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v.c. igarta self portrait
1944 Self-Portrait

In front of my computer where I compose poems, fiction and essays— where, in other words, I live the lives I prefer to live by writing them out—hangs a self-portrait by the artist Venancio "V.C." Igarta. He had sketched the drawing when he turned 87 years old, captioning it "Am getting blind." Stuck to the lower-right-hand corner of its frame is a June 2000 newspaper clipping with the headline "Painter VC Igarta dies at 89." I retain this depressing image over my computer to remind me: Igarta asked me to write about him and his art, but I didn't—couldn't—while he was alive.

Igarta asked me to write about him and his art, but I didn't—couldn't—while he was alive.

In 1999, during Igarta's last year of life, I moved from New York where Igarta resided to San Francisco; though the move was unrelated to Igarta, I would come to mythologize the move as one of leaving him. I didn't visit him during the few times I occasionally visited New York. I realized that I should have tried to see more of him because of his failing health, but was bothered by the fact that I could not write something for him—something about his paintings. I felt guilty—and, indeed, felt an immense pressure to write something for Igarta given his failing physical conditions. But I knew there was a significance to my (rare) writer's block, though it was a meaning that I could not yet articulate. Thus, I preferred to believe Igarta would live much longer than he did, and that I would yet be able to visit him with some text in hand.

Here in San Francisco, five months after Igarta's death, I am finally writing about Igarta and his paintings. I am doing so as a result of seeing and being moved to meditate on the works of Carlos Villa, another Filipino American painter. Villa, who teaches at the San Francisco Art Institute, has worked as an artist for over three decades in styles encompassing abstract expressionist, performance and minimalist works; his paintings were part of a two-person exhibition with Philippine artist Santiago Bose at the Pacific Bridge Contemporary Southeast Asian Art gallery in Oakland (Sept. 9-Oct. 28, 2000). I appreciated the works of Bose who had invited me to visit the show, but it was Villa's abstractions of fractured grids that made me recall my unfulfilled promise to Igarta. I would come to consider this evocation apt given the exhibit's title of "The Spirit That Dwells Within."

As powerful abstract works can do, Villa's works invited me to interpret them according to what was "within" me, or my own subjectivity. Villa's successful depiction of the color gray as symbolizing the "Filipino" reminded me of my yet unrealized promise to write on Igarta's paintings. I believe the recollection surfaced because Villa's use of color (though more muted than Igarta's approach) and abstraction reminded me of Igarta's color field paintings.

taken from filipinasmag.com
"Maid of the Cordillera Mountains" by V.C. Igarta

As I considered Villa's works, I came to acknowledge that I had found it difficult to write on Igarta's paintings partly because I would have to remember the suffering Igarta experienced as an immigrant as well as the lack of receptivity by some members of the Filipino community to his colorful abstractions. In the early 1980s Igarta painted multi-colored, multi-toned brushstrokes overlapping with each other to generate new colors. Several evoke bolts of unfolding cloth and use a loose pointillist style. I consider these abstractions among Igarta's most accomplished paintings. Yet, as Igarta mentioned in several of our conversations—unable to disguise his bitterness and hurt—many Filipinos apparently thought he painted abstractly because he presumably "can't draw." By loosening such charges, these Filipinos were unaware of or dismissed his earlier figurative works. In fact, Igarta is best known for "Northern Philippines," a 1941 painting depicting a Philippine village scene dominated by a white-dressed woman with a bowl on her head. The work was reproduced in FORTUNE Magazine and subsequently became the first work by a Filipino artist to be exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art ("Met") in New York.

