To spark the inspiration that took the Man of La Mancha on his impossible quest, Manuel de Cervantes reportedly wrote while sitting immersed up to his knees in pails of freezing water. He believed that the cold stimulated his literary juices. Artist Janet Balbarona can definitely relate to such unorthodox creativity boosters. She herself has not been averse to donning a ball gown or two while completing her paintings. To prepare for her second solo exhibit, she has taken up residence at the artist’s studio of Blanc Compound in Mandaluyong. Two suitcases crammed with outfits and accessories, plus a horde of shoes, fill her bedroom.
“Kailangan ma- feed ko ang fashion fix when I paint,” the 27-year-old Janet reveals, laughing. Tonight she wears a bright orange, a-line tube, her black bra straps exposed on otherwise bare shoulders, neon yellow sneakers on her feet. A patch of scalp lies visible beneath the close shave of her asymmetric haircut. “I love Vivienne Westwood and anything from the eighties,” she shares. But she goes by what feels right as she works. “Sometimes as I paint a particular detail, feel ko dapat naka red ako. So, palit ako in the middle of painting that object. Sometimes, magkaiba pa ang shoes ko!” Unsurprisingly, Janet’s pieces resemble collages put together like a designer’s look book of clothing illustrations. As the daughter of tailors, fashion figures largely in her compositions.
“My pieces look like pages of a scrapbook, parang unfinished, ungrounded, raw. I put in what seem to be random elements, pero may meaning lahat yon.” Beneath the insouciance, the brilliant hues, and the trendy vibe, lie deeply personal stories. In this exhibit, Peeling Peaches For The Sharpest Tongue, she fills her canvases with various depictions of herself, each one a narrative of her life in Beijing. She includes mementos gathered as she partied and painted her way around the Chinese capital.
Janet moved to China in 2008, four years after graduating with a Fine Arts degree from Far Eastern University, and a year after a stint in Perth doing commissioned portraits for an aboriginal rights group. In Beijing, she gravitated around the club scene, hanging out with DJs and young fashion designers. Inevitably, Janet hooked up with some artists and started working on her art. The galleries in the 798 arts district, although interested in her portfolio, felt that the market would not take her seriously until she had a few one-man exhibits in her resume. Early in 2009, she headed home to make her Manila debut. Her pieces have since found their way into the collections of the local art cognoscenti.
In this current body of work, Janet weaves images of peaches into all her paintings. She throws them in, innocuous and hardly apparent, amidst her self-portraits. The peaches and peach blossoms serve as ornaments, the same way they adorn classical Chinese paintings. You can tell which of her works relive good memories. For these, Janet renders her peaches plump, pink, juicy. Otherwise, she depicts them rotten and decayed, decomposing amidst scavenging rats.
Janet’s pieces possess the frankness of Janet herself. She goes through unexpected lengths to portray the truth. Before she could bring herself to get started on this show, even as her canvases had already been stretched and primed, and her frocks lay waiting to be slipped on, she found herself flying to Hong Kong. She spent a week seeking closure to an incident that she wanted to include in this exhibit. Her paintings deliver sincerity in a stylish package.
If each painting recounts an episode, then this entire show can be viewed as a full account of Janet Balbarona’s eventful year. Through her pieces, we find ourselves vicariously reliving the life of a hip, peripatetic romantic. Manuel de Cervantes may actually have a word for her: quixotic.
Peeling Peaches For The Sharpest Tongue runs from 22 February to 12 March 2010 at Blanc Makati, 2E Crown Tower, 107 Dela Costa St., Salcedo Village, Makati. Phone (632)752-0032 or visit http://www.blanc.ph
This post is a slightly edited version of my article for Rogue Magazine Feb 2010 issue. See http://www.rogue.ph