Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Conjuring Paradise by Betsy Karel

My review of Betsy Karel's Conjuring Paradise (Radius, 2013) is now available on photo-eye. You can read the review here and get the book here.


The notion of paradise evokes images that are at once intensely personal, but more often than not generic and common. For most, they involve sunshine, warmth, beaches, palm trees, copious food and drinks, and also plenty of natural beauty — the clichés of postcards. While these don’t qualify as paradise for all, the tropical locales that fit the bill often cling fervently to their status and work to uphold it with equal vigor. Paradise begets paradise in a feverous feedback loop. Resorts proliferate, beaches are manicured and happy hours are extended. Betsy Karel’s Conjuring Paradise looks at Waikiki, Hawaii, one such paradise, with a loving and humorous eye. Her playful images tease apart the spatial illusions of paradise and the people who stumble willingly into its embrace.

Focusing on beach resorts, Karel’s images look at pools, hotel lobbies, souvenir shops and beaches. Twisted and contorted, bodies vie for space on the beach or maneuver for the perfect wave. They rest on the sand or float in bright blue water. They overlap in the chaos of synthetic wave pools and hide behind glass walls and plastic. Disembodied bikinis hover in a store and vivid food is available for the taking. Carefully ensconced in the cocoon of manufactured paradise, the Karel’s subjects move from beach to pool and back again. In this Technicolor landscape, palm trees and pristine beaches are merely the backdrop and stage for the real action. Surrounded by glass and concrete, it’s easy to forget what brought you here. As a thoughtful reassurance, trompe-l'œil nature murals line the underside of stairwells, cover the sides of buildings and decorate the lobbies.

All images © Betsy Karel and Radius Books
 All images © Betsy Karel and Radius Books

Although there are a few one-liners, Karel avoids the cheap laughs and is careful not to relying on the ironic and clichéd juxtapositions of nature and artifice. Instead the work maintains an affectionate engagement with her subjects. As a participant, Karel is right there with her subjects and fully a part of the fun. She may find humor in her hapless subjects, but the work’s social commentary is tempered by an acknowledgement of our common foibles and humorous misdeeds in the service of leisure. After all, who doesn’t look a little silly in a flotation device of any sort or feel absurd when buried in the sand.

All images © Betsy Karel and Radius Books

While the design of the book is fairly traditional, it incorporates a number of nice design elements. Recalling disposable flotation devices and smelling vaguely of a cheap five and dime store, the book features an opaque plastic vinyl dust jacket that lets the cover title show through. Divided into loose chapters, each sequence begins with a single color spread sampled from the preceding photos. The color breaks offer a brief pause as we move through the book and enhance the books cheerful color tone. Best known for her black & white work in India, Karel’s used a portable digital camera for this work. This should be a non-issue, especially now that digital is the default, but it contributes to the work’s casual style and no doubt helped Karel gain access. The bright palette also perfectly captures the pulsating fluorescents and vivid hues of tropical tourism.

All images © Betsy Karel and Radius Books

Despite the obvious delight found in the images, Karel’s book comes to us with a bit of sadness. As Karel explains in the book’s text, the work began when she and her husband, who was terminally ill, spent some of his last days in Waikiki. Returning years later, she found joy and catharsis amidst the illusion and candy-colored artifice of Waikiki’s resort culture. In the end, we each conjure our own paradise for our own reasons. Even though our own personal paradises often look an awful lot alike, they can be a lot of fun if you give them a chance.

Please note: This review originally appeared on February 17, 2014 on photo-eye. You can get the book here.