Amazing grace: The life in the art of Grace Katigbak

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BOOKS on art abound, depicting both the life and the art of the artist, with the critic approaching his subject from various approaches and viewpoints: personal, formalist, Marxist, etc.

Most fascinating and intriguing to the public, not surprisingly because humanity is more relatable, are the lives of artists, often colorful, tragic or dramatic, or gossipy scandalous.

I’d Rather Be A Butterfly

Thus, Hollywood movies and Broadway plays have been made of the lives of such artists as Pollock (tragically dying in a car crash fueled by alcohol and rage), Marc Rothko (lying dead in a pool of blood after slashing his arm), Van Gogh (cutting off an ear to offer to a prostitute), Frieda Kahlo (struck by polio in childhood; and in a horrific bus accident, impaled by an iron handrail through her pelvis) and Georgia O’Keefe (she who painted giant floral petals  unfolding like female genitalia, she who defied prim society by posing naked for her photographer-lover.) With such tortured and turbulent lives, either of two things may happen: the life overwhelms the art, or it illumines the art.

The thought had occurred after meeting the “Glamorous Guru” named Grace Kalaw Katigbak—painter, sculptor, writer and dancer.  With her distinguished old-family background and impeccable pedigree, blessed with both beauty and brain (she is a Palanca award winner), it is easy to get lost in the complex maze of her life’s journey to the detriment of the real  appreciation of her art, which after all is bound to be an inevitable reflection of her life.

Two solo exhibitions—the current I’d Rather Be a Butterfly…, on view at the Ricco Renzo Gallery, immediately succeeding the first, The Glamorous Guru at Astra Gallery—in the manner of a roadshow attest to the passion and productivity of Katigbak. In her foreword to the show, Katigbak writes:

“I have though very recently discovered some very transformative truths, beliefs that have empowered me even more in directing the current of my life toward what I know now to be attainable goals. Goals that once eluded me, because I was actually afraid to set them…. Now I know I can speak up for the more vulnerable: no more shame or fear or pain, I say.”

Into her works, Katigbak pours the liquid lineaments of her dreams and desires, limning the underlying tensions and upheavals of her life without a trace of self-consciousness. In so doing, she creates a species of confessional art: painting as psychotherapy. As the Mexican Frieda Kahlo, in her surrealist and magic realist paintings, employed the fragmented memories of her scarred life, riddled with physical illness and emotional pain, so does Grace Katigbak—but with one distinctive difference: the pain from her heart slipping through her fingers holding the brush converges with the joy of healing, her personal redemption, which has stayed and contained what otherwise would have been a tragic life. (As the artist herself would say, in mock dismay, but also genuine relief, “There, but for the disgrace for God…”)

The viewer thus participates vicariously in her life stories opening up into shapes and lines that seem like mere inflections of the human form, for always they are in state of flux, on the way to becoming, until a glimmering of recognition takes him by surprise. It’s like looking at a painting from a sideways glance, provoked by a darting restless brushstroke that changes direction in midstream. Katigbak  paints, as it were, flowing in a stream of consciousness.

The title piece, I’d Rather Be a Butterfly…, is a large expansive space, maintaining  its fidelity to the Abstract Expressionist idiom, though instead of continuous, and contiguous, color passages that expectedly cohere, Katigbak opts for a dispersing aggrupation, like distraught islands separating from the archipelago in the undertow of volcanic upheaval, such as evinced by the artist’s id—that part of the psyche, residing in the subconscious that is “the source of instinctive impulses” seeking satisfaction driven by the pleasure principle. And yet, the delicate and tender allusion to the butterfly—which pertains surely to the persona of the artist—is such a warm, congenial metaphorical presence.

Katigbak attacks her canvas—for that is the word—with rapacious relish and gusto, an exhilarating, freewheeling, angel-may-care abandon, instinctively knowing where the lines should somersault in exuberance, or coil if only to release an increasing  buildup of tension. She likes to whip up a painting into a frenzy, though the dripping helter-skelter lines have an unexpected wispiness. And then, after the throes and orgy of creation, she steps back with surprising dispassion and detachment. The painting—like the butterfly released from its chrysalis—flutters away with a life of its own.

The other metaphor against which Katigbak mirrors herself, is the clown. (What a delight to know that  she attended a clown school in Paris.) That comical, carnival character—all grin and glee on the outside, but weeping on the inside—appeals to the artist who is herself no stranger to throbbing pain, emitting sobs of laughter.

Thus, the work with the twin hearts alluding to the aria “Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore” (“I lived for art, I lived for love”) from the Puccini opera Tosca, which the artist’s own mother, the late soprano Evelyn Kalaw, once sang with the Italian tenor Arigo Pola, is at once particularly chilling  and affecting. There are more: the flamboyant Mother and Son Clown, which is a portrait of the artist and her son Dondi; Matilda (Clown with a Hooked Nose); and Clown with Two Breasts. While these works are utterly contemporary, it must be said mentioned posthaste that clowns were depicted as early as 2,400 BC, in the ancient hieroglyphs of Egypt. The sheer timelessness of the clown imagery has drawn the interest of the French expressionist Georges Roualt and our very own Ang Kiukok. Now happily immersed in her own self-acceptance and self-love, Grace Katigbak Kalaw has come into her own, having found her voice and visual language. Anguish (or memories of it), as she says, she can pour into her writings, but painting for her is exultance and sheer exhilaration of the spirit, ensconced within her, by the grace of God.

Of this, there can be no doubt: her life has illumined her art.

  • Cid Reyes is the author of coffee-table books on National Artists Arturo Luz, BenCab, J. Elizalde Navarro and Napoleon Abueva. He received a Best in Art Criticism Award from the Art Association of the Philippines.



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