ART : Margaret Honda Has a Firm Grip on the Cutting Edge : MOCA installation may lack razor ribbon and barbed wire, but her peculiarity’s intact.

<i> Leah Ollman is a frequent contributor to Calendar. </i>

After 10 years of sculptures using barbed wire, razor ribbon and poison, Margaret Honda’s latest in stallation appears tame indeed. In the gallery beneath the pyramidal skylight at the Museum of Contemporary Art, she has stretched a zigzagging aluminum bracket so it appears to hover just a few inches above the floor. She has mounted a sliding library ladder to a bar on one wall punctuated by a pair of small niches, 10 feet up, and planted two wheeled-box forms side-by-side against the opposite wall.

“Recto Verso,” however, has its own peculiar edge and makes its own peculiar demands. To fully experience the installation and read what Honda refers to as the “creepy” medical text that runs around all four walls, viewers must carefully navigate the space, step over the angular metal snake, climb the nine-foot ladder, place their hands in dark marble-filled holes that they cannot see into, and resist the urge to touch or roll those two oddly enticing boxes.

“There’s a lot of movement in the piece, whether it’s implied or through the viewer’s own activity in the space,” Honda says. “Not being sure of what you can and can’t do is important. All of this will hopefully play off of the general idea of ‘Recto Verso'--of one side or the other side, flipping back and forth, not knowing how the other side of things can really enrich the side that you’ve come upon first.”


The installation, which opens today as part of MOCA’s Focus Series of small-scale exhibitions, is based on Honda’s specific experiences. As a child, for example, she had to hunt around the house for marbles as an eye-strengthening exercise to help correct a visual disorder that keeps the brain from synthesizing the messages from each eye. More recently, she participated in a medical experiment in which she was put in a rapidly spinning chair so that the movements of her eyes could be recorded to show how they attempted to help maintain her body’s equilibrium. The work is also a response to Honda’s extensive research into binocular vision, particularly the notion that what we ultimately perceive is not simply the sum of the parts contributed by each eye’s vision, but a third thing, a construct dependent on knowledge, expectation and experience.

What she wants, though, is for “Recto Verso” to be about the viewer’s experience of the space and the sensation of being simultaneously seduced and repelled by elements within it.

“The seduction is there in the materials themselves and in your expectations of what you’re going to find, how you think something is going to operate,” she says. “Hopefully, the pieces will turn things around on you a little bit.”


Pulling the eye toward something while pushing the body away is a dynamic that Honda has mined since she began making art in the early 1980s. Duality and contradiction have threaded their way through her work, from early barbed-wire body armor, at once protective and punishing, to smartly crafted gift boxes housing toxic substances.

The spareness of means and seriousness of purpose that persist in her sculptures also announce themselves in Honda’s appearance and manner. In her jeans and silk T-shirt, her straight dark hair parted evenly down the middle, she has the same pared-down beauty she ascribes to her work. The oceanfront cafe she has chosen for the interview is just down the coast from the Solana Beach home she shares with her husband, artist Brent Riggs. Home is the chaotic site of preparation for not only the MOCA show--her first solo museum show--but also for her European debut, a solo show at a Vienna gallery.

To a 33-year-old, having those two career milestones back-to-back might be daunting, but Honda appears simply busy. The attention is not that unusual for an artist whose very first public showing was at a museum just a year after she graduated from UC San Diego, with a degree in art history and criticism. For “A San Diego Exhibition: 42 Emerging Artists,” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego (then the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art) in 1985, Honda presented her cerebral take on clothing--garments with a twisted sense of concealment and protection.

In the swing of subverting convention, she went on to make body armor of barbed wire and razor ribbon, an ominous set of animal traps, elegant gift boxes filled with poison (“the most insidiously dangerous of all the works,” she says) and installations that carpeted a floor with small lamps or inundated a ceiling with thousands of hanging fishhooks.

“She’s a very interesting thinker,” says Elizabeth Smith, the MOCA curator who organized Honda’s current show and who has been following the artist’s work since its early days. “Her work has a strong conceptual rigor but also a strong object presence. One aspect is not necessarily emphasized over the other. Both are powerful and present.”

Honda, who was born and raised in San Diego, headed to the University of Delaware to earn a master’s in material culture after her first few years of making art. Trained as a scholar rather than as an artist, she is quick to acknowledge the difference between getting academic and studio degrees:

“I think it’s had a pretty significant impact. If you look at where someone went to school and who they worked with as a starting point, I have a very different starting point than most artists because of what I studied and who I studied with. Those two programs gave me a different set of references to work with, and they validated my natural way of working, thinking and reading a lot before making anything, rather than fiddling with things and seeing what comes out of the materials.”

The materials, in Honda’s case, vary radically from series to series, installation to installation. Conceptual and perceptual issues--rather than formal similarities--provide the glue that lends her disparate works a certain coherence. She is akin, in that regard, to Bruce Nauman, whose work she admires for its “frightening” ability to make you focus on something. Like Nauman, Honda’s elastic energies also snap back to a concentrated pool of questions.

For Honda, the primary questions have to do with power, control, the manipulation of information and the acquisition of knowledge. In “Sift,” shown in the Long Beach Museum of Art’s 1992 show “Relocations and Revisions: The Japanese-American Internment Reconsidered,” Honda tackles all of those issues through one powerfully simple metaphor. The work consists of three large filters--stainless steel, copper and bronze--hanging from the ceiling over a floor covered with black sand. “What goes into and what gets taken out of the information you receive on any subject” is at issue here, as is Honda’s own filtered understanding of the internment suffered by many members of her family.

Smith, writing for the MOCA show’s catalogue, discusses the internment as one of the currents that flows through all of Honda’s work, charging it with a “malevolent element” and an “iconoclastic sensibility that seeks to question and subvert accepted standards of thought and behavior.”

Not bowing to the rules is a consistent thread, Honda agrees. And two old-fashioned rules of the art experience that she eagerly skews are the ones asserting that the artist should give generously to the viewer and that what the artist gives, to paraphrase Matisse, should be as comfortable as a softly padded chair.

Honda’s work is no easy chair, she admits with a laugh.

“Instead of showing you everything and piling everything on you, it has always been important for me to hold something back. If you hold something back, then you’re giving somebody a license to use their imagination about it. Hopefully ‘Recto Verso’ will also function in that way. It’s offering you a certain amount of information, but it’s also asking you to offer up a little more on your own. I don’t like for things to be too easy for people.”

Vital Stats

Margaret Honda’s “Recto Verso”

Address: Museum of Contemporary Art, 250 S. Grand Ave., downtown.

Price: Adults, $6; students and senior citizens, $4. Free Thursdays after 5 p.m.

Hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, Thursdays until 8 p.m.

Phone: (213) 626-6222.