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Tiki Art Now!

A Bonefide Art Form Makes a Comeback

A couple of weeks ago, the gritty underworld carnival of the Tenderloin surrendered a couple of sidewalk squares to a luau jubilantly splashing out of The Shooting Gallery. A hut-like umbrella loomed over a debonair crowd sloshing back exotic drinks from the bicycle-bar, chatting excitedly. The toast of this swinging soiree? The second coming of tiki art -- what is already being called "nouveau tiki".

A few more steps into the long, rectangular gallery should suffice to commit even the most tentative of viewers. The cocksure sexual energy of fresh new life bounces off the walls, provoking deeper inspection.

The materials range from velvet paintings to caricature-style stencils, woodcarvings, 3-D installations and shadow boxes. A tiki-style ceramic mug vending machine sits back to back with a chess set of Tiki gods. While the traditional images of Polynesian gods, umbrella-dressed pineapple drinks, and bodacious tata-baring mamas populate the exhibit, there is no question the art is new.

Take Isabel Samaras' painting of Marcia Brady with a Moko (Maori tattoo indicating tribe, family, status, etc) dripping from her lips down her chin.

The artist responsible for the chess set, Crazy Al Evans, sees this new wave as the synergy of "a lot of villages coming together: Hot Rod, Surf, Martin Denny-lounge, Hawaiiana, Futuristic, Disney… and definitely Sexual Revolution."

The show's co-curator Otto von Stroheim has monitored this swell of interest since it first started as a low rumble in the late '80s and early '90s. When it gained enough momentum, he launched the magazine, Tiki News, shortly after which Sven Kirsten's definitive book "The Book of Tiki" came out. Tiki fans now number in the tens of thousands. Not unlike a proud father, he asserts that the Tiki style is now a proper American Folk Art, a genre unto itself.

And these claims of an identity independent of the collectibles curiosity it was borne of do seem to play out in the artwork. Outside of this exhibit, David Wong's paintings might not strike the untrained eye as being Tiki or Polynesian Pop. When asked, he cited his spheres of influence as mainly sci-fi and pulp novels from the '40s and '50s -- which are clearly enough in evidence. But in the context of the "Tiki Art Now!" exhibit, his art seems part and parcel of the new tiki style.

The ambience is infectious, the pride palpable and the flamboyant mix of electro-clash kids, So Cal citizens, vintage vixens, proudly loud shirts and, for good measure, one Metallica vocalist-guitarist seems to confirm an attraction transcending the self-proclaimed tiki-freaks narrow circle.

Will this revitalized art form spawn new directions, all evolving into proper art forms unto themselves? Might it even produce a whole new culture? Ron "Ronzo" Turner who owns Last Gasp (the publishing company putting the 90-page full-color catalog that kicks off with an introduction by Juxtapoz magazine founder Robert Williams) is happy to stroke his long gray beard and pontificate on these heady matters.

"Is it retro, is it modern? Well, art influences life. Life imitates television and television imitates art… What's the new Tiki all about?"

A rum-soaked second passes before he laughs, "Well, part of the beauty is that we can infuse these things with meaning 'cause… we never really knew what they meant in the first place!"