These days, Geraldine Javier gets off on creepy crawlies. Nope, she doesn’t harbor the hots for some congressman. Not with that kind of a low life. We’re talking literally. You know, praying mantis longer than the average guy’s hand span. Giant beetles that turn
a luminous shade of chartreuse depending on which angle you look at it. We’re talking dragonflies and damselflies with exoskeletons that give off a dull metallic glint when hit by the late afternoon sun. These days, as Ghe transforms into a hermit, spending months cocooned in her studio, she keeps company with dozens of insects, frozen, lacquered, and preserved to her exact specifications.
We meet close to dusk on a Saturday afternoon, the time set to coincide with the end of her workday. She keeps to a strict timetable, more intense than a working stiff’s daily Makati grind. Ghe’s spent five months preparing for this show. Like pupas awaiting gossamer wings, nothing leaves her studio that hasn’t been completely fleshed out. Once an idea germinates, she turns it around her head until it develops into a solid concept that she can unleash on her paintings. Ghe brooks no compromises on her workmanship either. From the stretching and priming of her canvases, to her underpainting, to the final finishing strokes, she accomplishes each stage in scheduled
precision. She only gets assistance to move her canvases around. Almost everything else she carries out alone. Once done, she wraps and seals that piece, not a speck of dust allowed to settle on it. Her former long-time partner, artist Jonathan Ching, describes Ghe at work as “DISCIPLINED, all caps! At least 10 to 12 hours of focused work that, often, you can’t get a decent conversation in. And that’s seven days a week for a major show.” As we converse, seated on the floor in her studio, I marvel at the amount of energy and tenacity her petite frame holds.
A bit of a naturalist with an interest in taxidermy, Ghe spotted a mummified praying mantis on a trip to KL last year. Unable to resist, she found a way to incorporate it into a piece she did for the inaugural show of Manila Contemporary Gallery. That led to the start of a series that culminates with Butterfly’s Tongue, her solo show opening this month at West Gallery. She completely takes over the gallery, filling up all three of their exhibit rooms.
The thing with a Geraldine Javier solo exhibit, you expect something off-kilter, a little bit sinister, but always something strangely bewitching in those towering canvases. You know she’ll bring out something she’s never done before. With help from Estan Cabigas and Joshua Lim, noted arthropod collectors, she’s amassed this insect assortment that beautifully blends in with her painted images.
In each of her nine, large-scale (we’re talking a minimum of six feet high) canvases, she combines her signature photorealistic oil paintings with an assemblage of mantids and web spinners, weevils and Lepidoptera. Like museum specimens, she displays each creature in framed vitrines embedded on her canvases. She pads each vitrine with fabric she has embroidered herself. Ghe’s needlework rivals her painting for its finesse. In Shaken Spirit, exquisite appliquéd blooms and leaves serve as backdrop to preserved beetles falling from the empty, jagged branches of painted trees.
Ghe manipulates classic masterpieces, putting her own stamp on familiar images. In The Arrows of St. Sebastian, you imagine Il Sodoma’s sexy St. Sebastian writhing under attack from six-legged arthropods, loincloth in danger of sliding down and popping off. In another canvas, she appropriates John Everett Millais’ supine beauty from his Apple Blossom, transporting her from a ladies summer picnic in a green orchard, to a fairly ominous solo appearance at the foreground of a forest that’s turned brown. You can
almost hear the call of the crickets. A girl sits in the corner of Ghost of Beauty In Her Eyes. Brignt fuchsia stripes and a floral-patterned wallpaper surround her as she gazes at butterflies that seem to flutter in her midst.
There is an old-fashioned, gothic-mystery-vibe to this show. Something like Rebecca or Jane Eyre with a dash of Arachnophobia. The monumental diptych, Temple of My Familiar, captures this precisely. On one side, you have a girl seated in a striped wing chair, her hair tousled and wind blown. She seems lost in a
trance, transported by fantasy or imagination to a dark forest. Has she disturbed the bluebirds that swirl around her?
You also get this in Eyerollercoaster where a giant tarantula seems to make for a little girl in a lace pinafore. The expression on the child’s face, part disgust, part fear, as if she swallowed a particularly unpalatable vegetable, makes this piece priceless.
To satisfy the clamor for more manageable pieces (ie, make collectors in West Gallery’s long waiting list happy), Ghe surrounds her major paintings with smaller sized depictions of flora and fauna. She imbues these works with colors and treatment that recall botanical prints found in the flea markets of Europe, the sort that naturalists collect and fill up their homes with. For the smallest of these pieces (20″x24″), she embroiders flora on canvas, then seals this with beeswax, a fastidious, intricate process that requires utmost concentration.
After this show, Ghe brings her work to Milan, in the Spring of 2010, for a solo exhibit at the Primo Marella Gallery. Already, she mulls over her working schedule, worrying a bit about how customs will react to the insects she may have to take with her. Right before that, she has her piece for the Christie’s Fall Auctions to finish.
Even during slack time, watching her collection of DVDs or catching art films with her close friend, scriptwriter Raymond Lee, her hands itch to do something: embroider, create, fabricate. She can’t help it. Perhaps cavorting with those insects have infected her. While she stops short of calling herself OC, Ghe admits she always needs to keep busy. Just as an effing bee.
(I reprised this post from an article I wrote for the September 2009 issue of Rogue Magazine. Details have been added and edited from what originally appeared in that publication.)