By Giselle P. Kasilag
THE HUMAN body is replete with marks and scars that tell the stories of our lives. But in the artistic hands of Julie Lluch, it is a bountiful canvas of a nation’s history. “Chronicles on Skin,” her latest exhibition at Galerie Stephanie, explores the Philippines’ extraordinary record of violence and oppression through what appears to be her take on skin art using acrylic painting on cold cast marble of the human form. The resulting artworks are sculptural torsos and limbs, brightly painted with images referencing some of the most violent moments of the country.
Resistance 1521 depicts Ferdinand Magellan’s arrival in Cebu and his subsequent death at the hands of Lapu-Lapu. The Battle of Mactan, explains Ms. Lluch, is one of the most critical events in the nation’s history, with the Portuguese explorer being our first foreign oppressor.
EDSA Chronicles features National Hero Andres Bonifacio and former President Corazon Aquino striking the same victory pose with two arms raised. The contorted body of the slain Senator Benigno Aquino, Jr. is on top of his wife’s defiant figure. Other elements include a ribbon of a flag spiraling up, a dragon eating gold coins, Chinese clouds, and an artist carrying paintbrushes.
Other works depict more recent instances of violence such as Badi Grapiti (Para kay Ericson) which contains passages from Grapiti sa Badi by award-winning writer and National Democratic Front consultant Ericson Acosta, and The Guerilla is a Poet (For Kerima) referring to poet and activist Kerima Tariman — Mr. Acosta’s wife. Both were killed in separate violent clashes with the Philippine Army.
Pieces not necessarily referencing specific cases of violence but clearly depicting the oppressive way of life in the country complete the narrative which, Ms. Lluch stresses, is not necessarily chronological in its telling. Spoliarium Mandala is an entire left arm that begins at the shoulder and ends in the hand with the entire stretch covered by a dragon with a golden orb in its claw. On the claw is the dead gladiator — the focal point of Juan Luna’s Spoliarium.
Indeed, the Spoliarium is referenced throughout the collection. Ms. Lluch explains that the mold of the torso is not new but reused from an earlier piece she made of the Spoliarium’s gladiator that was used in the Art Fair Philippines.
“I just cut it up into body parts, if that means anything. I guess it means something, no? Shoulder, arm, leg, torso, it’s still related to the concept of violence to the human body,” says Ms. LLuch.
When asked if this was why the Spoliarium’s gladiator appears again and again in many of the pieces, she readily agrees. “Yes! Like a leitmotif. It is the principal inspiration because it is carried over from a last show, also with Galerie Stephanie. And for me it is a symbol of a country in distress, or a country that’s oppressed or subjugated by a foreign or a more powerful force.”
PAINTING A SCULPTURE
The collection sees a departure from her favored terra cotta. The change was facilitated by necessity as she was unable to source the Iloilo clay. Longtime followers will also take note of the delicately painted sculptures — a first for Ms. Lluch.
“I guess you can call it painting. Somebody asked me if I am melding painting and sculpture but I said no, that’s not possible. It can be only one or the other. I don’t know how far I’ve succeeded here. But I still feel that painting the way I know it is really something else. I didn’t mean to be a painter here.”
The sculpture, she explains, is the host to the painting. The mold dictated the content. She also had other figures in her studio such as those of farmers, so she chose the body parts, decided where to cut, and allowed the form to guide her in the development of the piece.
The images taken by photojournalists covering the extra-judicial killings during the previous administration’s war on drugs sparked the idea for Chronicles on Skin. The contradiction between the ghastly images of the violence set on the beautiful human form — particularly the skin — was part of the inspiration for the concept. But she found the disturbing images too crude.
“Although the subject matter is so grim — these are deaths, grief, sorrow, and anguish — but I think that’s the function of art. It makes the ugly beautiful. It makes the unbearable bearable so you can contemplate on it,” she explains.
On the other side of the gallery, however, Ms. Lluch leaves the torso to focus on the female anatomy. A nod to Georgia O’Keefe, she brings back her ever-evolving sculptures of the vagina inspired by the floral paintings of the mother of American Modernism. The pieces are identical in form but are rendered in various shades of red and blue. Some are dark. Others are shimmering. Each one is distinct.
“I’m really enamored with Georgia O’Keefe! She is one of the finest American painters. She did a lot of orchids and lilies and begonias. And the critics say that they all look like vaginas. And she was so annoyed, so angry with the critics! She really denied it! But I think she was just being coy,” Ms. Lluch laughs.
While the violence depicted on the torsos and the playful take on the vaginas may appear to be opposites, both series are rooted in the artist’s appreciation for the human form. And being what she describes as a “balanced feminist,” she proudly revels in the beauty, the complexity, and the versatility of the body to express a full range of ideas that are meant to be challenging and thought-provoking.