Lost in Paradise: Honolulu in Berlin
Berlin sits on the other side of the world from Honolulu. A traveler passes through a twelve time zones to get from one city to another. Both places have histories of being a type of island. Hawai’i is surrounded by a turquoise and cobalt ocean, the furthest land mass from any other in the world. Berlin’s history of repression manifested in the massive grey wall which isolated it from its neighbors and itself. In the massive 6,000 square foot galleries of Berlinerkunst Project, in Berlin Germany, University of Hawai’i Associate Professor, Debra Drexler has brought a view of Hawai’i and the Pacific that includes elements of its colonial origins as well as its current exploitation and commodification. Somehow it is appropriate that the exhibit is in Berlin. The history of Berlin is filled with stories of attempts to escape, first from the Nazis and then from the Soviet regime. There is a mythology of escape around Hawai’i as well but as a destination for those weary of civilization.
In the main space of the gallery, Drexler presented a new body of large-scale paintings created for this exhibition "Honeymoon in Waikiki" which explore the myth of Hawai’i as romantic destination. In addition, there were a number of drawings in which Drexler uncovers the personal landscape of paradise and desire, viewing love and loss in a manner that is both painterly and witty. The center room explores a variety of subjects from domestic violence to the militarization of Hawai’i. In the back room was a miniature version of the critically acclaimed installation "Gauguin’s Zombie" which substitutes small scale paintings for the massive ones that Drexler showed at White Box’s Annex in New York (2005), Maui Arts and Cultural Center (2003), and Honolulu Academy of Art (2005). Based on the idea that Post Impressionist painter Paul Gauguin has returned to life on a fiction island in a fiction museum, the installation looks at the dynamics between the past and present, the influence of colonialism and cultural identity and the traditions of the Western and non-Western worlds. The scale of the exhibition in Berlin allowed for an incredible richness and diversity in the exhibition showcasing the numerous artistic directions that Drexler has been exploring in the past three years.
The "Honeymoon in Waikiki" paintings use lush painterly fields of bold color and picture postcard landscapes to draw the viewer into an environment that is seductive and alluring. However, once inside the space of the honeymoon couple, a disconnect is sensed. Waikiki sits on the edge of urban Honolulu and is packaged internationally as site for romantic fulfillment. Waikiki is designed to conform to tourists’ ideas of Hawai’i, with white sand imported to create an "ideal" beach. The space along the beach is congested with high-rise hotels and upscale shops. Originally, Waikiki was a wetland area with natural pools that would erupt to the surface. The natural landscape was displaced and the streams dammed into a single stagnant canal on the edge of the area. The dammed up water is mirrored in the dammed up passions of the couples in the hotel rooms where they are disengaged from themselves and their environment. Plastic balloon animals become a banal stand-in for a more primal and visceral connection.
Fire becomes an element of magical realism within the compositions representing repressed and erupting passions. In Honeymoon in Waikiki, Red, a cadmium red aloha pattern dominates the room, flattening the space that is simultaneously suggested by linear perspective. Through the window the cobalt ocean and sky shine forth like a jewel. The room has exploded into flames that can’t compete in brightness with the red Hawaiiana cloth. A man sits despondently engulfed in the flames wearing a balloon animal hat. A woman wearing a bikini the color of the room, loaded down with shopping bags, blandly glances over her shoulder as she walks out the patio door into an expanse of blue.
In Honeymoon in Waikiki, Yellow, tiny flames burst from the nipples of the woman like the wicks of a candle. Both husband and wife are turned away from the sunset on the beach gleaming outside their window. The landscape is both beautiful and slightly unsettling, in the way that too much candy causes nausea. The man is locked in concentration mimicking a balloon animal demonstration on the television. A balloon poodle is discarded on the floor, and another unfinished phallic balloon animal floats in the air. The large painting on paper takes a bold approach to paint handling and to color using a palette of analogous tones and stylistic handling that moves from painterly to flat, realistic to expressive. The female figure is painted from observation, while the male figure is rendered with line over a field of transparent brushwork.
In the Blue version of the honeymoon paintings a balloon aggressively asserts itself from the side of a woman who lies sunbathing under a palm tree, her skin reflecting the azure associated with island paradise. A man standing over her twists his balloon dachshund in frustration.
In the middle room of the Berlinerkunst Project, the variety of themes examined are unified through the use of water soluble pencil and crayon in which the delicacy of pencil lines play off of bold expressive marks. Planes of transparent washes merge with rich layering of optically mixed colors that create a spatial interplay between abstract and realistic rendering. Military bases frame the island of Oahu. In "Alternative Uses for Helicopters", Drexler suggests another purpose for the military helicopters that fly over her home and studio daily. A trapeze artist gleefully dangles from the base of the helicopter as the sky explodes into a field of stylized flowers.
One of her more striking pieces in this collection is Street Angel/Home Devil." This is a series of four drawings which deal with issues of domestic violence through a narrative of image and text. The series is based on a family history about a French great-grandmother who was a victim of domestic violence. She uses the Toulouse Lautrec’s ‘fallen woman’ to represent connections between domestic violence and social class.
In the back room of the gallery, Drexler created an alternate world complete with paintings, wood carvings and written work including emails, faxes, press releases, journal entries and artist’s statements. Gauguin’s Zombie engages in a critical dialogue with Gauguin’s complicity in the colonial process, and the complexities of the postcolonial world. The idea for this piece came out of drawings which Drexler did in while in Tasmania, and was further enhanced by traveling to Tahiti to research Gauguin’s life.
In her work, Drexler disarms through wit, cutting through to expose the layers of cultural and environmental devastation. With lush painterly application, she seduces the viewer through the surface to look more deeply at the substance of "paradise."