Image: James Cave

A painter talks about darkness, light and community

At The ARTS at Marks Garage, filled with sunlight, hang Debra Drexler’s wall-sized abstract paintings in fiery yellows, reds and blues. A professor of art at UH Manoa who lives in Kailua and spends her summers painting in her Brooklyn studio, Drexler met with the Weekly shortly after Hurricane Sandy flooded the city, bringing to mind the dark undercurrents of her luminous work.

Her new show, Staring into the Sun, is on view through Dec. 1.

So is Kailua the Brooklyn of Hawaii?

[Laughs]. I think so, yes. They’re both places I’m just so happy in.

How did you turn to abstraction after your figurative work?

In 2007 I took a year’s sabbatical. I started becoming a daily meditator: My inner world started changing, and that started coming through in my paintings.

In 2008, I started spending summers in Brooklyn. I was doing [and showing] transitional work. There were still figurative elements: A bird represents spirit, a tree, our connection to the earth. I was meditating about the archetype of the shadow, how it’s only by looking into the shadow that you begin to see the inner light.

I’ve been very influenced by Hafiz, a Persian Sufi poet who lived from 1320-89: “Darkness would be a miracle to me now, my head having become pure fire . . .”

When did you realize the transition?

With the work in this show, made from 2010–12. There was something magical, alchemical, about the way painting can communicate in a way that goes beyond words. I love the idea of the process taking me somewhere [and] I don’t know where I’m going.

Because if I boiled down what keeps me painting, it’s how we’re not just our minds . . . how there are things abstraction can communicate that goes beyond the literalness of the mind.

Yet doesn’t true abstraction have formal rules?

When I was in art school, the tenets of formalism were that the painting conveyed the message through process, paint application and space . . . When I’m painting I want to go beyond formalism–do something that’s transformative to the viewer.

What painters inspired you?

As a 4-year-old I saw Rauschenberg’s “Bed” at the St. Louis museum. My mother used to take me to museums.

In college, I would say it was De Kooning. In Feb.–March 2012, the critic Robert Edelman built a show around a De Kooning piece, and I was thrilled to be in it along with Sol Le Witt, Frank Stella, William Kentridge and Kayoi Kusama.

With large-scale painting you can get a feeling of being immersed in the artwork, the way I felt as a child–that there’s something larger than myself that happens when I stand in front of a great painting.

Besides Gauguin, what inspired Gauguin’s Zombie [Honolulu Academy of Art, 2002]?

In 1992, I moved here to teach. I wanted to make art about being here but didn’t want to fall into painting a cliché about Hawaii. I took a sabbatical to Australia, where I saw Judy Watson’s Our Skin in Your Collections, her abstract work about the display of aboriginal bodies in museums in Europe.

I had a dream that I was trying to prepare Gauguin’s body for exhibition, and he sat up and lunged at me. I thought it was because he was a womanizer. I thought it was hysterical . . .

The series used humor to get at serious issues: the relation between male artists and female models; Western artists’ colonialism of indigenous people; stereotyping.

What about your technique?

I use a glazing process. Each painting has places with up to 30 or 40 layers of glaze and paint. [See] the denseness, the way the light comes through some areas. The process dictates. Some places I don’t cover more than once or twice, so that starts to create push/pull–Hans Hoffman’s term, which is about this confusion of space.

The intensity of that layered yellow reminds me of Rothko.

He was another influence.

What about the spiral snakelike motif in so many of these paintings?

This mark is very mannered. Unlike [in] Abstract Expressionism, it’s a little bit more controlled. This spiral snakey motif echoes a feeling I get, in meditation, of being lifted up.

Are you part of a New York school?

In Brooklyn there’s a community of artists reengaging with process. Some call it Brooklyn Brutalism. With my neighbors and when I visit shows or other people’s studios, there’s a sense that, how long can people be in reaction to Modernism before they start doing something else?

I want to go back to what’s exciting about painting, make painting alive and exciting again.

You’ve had several solo and group shows in New York, yourself.

The community has been so welcoming to me; I have found so many doors open to me there.

[But] in September, I lost three people who were very important in my life. Mark Weiner, who has a show opening in the East Village today, died suddenly of a heart attack. And Chris Twomley, an artist-curator.

Kai Warrington Silvert died in his sleep on his 23rd birthday. He was a student at UH Manoa and had just become opinions editor of Ka Leo; he was about to do a piece on wheelchair accessibility issues on campus.

I love his parents, Diana Warrington and Alexander Silver, dearly. Kai was a friend of my son. One of these paintings will be auctioned at the reception to benefit Families of Spinal Muscular Atrophy.

My show is about how radiant we are and how we’re more than the body. The deaths of my friends brought me back to focusing on how sacred and precious our lives are.

The ARTS at Marks Garage, 1159 Nuuanu Ave., through 12/1. Reception and benefit auction Thu.. 11/15, 6–9pm with live music, a wine tasting and gluten-free food. An auction will benefit Families of Spinal Muscular Atrophy

Debra Drexler