by Katrina Stuart Santiago
▶︎ The multifarious promises Pauses of Possibility makes is in its context.
March is Woman’s Month. This exhibit headlines four women artists: Marina Cruz, Karina de Dios, Elaine Navas, and Pam Yan Santos. It is premised on the contemporary condition of noise and aggression, as it calls for introspection and contemplation. It anchors itself on Adrienne Rich via a quote about the creative process beginning “often terribly and fearfully – in a tunnel of silence” (1997).
It seems powerful enough in itself, given its timing and relevance, the contextual weight it carries, the political-ideological premises at its core.
Yet, while the works of the four women were worth engaging with, these seemed weakened by the default project of the Lopez Museum to create a dialogue between new works and the museum’s permanent collection. This has of course worked in the past, where spectatorship effortlessly moves from past to present, sensitive to the shifting sensibilities given multiple voices.
Sometimes it doesn’t work at all.
The Importance of Specificity
A major crisis of this exhibit is the fact that the quote from Rich is itself taken out of context, as she was speaking of a particular kind of artist, from a specific subjectivity, in the speech “Arts of the Possible” (1997):
“The matrix of a poet’s work consists not only of what is there to be absorbed and worked on, but also of what is missing, desaparecido, rendered unspeakable, thus unthinkable. It is through these invisible holes in reality that poetry makes its way — certainly for women and other marginalized subjects and for disempowered and colonized peoples generally, but ultimately for all who practice any art at its deeper levels. The impulse to create begins — often terribly and fearfully — in a tunnel of silence” (p. 224).
While this longer quote shows how Rich allowed for “all those who practice any art at its deeper levels” to be part of this state of silence, it seems important to point out how she also speaks quite specifically about marginalized subjects, and generally about disempowered and colonized peoples, who break this silence through creativity.
The latter could easily fit in the artifacts from Jose Rizal, and the paintings of Juan Luna and Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo that were part of this exhibit. The former demands a more complex discussion, where it is clear that regardless of the similar “colonized” status, Rizal, Luna and Hidalgo – as well as Chabet and Juvenal Sanso – because of their class origins are far from being disempowered at all.
Relative to the women in this exhibit, it is also clear that these men could just as well function as the “noise,” the aggressors, the “I” that these women artists respond to as the silenced, the marginalized, the “other.”
A Recklessness of Framing
It is in this very stark difference between the works from the museum’s permanent collection, all mostly by male artists, and the works of current women artists, that Pauses of Possibility falls into the trap of muffling the voices of the silenced.
This is especially true for Pam Yan Santos’ “Space in Between Thoughts,” a mixed media installation of an old school library card catalogue with 2010 drawers stacked against a wall. These are labelled with concepts that define us as people, beyond womanhood, but which remain intrinsically bound to it: clean, boxed, sanity, happiness, freedom, home, pain, too little, hearsay, logic, true or false.
In front of it, a school chair facing the opposite wall on which hangs a one-dimensional version of the card catalogue, without the labels, but with numbers for connecting-the-dots from one box to another, connecting concepts left unwritten. It is a puzzle of childhood, as it is of becoming: a decision to define oneself, inclusive of the spaces that are without labels and remain nameless.
The wonder of this work is in its careful choosing of the words that define us at this moment. The wonder is that these words can change, becoming a work that is about a different human – woman – altogether.
The sad thing about this work is that it was framed here against the works of Luna and Hidalgo, both of whom merely captured women in repose, asleep or looking out into nothingness, always away from the painters’ gaze. All could just as well be studies of woman as unspeaking subject and object, necessarily silenced by the act of capture. That these images end up framing Santos’s work makes the latter seem less formidable than it is, where the battle is difficult to win given the disengagement with questions of gender and representation.
When we do not admit the premises of a conversation, what we allow is for the dominant voice to prosper. As it does here.
The Thoughtless Parallels
For reasons that are unclear, Kara De Dios’s works are installed in the small gallery relative to Luna’s famous “España y Filipinas” (1886). There is no thread that ties together Luna’s painting to the hauntingly powerful work of De Dios, and to some extent it is the 1886 work that seems out of place, out of sync with what happening here.
“Altarpiece” is a set of three sculpted ceramic heads, each one paired with an oyster shell beneath it. As the heads gaze upwards in seeming anticipation, the shells gleam like a body open to possibility. The effect is surprisingly forceful and strong, the strength that a chin held high, a gaze of refusal, creates absolutely unnerving.
De Dios’s “Mom,” an acrylic and pencil work, is just as unsettling. A depiction of a naked woman who could be both devouring and spitting out a body from her mouth, her dead eyes staring out of the canvas, her hair spread out to create a forebodingly stormy sky, the monstrosity of this image is clear, even as she remains woman. She is surrounded by drawings of the installation “Swell” on the opposite side of the room– a set of small ceramic and celadon glazed pieces that is a rendering of breasts in all shapes, sizes, forms, seemingly ready to explode, yet also necessarily static. The effect of these two works is the eerie contradiction of the woman’s body to be both about compassion and violence, both friend and enemy of the woman herself.
It is unclear why Luna was in this space at all.
Which might be said of Rizal as well, whose letters to the female members of his family were installed in the space of Cruz’s works of melancholia, neither adding a layer to it, nor creating a conversation.
Cruz’s works after all stand on its own: from her old works that capture personal histories through paintings of childhood clothes embroidered with memories, to two 2017 oil paintings that catalogue the personal, showing rooms with an accumulation of excess and becoming (“Personal Archive I and II” and “Pink Crib and Pink Cabinets”). It is Cruz’s “Unfold Series” though that is most exciting in its quiet thoughtfulness, as the set of photographs of real clothes are framed with marginal notes that speak of the history, the fictions, the memories, that each piece evokes. The effect is a dialogue with the past, as it is a documentation of it, the silence also an exercise in ensuring heritage and legacy, one woman to another, one voice to the next.
Meanwhile, Rizal’s male voice is advising his sisters about how to live their lives.
Some White Noise
The intensity of Navas’ impasto works meanwhile could but get lost in its constant framing relative to works that might have had the same subject (Sanso), or an affinity for abstraction (Nena Sagul), but which do not work on the same level of building upon the violent in the seemingly mundane through dynamic, powerful, large brushstrokes that breathe life into the stillness.
And just when one imagined that the installation of Navas’ “Rose Crucifixion” (2015) was brilliant, standing alone, the centerpiece to the long hallway filled with artifacts from Rizal and paintings by Hidalgo, one finds on the wall behind Navas’ work, Chabet’s “Four Directions (White)” (1999). With the same brushstrokes, the same dynamism, the same power, Navas’ act of contemplation through her work could only be weighed down by the tradition she is part of, the (male) influence upon her work that we are reminded about.
To some extent, here lies Pauses of Possibility’s problem. There was no talking about the personal process of thoughtfulness and quiet, calm and contemplation in these four women’s works without engaging in at least the question of gender, at most the notion of marginalized voices. Because there is no escaping those questions given the heavily male museum collection; because the conversation about center and margin, man and woman, “I” and “other” is always important to have. Because even the acts of introspection and contemplation are political.
This exhibit refused to have this conversation. Its white noise was deafening. ***
Katrina Stuart Santiago is an art and culture critic writing at katrinasantiago.com. This piece was previously published in Art+ Magazine, March 2017.