PHYLLIS ZABALLERO LOOKS BACK WITH LOVE
“I think of my painting as my autobiography.” Thus replied National Artist Hernando R. Ocampo to the question: “What has painting meant to your life?” That candid response rose to mind when viewing the works of Phyllis Zaballero for her current show at the Altro Mondo Gallery. Titled “Looking Back With Love”, the collective works are indeed a visual journey through a long life distinguished by a peripatetic childhood, with education at US and European schools, and in her maturity, by regular return visits to the places that have shaped her refined sensibility and exquisite taste in all aspects of life. More revelatory than the physical sites and locations are the fond memories she holds of her parents, Fermin and Felicitas. Being an only child, Zaballero, not surprisingly, was the sole object of her parents’ affections.
Pleasure and Pain
But time is the final arbiter in matters of emotional history, unfolded by Zaballero, who, if we were to measure life by the seasons, is metaphorically now in the autumn of her life. Indeed she has been calculating the number of remaining years left for her active painting, which may account for her assiduous production of works. Zaballero is a woman who has always embraced the present, and this present, as evidenced by these works, is irrefutably suffused with nostalgia, a wistful yearning for the past. The term nostalgia, after all, was formed from two Greek words meaning pleasure and slight pain. This show then is about remembrances of the people and places that have brought the artist a surfeit of pleasurable memories, tinctured with some pain at the irrevocable loss of her loved ones.
Windows of Her World
Once again, Zaballero makes use of the format or device that has found much favor with her collectors. There is the “Window within a Window”, where a view of an outside scene is viewed as if through an actual window. These are old discarded wooden windows which Zaballero has found in junk or antique shops. Moreover, the windows continue to reiterate her fascination with the grid.
“Within the spaces of these openings, whether looking out from inside or looking in from outside, I can literally frame my life’s progress in line and color, light and shadow. This also animates the memory of all the people who once owned the windows and perhaps looked through them in their own day-dreaming way,” she once wrote. In place of the now broken window glass panes are the canvas boards which serve as the ground surface of the images. Thus, the “Vermont Trilogy” – memorable for her study grant which produced her “Birch Trees” series – is a suite of three window-paintings , each one depicting autumn, winter, and spring. While all three works observe the same view outside, they are differentiated by the various things on the window ledge. The only consistent object is the chair which has naturally been moved around in various positions.
Talisman of Memories
Zaballero memorializes her lengthy stay in Spain with her re-imaging of two restaurants, which the Zaballero family frequented: El Botin in Madrid and Los Caracoles in Barcelona. In these works, the artist made use of a process called “emulsion-transfer”, where, for instance, an actual wrapper of a galletas, a Spanish biscuit interestingly called “Filipino”, or a lithograph of a Madrid poblacion, find their pride of place. Zaballero has always been particularly concerned with the authenticity of her images. In the painting is the image of an El Botin pitcher, one of which the artist’s mother Felicitas had bought and brought home when the family returned to Manila for good, upon the death of her father Fermin. Like a talisman of memories, that pitcher has remained with Zaballero all her life.
“Clear as a bell” is how Zaballero remembers her early childhood in Manhattan, where, with her father, she first dined at the newly opened Automat, near Times Square, with its novel way of dispensing food at a drop of a silver nickel in a slot. Thus, “Manhattan Memories, Times Square” is a panoply of iconic New York images which will do Kurt Schwitters, the Swiss pioneering collagist proud. While others may reconstruct their memories with a scrapbook, Zaballero mines them for their everlasting presences, with their function of firing the imagination and transporting the artist back into the fluid space of time.
Though Zaballero delights in the practice of collage or ready-made images, no doubt her strongest suit has always been drawing (not for nothing did she take the course in Marathon Drawing at the Studio School in New York.) All her representational works are determinedly linear, as evidenced by her numerous tablescapes and bodegon paintings, where her gift for the sinuous and flowing line is brought to bear on the delineation of a stun of plates, wine glasses, carafes, decanters, bowls, dishes, cutlery, loaves of bread, soup tureens, casserole pans, coffee cups, teapots and mounds of native fruits, with their peels curling down the edge, are arrayed on a feasting table. Despite the seeming informality of these arrangements, the works are invested with a surprising ceremoniousness.
One window-work visible as if from the outside looking in, is “Catalina’s Garden.” A homage to the artist’s maternal grandmother, this elongated frame is elaborated with a painted wrought iron-grill and climbing vines, topped by a floral curtain. “Gifts from Guimaras” which may look window-like but is actually a wooden typesetter’s tray. This is a relic from the once well-known printing house, Carmelo and Bauermann, acquired from a descendant of the eponymous owners. Various shells and stones are placed inside the little trays that are like snug cubby-hole shelves. (By her own admission, Zaballero is an inveterate hoarder of things, which she knows will come in handy in a future artwork.) In this particular work, the artist does a trompe l’oeil (fool the eye) image of a white lacy curtain billowing into the room.
From the serene vista of the Guimaras Straits, the viewer shifts his attention to a disturbing sight of an erupting Mayon Volcano, made more eerie by the simultaneous appearance of the so-called Blood Moon. This was in fact an actual occurrence which the artist has immortalized in her window-work titled “Blood and Brimstone”, appropriately littered with stones and glass crystals.
Included in the show are Zaballero’s graphic works depicting a vintage house in Carcar, Cebu and her studio at the fabled North Syquia Apartments in old Malate, where she stayed for two decades, until the hopeless traffic in Metro Manila impelled her to give it up.
Phyllis Zaballero’s “Looking Back with Love” interpolates the past into the present, where an artist’s visual autobiography is immersed in the vitality of affective memory. – CID REYES