I've sometimes wondered if Igarta might have ended prematurely his investigation of abstraction—of color and geometry. Whether or not this is the case, the problematic response from various Filipinos to the purest evocation of his painterly concerns is but another sad and little-known dimension to the history of the "Manongs," the generation of Filipino men who immigrated in the early 20th century to work in the agricultural fields of primarily California and Hawai'i. Igarta is the foremost visual artist of that generation. In fact, I find it appropriate now that it was Villa who reminded me of my promise to write on Igarta's paintings, for Villa is a child of Manongs and part of a relatively small group of Filipino Americans born in the 1930s (at the time, the U.S. government maintained quotas for how many Filipino women could immigrate to the U.S., and the ratio of men to women ran about 40 to 1).

Igarta arrived in the U.S. in 1930 at age 18. In California, he worked in the lettuce farms of San Fernando Valley and the asparagus farms in Stockton. The Great Depression was underway and many Filipino migrant works became jobless after being targets of racial prejudice. In our conversations, Igarta often mentioned a sister he left behind in the Philippines whose advice he never forgot during his most difficult years: "Never beg." Traveling eastward, Igarta arrived in New York City in 1934, jobless and penniless.

Igarta began his art studies in 1937 at the National Academy of Design where he invested his meager salary of $1.50 a day on enrollment costs. The following year, he moved his studies to the Art Students League. He also would come to have his first exhibition in 1938 when one of his watercolors was chosen for a juried show at the Pennsylvania Academy. In May 1942, his "Northern Philippines" was exhibited at the Ferargil Gallery, and then featured in FORTUNE as part of a review. The publicity benefited Igarta as the painting would come to be part of a national juried show at the Met. Subsequently, he would come to show in other major museums and with such renowned artists as William de Kooning, Fernan Leger, Man Ray, Ben Shahn and Rufino Tamayo.

Igarta's works from the 1940s and 1950s reflect his nostalgia for the Philippines. Villagers, the farmlands of his hometown Sinait, carabaos, nipa huts, the sea and mountains populate his canvases, including "Northern Philippines." When he began painting abstractions during the 1980s, the vividness of his palette reflected his memories of the same landscape through the colors replete in his birthland. He was attracted to tropical colors like oranges, crimson, pinks, greens, blues and yellows.

In 1982, he began exploring abstraction as a result of being inspired by Josef Albers' groundbreaking rectangle-based paintings that explored colors' interactions with each other. Igarta often took pride in having painted more color combinations than Albers. In a recent conversation, Bose agreed with me that Igarta's break from the art world to work for Color Aid, a manufacturer of silk-screened art paper, actually enhanced Igarta's explorations of color; while at the company, Igarta created the paper works now used in many art schools. Igarta could mix colors without the aid of a spectograph and has mentioned how he helped cause two of Color Aid's competitors to go out of business.

Igarta told me several times,
"If I am going to be remembered, it will be by Filipinos."

In 1986, Igarta exhibited his works—primarily abstractions—at the Philippine Center in New York. Shortly thereafter, he moved on to more figurative work. The claim of artists turning to abstraction due to a lack of formal ability has been made about many abstractionists. But the claim had particular charge for Igarta. The Filipinos who paid attention to Igarta seemed to prefer his figurative imagery and, as Igarta told me several times, "If I am going to be remembered, it will be by Filipinos." By the time we spoke of the limits of public recognition for his works, Igarta seemed reconciled to what he perceived as the fate of his paintings, even as he spoke of himself in the same breath as more globally-recognized masters such as Albers, Matisse and Clyfford Styll (he gave me his book on Styll because he knew I love the works of this artist whom he, on the other hand, considered overrated).

Igarta died just weeks before a scheduled show of his works at the Philippine Center in New York City. The show aptly celebrated the discovery of lost (figurative) canvases which were thought to have been burned by Igarta in 1954 out of rage over what he considered a disappointing arts career. But I believe another group show focused on Igarta's abstractions would be elucidating. Igarta has told me that the poet Jose Garcia Villa (who painted before turning to poetry) most admired his abstract paintings. I agree, and would wish to see an exhibit of these such works.

