Red Fights Back : Geraldine Javier

Geraldine Javier is widely known in Southeast Asia and beyond as a master of the uncanny and the strangely disturbing. Her exquisite and masterful paintings play on the allure and beauty of a darker side of experience. Over the years, the artist’s paintings have become increasingly layered and complex, not only in content and imagery but also through physical textures, as she began incorporating 3-dimensional craft-based elements in her canvases. Looking back, works such as Mother and Child (2007) – where a portrait of a Luzon Bleeding-Heart Pigeon framed in silver was set against the heavy backdrop of a woman's dress; and Arrangement in Grey and Black (2008) – metallic plates adorned with pretty patterns and images of seashells, beetles, and a singing blackbird are “hung” in the painted background, are among early evidences that displayed this tendency.

Since then, it would not be unusual to find framed insects and embroidered images of flora and fauna embedded in Ms. Javier’s canvas, or strands of tatting concealing painted images like foliage in the woods. Straddling the 2-dimensional and 3-dimensional realm, her works would develop further and take on interesting 3-dimensional turns as exemplified in recent solo exhibitions: Always Wild, Still Wild (2011) in Manila and later, Museum of Many Things (2011) in Singapore. In Manila, the artist presented a “hammock” installation The Tree in Me (2011) made from tatting and an embroidered self-portrait as the centrepiece of her show, while 3-d objects and vitrines became the highlight in Singapore. As Ms. Javier prepares her latest project in 20SQ entitled Red Fights Back, a work in progress, we chatted over email about the recent developments as well as her new spin on the beloved fairly tale Little Red Riding Hood as her own way to empower Little Red.

Adeline Ooi (AO): Can you tell us about what you are trying to do with Red Fights Back in 20SQ? Is this an installation or a set? This would be the first time that you work involves such serious audience participation, in that your audience will literally be stepping into your world, so to speak. Can we see this as a new step forward, that you are moving in an uncharted territory and still in the process figuring out the next phase of your practice?

Geraldine Javier (GJ): In Red Fights Back, I'm using a scene from the story Little Red Riding Hood where Little Red encounters the Wolf on her way to Grandmother's place. I see 20SQ as my interactive life size vitrine - a follow up work from my solo show last year in Singapore, Museum of Many Things. Here, instead of a basket of flowers and goodies for Grandma, Red has weapons – a wooden sword, an axe, a spear, a snake staff, slingshot and stones - to defend herself against predators and other dangers lurking in the forest. It's an installation when Red is not around, but it becomes a set when someone decides to step in, put on the cape and take the role of Red.

This installation/set is only the beginning; I can see the objects here in 20SQ take on different “lives” and develop further. For instance, I plan to use the objects in a photography project with a different theme (from this show). Maybe it's also the pragmatic in me that dictates my work process; I want to indulge and make works for the fun of it and because I can, but I have to think of ways of reusing and transforming the pieces I make into different artworks. I hate to make installations for art's sake and then chuck the objects once the show is done.

AO: But this is nothing new wouldn’t you say? There have been a number of recurring motifs in past series of paintings, for example the framed insects, the tree, particular birds, the deer, plaster saints. Would you say that there are certain images that you are drawn to and will continue to work with - expand, develop and explore their narrative potential - as you feel you are quite done with them?

GJ: Yes, there are recurring motifs in my work. Usually after I'm done with a particular element for a solo show, I would think of new ways of using it (again) but in a different way, a reincarnation of sorts. For example in for my show Butterfly's Tongue (2009), I incorporated preserved insects in my paintings; the embroidered vitrines were embedded in the canvases. Then in late 2011, for Museum of Many Things, the preserved insects came out (literally) from the paintings and inhabited physical space. For my upcoming STPI (Singapore Tyler Print Institute) show, I created my own 2-d insects, a combination of lithographed human skeletons, skeletonized leaves, and preserved leaves with the help of the technicians during my residency last year. It's the same for the other motifs. I've done several tree paintings already and now the tree is in 3-dimensional form. I plan to introduce another element in my future work, but I'm still thinking of ways to present this. Despite the transformations, I feel that I'm still holding back. A dream work would probably be something like this: a painting with its contents/images literally spilling out of the canvas onto the floor, like a gutted animal.

