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Wild women

By Trickie Lopa, The Philippine STAR Published Apr 15, 2024 5:00 am

In a conversation with Oprah Winfrey, author Cheryl Strayed says: “What happens with the sorrows and the joys and the hurts and the losses is if we do life right, we use them always to nurture us down the path. Sometimes it’s a hard lesson, and sometimes it’s a beautiful one, but if we keep on going, we end up in the same place.”

You could use these words to capture the essence of “Wild: Women Abstractionists on Nature,” the exhibition currently showing at the Metropolitan Museum of Manila. The title of the show comes from Strayed’s acclaimed memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found at the Pacific Crest Trail (later turned into the film Wild with Reese Witherspoon), which recounts the odyssey of Strayed reclaiming herself after a series of life blows.

“Wild: Women Abstractionists on Nature” is at Metropolitan Museum of Manila until June 22.

 While almost exclusively devoted to paintings, the exhibit brings together 34 women artists of various ages, nationalities, persuasions and points in their careers. The exhibition’s curator, Kathy Huang of Jeffrey Deitch Projects in New York, shares that works inspired by nature “felt like a good way to focus the exhibition, rather than just throwing a bunch of women together.” Abstract art is enjoying a resurgence. But while historically, the biggest names in abstraction were male artists, female abstractionists like Helen Frankenthaler and Lee Krasner have, in the past five years, received belated recognition and respect through major institutional shows. This exhibit gives visitors a survey of the women working with abstraction today, producing work that has brought them critical and commercial recognition in the global art landscape. Huang has also made a conscious effort to include Filipina abstractionists and emerging artists from the US.

Curator Kathy Huang

“Abstraction isn’t purely about color and form, but reflects unconscious influences,” Huang says. “Wild doesn’t just refer to nature, but the nature of human beings, their desires and human urges.” The breadth of work offers visitors insights into the impulses that propel a whole range of artistic practices.

Metropolitan Museum of Manila president Tina Colayco at exhibit

British artist Jadé Fadojutimi burst onto the world stage at the 2022 Venice Biennale with her monumental immersive canvases. While more modest in scale, two of her canvases welcome viewers to this exhibition, instantly grabbing attention with their vivid purple- and red-violet-hued backgrounds overlaid with confident strokes of color.

Nearby, not immediately noticeable, is a gem of a work by Cecily Brown, arguably one of today’s most important female artists. In the past year, Brown completed a blockbuster exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The painting “Cottage No. 3” is a very early work from 1991, and is featured in the artist’s monograph from Phaidon. At the far end of the space hangs an important piece. Berlin-based Katherina Grosse’s “O.T.,” the largest work in the exhibition, floats unframed, suspended from the ceiling, the bottom of the work curling upward as it skims the floor.

Known for her site-specific environments that envelop viewers in a rainbow of colors spray-painted on swathes of fabric, Grosse took over the Hamburger Bahnhof for more than a year in the middle of 2020. Her expansive “It Wasn’t Us” extended from within the museum to beyond its doors, underscoring the ambitious nature of her pieces. In 2022, she was featured at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Venice for “Apollo Apollo,” a parallel exhibition to the Biennale. On April 1 of this year, “Why Three Tones Do Not Form a Triangle” closed at the Albertina in Vienna, one more major museum show under her belt.

Cecily Brown, “Cottage No 3”

Another artist worth noting is Thai conceptual artist Pinaree Sanpitak. “Breast Vessel,” acrylic and pencil on canvas, depicts an upturned breast, a motif that has become something of a signature for the artist for the past 20 years. The inverted mound resembles a vessel used for offerings, imparting the sacredness of the female body, its purpose as a spiritual repository.

Another big name from Southeast Asia, Indonesian Christine Aytjoe, features in this show with a 2008 work, “Air of Monologue,” from a private collection in the Philippines. These days, Aytjoe shows with White Cube, the powerhouse gallery. When the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened their refurbished galleries for contemporary art in the fall of 2023, they included a painting of Aytjoe’s, one of the museum’s acquisitions.

Jadé Fadojutimi “Her melons have really mellowed out”

Any rundown of today’s female abstractionists must include the American Mary Weatherford. “Turquoise and Cockle Shells” belongs to a series of works that incorporate neon tubing; the 60-year-old has included light as a sculptural element to her paintings since 2013.

Mary Weatherford, “Turquoise and Cockle Shells”

The Philippine contingent counts among its ranks an untitled work from Nicole Coson’s camouflage paintings, Corinne de San Jose’s watercolor and cyanotype, and Wonghee Delgado’s “All of Me Wants All of You,” an oil and watercolor painting that resembles fireworks bursting forth from a coconut tree. Equally enthralling from the museum’s own collection is an undated work from Francesca Enriquez. She belongs to a group of artists active in the early 2000s under the mentorship of Roberto Chabet. This rediscovery of her work coincides with renewed activity in her career: Enriquez is set for an exhibit with Silverlens in New York in May. 

Li Hei Di “The Nightless Dusk”

Art collectors have shifted their eyes eastward, particularly towards work from Chinese contemporary artists. “Wild” includes two names currently on many wishlists. One of them is Zhang Zipiao, whose piece “Peony 07” was featured in a 2021 solo exhibition at Salon 94 in New York; Artsy, the online art platform, counts the other collector darling, Li Hei Di, as one of the Artsy Vanguards for 2023-2024, a list of 10 of the most promising contemporary artists today. Her work for the show, “The Nightless Dusk,” an oil on canvas work from 2022, brims with energy.

Singapore Ambassador Constance See with Zhang Zipiao’s “Peony 07”

Huang cites two artists whom she felt strongly about including in the show, both presenting photo-based pieces. Filipino-Canadian Sara Jimenez incorporates Philippine historical photographs in her abstracted collages. At 10 inches x 1.25 inches, Antonia Kuo’s “Dusk” is probably the smallest work on view. She calls her work photochemical paintings because of the process she employs to transform images through the application of substances. Later this year, Kuo opens an exhibition at Seattle’s Frye Museum of Art, an intriguing pairing with the late street artist, Martin Wong.

Andres and Atasha Muhlach with Christine Aytjoe’s “Air of Monologue”

“I attempted to organize the show into four groupings: Landscapes, for paintings with a literal interpretation of nature; The Sun or Cosmos; Experimental Works; and The Body as Landscape.” Huang shares how she chose to hang the works in the museum’s third floor gallery. As one goes through the works arrayed on the walls, these distinctions blur. The pieces seem to fall into a progression that naturally flows from one to another.

Wonhee Delgado with her painting, “All of Me Wants All of You”

“Nobody is going to do your life for you,” Cheryl Strayed also tells Oprah, one of the nuggets she conveys in her book. “Thank you for all the things I regret. We don’t want our lives to be seamless and easy—that’s a boring life.” She also believes her book gives women permission to embrace their vulnerability, countering the mindset that vulnerability connotes weakness. For Strayed, it’s an openness that leads to strength. The “Wild” exhibition here in Manila, with its convergence of remarkable women finding themselves all in one place, sharing their art, may certainly reveal the same.