***

Though Igarta and Villa's works are very different from each other's, Villa's made me recall Igarta's work. For Villa shows—just as Igarta did in a different way—how color comes to have a Filipino character. Gray is widespread in Villa's works at the Pacific Bridge exhibit. By being in-between black and white, the color gray, according to Villa, references how Filipinos are often faced with the impossible task of choosing between two worlds—for example, the Philippines or the U.S. Such choice is an illusion for the diasporic Filipino never belongs totally to one place. If only by their physicality, second-, third-or even fourth-generation Filipino Americans are viewed as "Others" instead of being unquestioningly accepted as "American."

Yet despite the presence of gray, Villa's ten exhibited works are not lackluster. For gray, too, can symbolize the spirit that lies in between living flesh and death. The sanded sections, grids and grid-ruptures activate the work's flat plane to offer the impression of a multi-layered space. Thus, Villa's paintings effect an active field wherein is implied the presence of some entity moving between the spatial layers—a presence that can be considered "spiritual." Appropriately, the mood in Villa's paintings is evocative, and it is up to the viewer to realize what is being evoked.

The sanded sections also surface as forms lying like stains across the grids. However, the sanded sections generate a paler version of kayumangi (or darker, "indigenous" Filipino) brown. The tan shade references the evolution of—and dilution of indigenous— Filipino culture as a result of immigration, intermarriage, cultural amnesia and/or Filipino culture becoming globalized through technology's effects (e.g. cyberspace). Indeed, one of the few titled works is "Recombinance" which, according to Merriam-Webster's Dictionary is a word that does not exist. Perhaps Villa intended to reference "recombination" and/or "recompense." While the former means "formation by the processes of crossing-over and independent assortment of new combinations of genes in progeny that did not occur in the parents" the latter means "to give something to by way of compensation, to pay for, or to return in kind." The artificial word "recombinance" imply these definitions without quite being the word defined by them—thereby emphasizing how the Filipino often doesn't "fit" in situations in which they find themselves.

The semblance of ruptures and erasures effected by the sanded sections relates to what Villa describes as "the experiences of not just Filipinos but anyone else who might find this image of striking a blow at order appealing." As portraits of the Filipino, the works depict rupture and instability and rebellion. A sense of conflict is heightened by considering the significance of most of the works being "Untitled." Thus, Villa's works manifest how the Filipino must continually struggle with his or her identity, particularly the diasporic Filipino. Relatedly, when Villa finally titles a work, he uses a word that does not exist—that can only approximate intent and reality, which is to say, the diasporic Filipino never quite belongs wherever s/he ends up being physically located.

Of course, it is inevitable that the color black exists within these works. Black—its darkness—is a logical presence given the gloom permeating Filipino history that encompasses nearly four centuries of Spanish colonialism; the U.S. invasion over a 100 years ago; the atrocities during World War II; the sufferings of the Manongs and other Filipino immigrants; Ferdinand Marcos' dictatorship; the sex trade surrounding military bases and sometimes resulting through the plight of mail-order brides; the discrimination endured by overseas domestic workers; and last, but not least, the current disgrace that is called Joseph Estrada's administration.

Finally, the grids are tightly laid, with some spaces between the lines only an inch apart. Thus, the grids evoke screens through which one peers, or behind which one can hide one's face as Igarta did during his exhibition at the Met. The Met offered a highlight to his career but Igarta didn't attend the opening because he didn't want his physical presence to affect the reception to his works—that is, he didn't want his paintings to suffer from the disdain of those who might look down on his brown Filipino body. This, too, was an incident surfaced from the depths of my memory by Villa's abstractions. By utilizing wood whose brown symbolizes a brown body, Villa's paintings engender a meditation on the significance of the Filipino body, which can be captured in some of scholar E. San Juan's recent commentaries on the Filipino diaspora. Noting that about 10% of the 80 million Filipino population now live scattered around the globe, San Juan says, "The received consensus [is] that Filipinos remain unassimilable if not recalcitrant elements. That is, they are not quite 'oriental' nor hispanic. At best they appear as hybrid diasporic subjects.with suspect loyalties. Filipinos cannot be called the fashionable 'transnationals' because of racialized, ascribed markers (physical appearance, accent, peculiar non-white folkways) that are needed to sustain and reproduce Eurocentric white supremacy."