AO: Lets talk about layers. It is clear that painting is central to your practice. But in recent years, I believe since 2008, your work has gradually moved away from just painting (on canvas) and are becoming more 3-d, more tactile through the physical layers you have applied/attached on your canvases in the form of strands of tatting/crochet, framed insects, etc. Can you tell us a bit more about what you are trying to achieve? Is it right to conclude that paint is no longer enough (to help you convey your narrative)?

GJ: I’m not really moving away from painting. I don't think I'll leave it, as I still very much enjoy not only the product but more so the process or the act of painting itself. I also enjoy making craft-based works not just for the sake of making objects but because it offers a different experience, another way of giving form to ideas.

I guess what I'm doing is trying to create a union, a sort of “polygamous marriage” amongst the things and materials that interest me. As in all marriages, especially polygamous ones (laughter), sometimes it's smooth - successful presentation of painting and object/installation as one work, while at other times they seem disconnected and require more work from the audience, as they have to imagine harder. At the heart of all these works is my fascination with stories and storytelling.

At times, I find painting alone is not sufficient to tell these stories. I have limitations as a painter so I try to make up for it in the objects and installations to create a visual experience. I want my audience and I to engage with a wider range of experience(s) - tactile, visceral - even the smell (of rotting leaves) will be part of the experience in this show!

AO: How do you negotiate the different processes in painting and making craft-based objects? Are they diametric opposites in the sense that craft-based work are considered "recreation", and painting is the "real" (serious) work? Can you tell us how the two processes differ?

GJ: I consider both painting and making craft-based objects as serious work. Well, they are both fun in the beginning and then they get tedious but they become super fun again in the final phase especially when everything comes together nicely. In painting the outcome is predetermined, not that many surprises as I already know what I want to see, how I want to paint a particular image - I sometimes make adjustments but they are very minimal. Craft-based works on the other hand are very organic. It doesn't always work out as planned and I often have to improvise. I wouldn't say that craft-based works are “recreation”, rather, it presents a discipline different from painting. I think they are complementary. I mentioned that I find painting no longer enough (to tell the story). I find that nowadays when I'm thinking of a concept for a piece or show, sometimes it is the objects that I want to make that will determine what I will paint, and at other times it is the other way around. The challenge for me is how to make them come together as a coherent body of work; it is a rewarding process as this tends to germinate ideas for future work.

AO: You mentioned "I really want to do something like this since UP Fine Arts days". What did you mean by "this"? Is it the 3-d element? Did you have to give up something along the way and became a painter? Looking back at when you were just starting out 10 over years ago, what do you think has changed or remained the same?

GJ: Yes, I've always wanted to do something 3-d but I wasn't ready. FYI, I designed a horror booth once in high school, and when I was at UP Fine Arts, I wanted to create a set that required audience participation but I didn’t know how; I was not confident enough and I was afraid that without maturity it would turn into a high school project again.

I don't think I have sacrificed or given up anything for painting. I know I'm a painter and will continue to be one but there are other things that I can do and enjoy as well. It's not an act of rebellion or reaction against painting that I make objects or installations now. I see it as a natural progression; I'll seek out other methods to transform my love for materials into something that I hope will also are considered serious works.

RED FIGHTS BACK by Geraldine Javier opens on 28 June 2012 simultaneously with SKYSCAPES by Jay Yao (Jose Campos III) and SKINSKIN by Chati Coronel. All shows run until 21 July 2012 at Silverlens at 2/F YMC Bldg., II, 2320 Pasong Tamo Ext., Makati. For inquiries call 816-0044, 0917-587-4011 or email

Gallery hours are Monday to Friday from 10am to 7pm and Saturdays from 1 to 6pm.

Adeline Ooi in conversation with Geraldine Javier; Image: Geraldine Javier, Work in Progress, 2012