THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
Maia Cruz Palileo, A Thousand Arms Offered, 2019. Oil on canvas, 34 x 30". Image courtesy of Monique Meloche Gallery.
Maia Cruz Palileo, Normal Boy, 2018. Oil on canvas over panel, 8 x 6". Image courtesy of Monique Meloche Gallery.
Can paintings have humidity? Maia Cruz Palileo’s do. They are thick with warm air and moisture. After entering Monique Meloche’s space on North Paulina in the West Town neighborhood, my shoulders relax at the sight of saturated color, a relief from the gray February weather in Chicago.
The exhibition immediately introduces a spacious hang of modest canvases that look like jewels against the white wall. One thing is plain, even at a distance: Palileo is an excellent painter. Each work varies in size and complexity, but all emit the same heavy mood. Two books sit at the front desk and act as a contextual key. The first is Dean Worcester’s Fantasy Islands: Photography, Film, and the Colonial Philippines by Mark Rice. The second is Nick Joaquin’s The Woman Who Had Two Navels and Tales of the Tropical Gothic. She is setting a tone and building out a world, one that is neither wholly fiction nor history.
The artist is an American painter working from Brooklyn but native to Chicago. Her statement defines her practice as an exploration of her family’s Filipino heritage while questioning “history, migration, and belonging.” Palileo’s project grew out of a 2017 Jerome Foundation Travel and Study Grant to conduct research among one of the world’s most extensive archives of Philippine manuscripts and historical photographs, which happens, ironically, to be found at Chicago’s Newberry Library.
At the Newberry, she combed through documentation of colonial occupation of the territory since the Spanish-American War, including photographs taken by American official and zoologist Dean C. Worcester. While the library boasts this sizable archive of Philippine history, these sources suffer from their colonial lens. The subject is defined by an observer representing difference rather than giving a voice to or seeing through the natives’ eyes. They’re more representative of the expansionist American gaze than the Philippine people themselves.
Worcester’s ethnographic representations were the catalyst for Palileo to create a new bank of images, deciding to reimagine and “resuscitate” the exploited and dehumanized figures. This quest of reanimation became the collection of cutouts, graphite rubbings and paintings that are on view.
Palileo reimagines this past while taking cues from the watercolors of Damián Domingo. My knowledge of Domingo's legacy is lacking, along with my grasp on the history of American colonialism in the Philippines and its effects. Referencing them now, it's clear that his portraits’ attention to dress and culture influence Palileo’s figural painting in particular.
Each impression from Palileo’s universe feels like it leads to the next. The length of the gallery space bridges two coves of painting with a survey of paper cut-outs and graphite rubbings in between. These react against the Newberry archives to become the artist’s visual vocabulary. The paper figures, plants, and animals mimic Worcester’s romanticizing of the tropics and combine in different iterations to create compositions that feel amnesic and hypnotic. But as the figures translate to paint, they mix with folklore and gain new spiritual power.
A Thousand Arms Offered (2019) is where I dove into Palileo’s painted world. It has all the mysterious symbolic qualities of the show: the expert attention to color and a lingering feeling of affection. Hands and arms reach inward toward the center of the canvas, toward the dark hair of a young girl. It evokes ceremony and care while materializing at the point of touch to dissolve at the edges.
This show feels haunted. The best example of this is The Parlor (2019). The perspective of this interior is steep and suggests a grand room with wealthy figures in white sitting in the background. Color and pattern lead the eye to them. But the direct stare of a black deer confronts you, one of its legs intertwined with a noose-like rope. The dark greens, blues, and purples become a pattern and flatten the illusion like a barrier. The animal feels as much like a spirit as like a part of the painted room.
A foreboding tone permeates all the work as you catch glances from figures and eerie layers of shadow. Water’s Mirror (2019) is a double portrait of a young boy and his reflection. His image in the water feels alive and is some of Palileo’s boldest, unbound mark-making. Night time, dusk and the liminal space between present and past are all considered in this small painting. The loose and dreamy Water’s Mirror and Normal Boy (2019) are made with precision. However, the artist shows the breadth of her skill in the intricate and stunning They Dreamed in English (2018).
Maia Cruz Palileo, They Dreamed in English, 2019. Oil on canvas,
48 x 62". Image courtesy of Monique Meloche Gallery.
Palileo has collected accolades, including a residency at Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture and the Joan Mitchell Foundation. The exhibition, titled “All the While I Thought You Had Received This,” is Palileo’s first solo show with the Monique Meloche gallery and her first in Chicago. I imagine it's the first of many. The show leaves me wanting to see what’s next for Maia Cruz Palileo and to seek out other contemporary Filipino and Filipino-American artists. Her research points to reclaiming space in history that she can’t fill alone.
The exhibit is on view through March 30 at the Monique Meloche Gallery, 451 North Paulina St., Chicago, IL 60622.
Sara Rouse is an artist and writer living and working in Chicago, IL. She received her B.F.A from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in 2012 and her M.F.A. from the University of Chicago in 2015. Follow her work at www.sararouse.com and on Instagram @sararouse.
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