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Aloha, Business Casual: Nicole Reber's Hawaiian Shirt Exhibition At AMO Studios

We talked to Nicole Reber about her new exhibition of politically charged Hawaiian shirts.

Whether worn by Hunter S. Thompson speeding his drug-addled way to Las Vegas, Jim Carrey as Ace Ventura or your dad on his day off, the Hawaiian shirt, much like Hawaii itself, occupies a unique space in American popular culture. Merging the stereotypes surrounding Hawaii and Hawaiian shirts, New York-based artist Nicole Reber’s exhibition Business Casual, opening tonight at AMO Studios, features ten witty and thought-provoking Hawaiian shirts, as well as a selection of Reber’s other Hawaiian-themed artwork. With patterns ranging from bikini babes posed with bananas to photographs of Pearl Harbor and the World Trade Center and images of the artist’s uncle being arrested by Dog the Bounty Hunter, Business Casual examines the various assumptions, histories, truths and fictions about our 50th state. 

In anticipation of tonight’s opening luau, I spoke with Reber about her interest in Hawaii and Hawaiian shirts, her familial link to the state and whether her Hawaiian shirt art pieces are meant to be worn.

VICE: Business Casual both complicates and pokes fun at the image of Hawaii in the American cultural imagination. When did you become interested in Hawaii as an artistic subject?

Nicole Reber: A few years ago, I was backpacking across Europe. I met a kid in Germany who took me to an American bookstore while I was there. I found this magazine called Paradise of the Pacific. It had all these really cool pictures. I did a series of collages about Hawaii and traveling while I was backpacking across Europe.

Beginning with collages, you then moved on to producing Hawaiian shirts. How did you make that transition?

Last September, I made this really large collage. I was thinking about putting it on fabric and I thought about how cool it would be to make Hawaiian shirts. I started thinking about the place of Hawaiian shirts in our culture. I grew up in Southern California and that’s what all our dads wore for formal occasions. Then, I moved to New York and its kind of joke-wear. In Southern California, you don’t really get an irony factor in wearing Hawaiian shirts. That’s just what we wear.

Since one of your shirts features images of your estranged uncle being arrested on Dog the Bounty Hunter, you clearly have a familial tie to Hawaii. What is your own connection to the state and what was it like merging your personal history with a larger cultural history?

My dad moved there when he was maybe 15 or 16 and shaved surfboards for about five or six years. His sister also lived there for several years so there was that kind of family tie. Eventually down the line in the project, I found out that a great uncle of mine had served in Honolulu before World War II. There’s a shirt that has 9/11 and Pearl Harbor on it and the photos of Pearl Harbor come from him. The project started out with me thinking about pop culture and ended up in a different spot.

With the shirt I made of my uncle being arrested on Dog the Bounty Hunter, my aunt got involved with the druggier side of Hawaii. I forgot about this guy but then, I thought, “Wait, I watched that as a kid in my living room.” The surreal things that you think of with Hawaiian shirts in films were actually a part of my life.

Speaking of the seedier side of Hawaii, what inspires you to delve into the darker aspects of Hawaii, as well as the stereotypes?

It’s all about perception and what you choose to see in a place like that. I visited Hawaii in May and I went to this bar called The Hideaway Bar. It’s the oldest operating bar in Waikiki; it's in the back of an apartment building, in a parking lot. It’s the kind of place that opens at 6AM because someone’s tweeking and needs to go drink. It’s blocks from the Royal Hawaiian Hotal. I love having experiences like that. Show me the good stuff, but show me the stuff that’s weird too. I want to know why both are in the same place and why no one’s thinking about the other.

Do you see the shirts as wearable fashion pieces, as well as artworks?

Yes, I have a pretty substantial fashion background. I did fashion internships in college and spent the last year and a half working at a luxury retailer as a day job. What people notice on clothes and what they don’t was really interesting for me. I got a firsthand look into that world. I wanted to take those experiences and apply it. A lot of people buy things for a logo or a color, but they’re not really paying attention to what’s actually going on. I find that interesting, almost exciting and funny. That was something I really wanted to express in the work–a sense of humor. The shirts can be positive as an art piece, but if you want to wear it, that’s super subversive too. That’s usually the point of Hawaiian shirts: looking at something–just the colors–but not really looking deeper.

The opening luau for Nicole Reber: Business Casual will be held tonight from 6-9 PM at AMO Studios, 106 Eldridge Street, NYC.

Models: Matt Lapoint, Ashley Walker

Shirts constructed by Ian Lewandowski 

Emily Colucci is a New York-based writer, and co-founder of Filthy Dreams, a blog that analyzes culture through a queer lens. Follow her on Twitter.