By Brenna Kischuk

Debra Drexler is a talented multi-disciplinary artist based in New York and Oahu. Currently on sabbatical from the University of Hawai’i, Debra spent this year in her Brooklyn studio and has an upcoming exhibition of recent work, “River’s Edge,” being showcased at Van Der Plas Gallery in the Lower East Side from October 23rd through November 15th. The opening reception is October 23rd from 6-8pm, and the evening will be sure to delight with art and abstraction. Recently, Debra spoke with The Angle about her process, inspirations, and the upcoming show.

Have you always been interested in art? What were some of your formative moments throughout your life and career?

As a child, I was constantly painting and drawing. When I was a teenager, my mother was an airline employee so I flew to Europe frequently during high school and college. That is where I fell completely in love with painting. There is an alchemy to painting that goes beyond anything that could be expressed in words. Another formative moment in my career was when I discovered abstract painting as an undergraduate in college, because it opened up endless possibilities of painting’s potential to communicate. And then, of course, my first solo show in NYC ten years ago at White Box’ Annex. That completely hooked me on New York and I’ve been living there part-time ever since. New York is unique in terms of the vibrancy of the art scene. I feel anything is possible here, and I’ve pushed my work to new levels.

What mediums do you work in? 

Lately, I’ve been working on large oil paintings – I love the luminosity of oils. My work is driven by ideas, so the materials I work with shift to reflect the concepts. In the past that’s included text, prints, architectural scale woodcarving, and even 16-foot tall puppets!

What is your creative process like? What is the starting point of a piece and how does it evolve as you work on it? 

I usually do yoga and meditation before I paint, because I want to get to a place of pure connection, where I have emptied out all the trivial concerns of the day and am in pure relationship with the paint. I never know what the painting is going to look like. It tells me. I am particularly interested in color interactions and how they can create flatness and depth. I use the glazing technique that was used by the Renaissance masters to build layer upon layer of color so that the light penetrates the oil of the canvas and gives the paintings a great luminosity. Sometimes I glaze up to thirty layers of paint. I work directly on the floor so that the thin layer of paint does not run. There is a process driven athleticism in my work, and when it gets to the point where one more mark would ruin it, I stop.

Whose work do you most admire? 

There are so many artists I admire from so many centuries. The list would be a book.

What inspires you to create? 

Painting itself is my main inspiration. The process of painting drives my work, and I am fascinated by the history of painting and its expansive potential. I have direct contact with the feel of the materials and let them guide me into deeper and deeper explorations of space and color. Abstract imagery offers endless possibility engendered through a direct connection with the materiality of paint itself. I believe in the power of painting to make the invisible visible.

Additionally, I live in both Hawai’i and in New York City and my work is influenced by this unique bicoastal experience. It is fed by both the luminosity of the Hawaiian landscape, and the vitality of the art scene in New York. I am a Professor of Drawing and Painting at the University of Hawai’i, which keeps me involved in an intellectual inquiry into painting. I have had a studio in New York now for a decade when I am not in Hawai’i, and working in Williamsburg, Brooklyn connects me to the community here.

There’s also been a renaissance of abstract painting in New York during the past decade, and it’s wonderful to be part of the conversation around contemporary abstraction that is happening. There is a return to process and materiality. Abstraction takes us to a state of timelessness that is primal in its humanity, disconnecting us momentarily from the mediated “now” of our electronic devices, and connecting us to a “now” that gives us a glimpse of the infinite. It is painting that challenges through its brazen sincerity, abandonment of the ego, community empowerment, and ancient materiality. I became so curious about this phenomenon that it led to an exhibit, which I am co-curating with Liam Davis, about the resurgence of abstraction in New York City. New New York at the University of Hawai’i Gallery will run October 4 through December 4 and feature the work of thirty New York abstract painters.

What are you currently working on, and what is in store for the future? 

For the past year I have been working on a series of new large-scale abstract paintings, which are going to be shown at Van Der Plas Gallery. I have had a sabbatical this year, which allowed me to be in the studio every day, and I’m excited to show this new body of work to the New York audience in such a beautiful gallery. I am grateful to Adriaan Van Der Plas for his belief in my work. In the future I’d love to do more solo shows. I have had a couple of solo museum shows in Hawai’i, and had one ten years ago in Berlin. My dream is to have solo museum shows in New York, and would also love to show more in Europe.