’t miss a listen to the KIOS interview. A note of caution regarding the radio interview: the original closing date of Feb. 5 is mentioned a couple of times. The show has now been extended through April 17. Go to https://thekaneko.org/programs/unseen/


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Become a Supporting Member

Subscribe to thereader.com and become a supporting member to keep locally owned news alive. We need to pay writers, so you can read even more. We won’t waste your time, our news will focus, as it always has, on the stories other media miss and a cultural community — from arts to foods to local independent business — that defines us. Please support your locally-owned news media by becoming a member today.

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