Nonetheless, Villa perseveres in showing his identity—even if the identity is a troubled one. Or, perhaps, Villa perseveres in attempting to solidify identity precisely because the Filipino identity is always at risk. Thus, the work "Recombinance" features 36 metal plates inscribed with words which are then linked onto the wooden board. Individual plates are inscribed by "Y," "deve," "give voi," "un," and "dire" in addition to complete words like "phone," create," "community" and "collect." The words are as broken as the immigrant's break of departure from the Philippines or the spirit battered upon encountering racism, objectification, starvation and other forms of tribulations marking the Philippine diaspora. Filipino American scholar Theo Gonzalves notes, however, the significance of the commemorative aspect of the metal plates. The use of plates illustrates Villa's desire to honor his and Filipino history, even though what are evoked through fragmented text are the dislocation, uncertainty, risks, pain and loss that marks Filipino history. Thus, does "Recombinance" also make me recall Igarta.

***

"As in poetry, in painting; as in painting, in poetry"—I've long forgotten which ancient Greek once made this observation. As a poet, I use what I deliberately label "abstract language" as a result of my investigations into Philippine history—specifically, I wish to avoid narrative because it had facilitated the use of English to consolidate American colonialism in the Philippines. After invading the Philippines, the U.S. had introduced English throughout the arkipelago to bolster their control by making it the language for education, commerce and politics.

As an art lover, I have an affinity for abstract works because they allow me to exercise my imagination more fully than do figurative images—by interpreting an abstract surface, I am able to project my "self" much more than I can onto a figurative image which inherently contains references not necessarily related to me.

I write poetry to disrupt because I must write in English, now the only language in which I am fluent but whose history in the Philippines troubles me.

Thus, I write poetry to disrupt because I must write in English, now the only language in which I am fluent but whose history in the Philippines troubles me. But I am able to see into, or interpret, abstract works in a way that rounds up many varied elements and interests which concern me. It seems, therefore, that I write poetry to subvert meaning—while I fall in love with abstract paintings in order to generate meaning.

I have lived mostly in the U.S. As one who has participated in the "Asian American" literary movement, I am aware of how Asian-American poetry is perceived by the majority of critics, academics and those who form the dominant literary canon. Asian American poetry, like those by many writers of color, are mostly read based on content. Though this facilitates story-telling traditions, there are poets who experiment poetically by subverting narrative. I am one of those poets. If one can compare narrative poetry to figurative paintings and non-narrative poetry to abstract paintings, my empathy for Igarta's and Villa's abstractions is natural. I feel I write poetry the way they paint in the abstract mode.

Many critics/academics who help define the Asian American literary canon do not consider my works "Asian American" (though this reception has begun to change). Consequently, I also empathized with Igarta's disappointment over how some Filipinos responded with disdain to his abstractions.

Abstract art offers a particular challenge. The audience must be both open-minded and open-hearted enough to invest their subjectivity in relating to the abstract poem or painting. Many critics/academics insert mostly their minds (without their hearts) in reading poetry—this provides for a limited response, as limited as those Filipino viewers who dismissed Igarta's abstract paintings. (Does being a professional critic or academic really necessitate the deadening of the more messy—and yet probably more honest— emotional response to Art?)

In Igarta's abstractions, I see nostalgia as evidenced by the colors of the Philippine natural landscape, replete in the vivid colors that create a rainbow. In Villa's gray abstractions, I see the Filipino spirit wrestling with feelings of difference and alienation. The feelings of loss and desire generated by the effects of both artists' works are difficult to articulate—the mouth cannot utter what the eyes see.

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