Thursday, November 11, 2010

Art as more than mere aesthetics

Artist profile: Sanit Khewhok

By Will Caron
Editor in Chief

Published: Monday, November 8, 2010 Ka Leo O Hawaii

Without civilization, artists would be nothing more than hunter-gatherers. With that in mind, it is important for artists to use their skills to benefit society. At least, that's what Sanit Khewhok, the 11th recipient of the Catharine E. B. Cox Award for Excellence in the Visual Arts, says.

"If you're living in society, I think [being political] is important. Otherwise would it be useful if art didn't serve [a purpose]?" said Khewhok at our interview outside of the Kahala Whole Foods.

"If we have senses, you cannot avoid what we call art," said Khewhok.

In his two most recent shows, one at the Academy of Arts, and one at the Cedar Street Gallery, Khewhok displayed works that exemplify this maxim.

"Of course, you cannot avoid technology; it's progress, but at the same time … you need to see human beings. That way, I think you can [appreciate] emotion – sometimes that's very hard now."


His Academy show, "As It Happened," was hailed as "an invitation to witness his evolution as an artist," according to Rui Sasaki, the assistant curator in the Department of European and American Art. In that show, as well as his Cedar Street show, Khewhok's work exemplified the intimacy and poignancy that is missing from today's modern, fast-paced lifestyle; something that even photography, for all its virtues, comes up short against in art.

His series "Poor Man's Dream" is a perfect example of art that makes a statement. Inspired by his walks through Chinatown, this series is of U.S. currency bills used as a dialog about "the people who struggle day by day," according to Khewhok.

Khewhok's work, often no bigger than what other artists would consider a thumbnail, expresses that intimacy and human connection that has been lost in an era where text messaging is a legitimate form of human conversation. Yet despite its stature, it grabs your attention and pulls you into a world of intense emotion.

"I always had the concept, the idea, that the size is not what measures whether a work is good or not … anything that goes big will hit people immediately. But for small things … if you want to see it, you have to look closer; you have to pay more attention," said Khewhok.


Khewhok has been called humble numerous times, but his attitude transcends that label, and it has to do with his origins.

"In Thailand you never ‘beat your own drum' … so I'm still a little bit uncomfortable when people call me an artist."

Though he attributes his personality and his attitude to his upbringing in Thailand, academically, his work pays tribute to the Renaissance and his Italian schooling.

"When I'm doing artwork, it's more [of an] accumulation of knowledge – it's more European, but my life itself is more Thai."

Even in his explanation of the synthesis between growing up in Thailand and earning his master's degree in Rome, the conversation returns to politics and the utility of art in today's society.

"I remember when I was studying in Italy; … [the students] are not only schooled in art history, but [history also]. So that means the art is [placed in a political context] or whatever thing happened in history."

Khewhok's time in Italy taught him a great deal about the purpose of art and of how it can and, according to him, should reconcile the emotional with the intellectual in his art.

"When I stayed in Italy, there was an accident … the police or some official hit or beat a student. I immediately blamed the police ... an emotional reaction. But my friend said: ‘Sanit, if you look carefully … you have to think
[about where] the rule comes from that lets the officer hit the student.'"

A major influence in Khewhok's art comes from the 100 days he spent living as Buddhist monk. While walking through the woods, he created a small sculpture out of a stick. According to Sasaki: "prior to this moment, Khewhok had felt confined and restricted by the academic training he had received in Thailand and Italy." The stick sculpture led Khewhok to the realization that numerous possibilities lie within art.

The scope and depth of the analysis in his work has shaped Khewhok's art to this day and, combined with his sense of humor, has turned his work into a mesmerizing, intimate series of paintings that show exactly why art is still relevant and why it will continue to be so.

Sanit Khewhok:

Hometown: Trang, Thailand.

Education: Undergraduate degree in Fine Arts: Painting, Sculpture, and
Printmaking from Silpakorn University in Bangkok.
MFA from the Academy of Fine Arts of Rome with a specialization in
painting and restoration techniques.

Occupation: Collections Manager at The Contemporary Museum and Curator
at the Hawai'i Pacific University Art Gallery, Artist.

The Cedar Street exhibition ended on Oct. 17, but the paintings can
still be viewed online at

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