As a writer, my raw material is words. For some in this position, specificity is important—and yes, it’s important to me, too. But what I’ve mostly taken from decades of dealing with words is the instability of language and meaning. Thus, when I look at visual art that’s partly based on words and/or letters, I have an interest in seeing where the text deteriorates or melts against fixed definition(s).

Consequently, I’ve followed Jean Vengua’s haptic explorations, and was truly honored when she created this sketch that she was willing to call a “Portrait of Eileen Tabios”—yup, me.  Indeed, instead of an author photo on my website, I use this image:

I love the haptic that she calls my portrait specifically because it’s asemic. Much of my work as a poet has been interrogating English, thus often subverting dictionary-based definitions, in part because of English’s history as a colonizing tool for my birth land, the Philippines (for more on that aspect of my poetics, go HERE.) How one reads my portrait, thus, is open to viewers’ interpretations, which is the opposite of colonizing communications (e.g. orders). But I feel that Jean also captured my poetics with that last “line” at the bottom of the page that seemingly continues past the boundaries of the page—that, in sum, captures how I feel about the poem: the best poems continue past the page into whatever experience they engender with their audience. (It’s a similar reason as to why I love abstract expressionism—that gestural brushstroke whose energy propels it(s impact) past the edge of the canvas.)

You can see more about Jean’s haptics HERE.  I certainly perceive her concerns on “haptic visuality” in another haptic work, this painting:

For me, the opening in the bottom half of the painting works to dilute the privileging of the (white-ish) foreground to draw attention as well to what’s happening in the background—this haptic painting does not privilege between foreground and background. Such anti-privileging can be a metaphor for how to create a better world order where walls and distancing created by other-ing break down; from the link to Jean’s haptics is this powerful significance of othering—an element in optical visuality versus haptic visuality: “…optical visuality is needed, for example, for firing a missile. It conceives of the other, the object of vision, as distant and unconnected to the subject of vision.”

Jean’s haptic approach is political, but befitting its genre, it’s also resonant, often lovely work—a pleasure to see. For me, this pleasure is critical as I believe necessary interventions don’t need to cancel the smile.

More recently, I’ve enjoyed Rea Lynn de Guzman’s brilliant “Language Projections” series that unfolded in 2012-2013. You can go HERE to enjoy the series fully.  As you will see from the link, a series core is the “Baybayin Language Projector” whereby Rea cut out Baybayin letters from ABS & PETG plastic sheets, riveted and suspended them. When the work is hung, part of the work also becomes the shadows emanating from the work. From the shapes and shadows, Rea then created additional work—drawings and sculptures—that transforms the original shapes of the Baybayin letters.

I appreciate Rea’s approach as reflecting the instability of language and the flux of meaning.  Even the notion of a 21st century artist dealing with Baybayin, a Filipino indigenous language, offers implications of, among others, loss. But in viewing many of the drawings and sculptures in “Language Projections,” one can also see how her restless imagination created affecting, moving, lush and simply gorgeous works. Her “Baybayin Language Shadowscapes,” for instance, is brilliant as she used whitened cardboard shaped in the Baybayin letters to create a landscape. Unfortunately, that work was not available to bring to North Fork but I was delighted to be able to bring home a miniature version from a 3-D printer (how cool is that!):

From the same series, another work, “Modified Baybayin,” a kiln casted glass (lost wax cast process), entered my home:

What I love about “Modified Baybayin” is how Baybayin letters effect an abstraction or asemic whose openness to interpretation relates again, for me, to the fluctuating nature of language while also pleasing the eye. Moreover, the material of somewhat transparent glass shares with language an appropriate deceptiveness—we may think we know what we are seeing but there are layers to, including a history underlying, what we see. The work also can host light, which is to say, despite the nature of language, meaning (if temporal) is possible—which is a good thing. Illumination can reveal significance(s) and conversation, after all, is important for forming relationships.

I was also blessed to be able to bring home a litho print from Rea’s “Language Projections” series, “Iterative Translation”:

I love that, while part of a series (this is 12/16), each print is unique—Rea says she wasn’t interested in repeating the same image over and over. That’s smart: can one actually repeat the past? Can using Baybayin in the 21st language avoid the effect of … the 21st century? (See one opinion as regards modernizing Baybayin.) 


On Color
Another interesting facet of Rea’s works is how her palette reflects her exploration of identity. Thus, the paper upon which “Iterative Translation” is printed is a yellow-brown color, versus the often-used white. Yellow-brown and its various shades are depicted in her other works to reflect Filipino skin tone, for instance in her recent and ongoing series, “Retaso.”

Rea’s view of color is shared by other artists in North Fork, and I’ve been taken by their non-didactic approach. Matt Manalo, for example, uses the tones of Filipino skin as his palette in abstract sculptural works such as “Slums 01” (2017) and “Assimilation 01” (2017) which I’m happy to have hanging in North Fork:

 "Slums 01"

"Slums 01" and "Assimilation 01"

While Matt’s use of color is an integral concern, I initially did not perceive his concern with kayumangi (brown) skin tone, focusing instead on the effectiveness of his color combinations, its shapes, and its energy that can only be manifested through multi-dimensionality. But when  I learned of how he viewed his palette, I immediately thought "Of course!" I really appreciate kayumangi infusing the work of Filipino abstractionists.

Matt’s and Rea’s address of color actually made me recall master colorist Venancio “V.C.” Igarta’s works. But instead of focusing on skin tone, V.C. chose the lush palette he recalled from Filipino nature and countryside, for instance, this 1984 abstraction:

If one understands that V.C. is referencing the colors of his early days in the Philippines and not just addressing (and expanding) color theory, one then sees how this painting, though not about skin tone, is also about Filipino identity.

Color is a narrative and the tales told by these artists are powerful and compelling. I’m blessed to have their stories surround me at home.


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