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Marina Cruz, dresses, and memories that belong

By Trickie Lopa, The Philippine STAR Published Jan 14, 2024 11:01 am

As you walk into Albertz Benda in Chelsea, New York’s prominent gallery district, a patch of colorful polka dots catches your eye. It takes a minute to register that the tear that seems to mar the surface of the work on the wall isn’t one, and that the piece captures the magnified detail of frayed fabric—in paint. 

“Repeated Circles Needs Mending,” the painting by Marina Cruz, is one of 14 works currently on view for “Belonging and Belongingness,” the artist’s first solo exhibit in New York. Those familiar with the work of Cruz, one of the Philippines’ most important female contemporary artists, know that she renders more than just pretty patterns in her paintings. She digs deep into family mementos, more specifically, the trove of garments inherited from her maternal grandmother. The matriarch lovingly sewed dresses for her twin daughters (one of them Cruz’s mother) with a dose of practicality and frugality: in the days before plastic covering, chicken feed came wrapped in textile. This provided the intrepid mother with clothing material that ensured that nothing was ever wasted. Circular fashion way before the buzz.

Marina Cruz, “Repeating Circles, Needs Mending” (2023, oil on canvas, 30” x 30”)

“When I looked closer at these belongings or objects and delved deeper into them, stories unfolded. I learned so much about my family. I am drawn to how garments can be so mundane and basic and yet, over time, can reflect or reveal so much history and personal stories,” Cruz ruminates about the seven works on canvas she painted for the show. Two more of them also magnify details from fragments of cloth. “Quadrilateral Dance” shows beautiful quilted patches of chambray and red, folded and creased. While in “Green Foliage,” bright green and drab olive-leaf prints bisected by apple green piping come undone at the edges, worn and shredding at the seams. 

“Green Foliage” (2023, oil on canvas, 30” x 30”)

Four of the other paintings are of complete children’s garments, a camisole, a blouse, a vest. “Made by a Mother for a Daughter’s Casual Dress for College in 1960s,” one of the biggest in the exhibition, shows a brightly printed dress, red blooms covering a pleated frock, obviously a favorite, memorialized as if swaying to dance. 

I look to belongings as things that can hold revelations and meaning based on their ownership.

Cruz started this series in 2002, trying to find something to use for a university project, a collograph that required her to simulate texture. She stumbled onto a cabinet full of clothes. “My lola was a hoarder, she grew up during the war, and rarely threw things away,” she narrates. From then on, Cruz had found a suite of objects that, until this day, provides her with constant inspiration.

“A Camisole” (2023, oil on canvas, 35 3/4” x 30”)

“A particular dress, the baptismal gown of my mom, caught my attention. I saw how material could be brittle, and age just like my mom. At that time, they diagnosed her with emphysema, an irreversible disease. And I saw the reversal of roles, I pictured my mom as a baby, wearing that small dress,” she remembers. That baptismal dress has become something of a signature for Cruz, immortalized as resin sculpture, painted and printed in a variety of ways. 

At the center of the gallery, encased in an acrylic vitrine, Cruz sent over three of the actual articles of clothing. Precious and fragile, they serve as repositories of her family’s memories. 

“A 1954 Blouse Made by Two Women” (2023, oil on canvas, 48” x 36”)

The exhibit also includes a group of 10 works on bond-sized paper, each of which she calls “Drawing Longing.” “I made these portraits using liquid graphite on paper. I like the medium, aguarelle de graffite, because of the fluidity of lines it creates. I had no reference for these portraits; I simply allowed the brushstrokes to guide me. I found myself drawing a face or two: I tried to reflect on how I could portray longing,” Cruz says of the works, the gray pieces providing a contrast to the vibrant paintings.

“Yellow Balloons and Black Holes” (2023, oil on canvas, 48” x 60”)

Thorsten Albertz, the gallery’s director, says, “Marina Cruz is by far one of the most important artists working in the Philippines today but, until now, she had never presented a solo show in the United States. Since its foundation, my gallery has always prided itself on promoting an international roster of artists. Introducing Marina’s work to the New York art world was an easy decision. Her hyper-realistic renderings of garments speak to the culture of her native country, but also conjure universal feelings of matrilinear love and family history.” 

Quadrilateral Dance(2023, oil on canvas, 48” x 48”)

Predictably, given the artist’s stature, the gallery received so much interest from Asian collectors. They, however, felt strongly that they had a responsibility to tap into their own contacts before making the pieces available to the artist’s usual followers. Albertz Benda announced that in the show’s first week, they had placed two of Cruz’s paintings in important American collections—one of them with art patron Beth De Woody, owner of The Bunker, a private museum in Palm Beach. 

Trickie Lopa at the exhibition opening with “Made by a Mother for a Daughter’s Casual
Dress for College in 1960s” (2023, oil on canvas, 60 1/4” x 45”)

Cruz is the wife of the equally important artist, Rodel Tapaya, making them one of the most formidable artist couples in the country. They have three children, and currently live and work in Bulacan, north of Metro Manila, the same province where Cruz grew up. She now lives an hour away from her parents' place, the home where she discovered the precious cache of clothing and objects that she still immerses herself in to this day. They yield her most powerful work. 

“In ‘Belonging and Belongingness,’ I hope to explore the relationships between the objects we possess, the garments we wear closest to our bodies, and the people that possess us. In my art practice, I mine memories from my family archive. I look to belongings as things that can hold revelations and meaning based on their ownership. I also want to look into our deep desire to belong and how we see ourselves as part of a social group, a familial relationship, or even a tribe.”