[Warning: some images NSFW]. Isobel Francisco is a Filipina artist whose work is beautiful and disturbing. I’m writing this as an initial engagement, without having read any interviews or reviews of her work. The nude and clothed, or partly-clothed figures seem to float in some watery quagmire, or perhaps in dreams, where the subjects seem suspended, or almost ready to float away on a current. They might be drowned bodies, or they might be lovers resting after having sex – it’s hard to tell. Clothing and furniture are unmoored from their domestic roles and locations, and the environment (much like the Philippines itself) is unstable, unpredictable.
“Dollhouse” by Isobel Francisco
Positions of dominance and subordination, too, are overturned and viewed from various perspectives. The constraint of clothing unravels like thread, or traps limbs; and yet all these bodies, ready to be released from gravity, also seem enclosed by the frames of the paintings themselves, or perhaps caught in some tide of rising rivers and climate change (As I write this, my relatives in Provident Village, Marikina, are clearing out mud and water from their home after the most recent, devastating typhoon and flooding in Manila).
Something almost apocalyptic seems to emerge in these paintings. I’m thinking of how apocalypse is sometimes evoked by reporters with a kind of subtle glee, almost a hope that with chaos, a new order (even if anarchic) will come about; anything that would change the existing rules. There is a sense of violence even in the faces of those who are bound, waiting for their revenge. There is also a kind of voyeurism; the subjects sometimes staring at another figure, or looking directly at the viewer as if just curious, or as if to challenge.
Many of Francisco’s works also seem to be scratched, drawn-on, and gouged, adding to a sense (in some of the paintings) of struggle, or wear — as if the paintings have been abraded by dragging them along concrete. No subject is unscathed in this artist’s vision. This is apparent in “Armour” where the subject holds her scarf up to her nose, as if to protect herself from her violent (or vile) surroundings.
Colors range from urban garish–metallic orange, turquoise, reds overlapping earth tones–to pale, watery colors of blues and fleshy pinks, beiges, and browns. While some of the images are violent (see “Sever I” and “Sever II” or Shade I, II, and III on her website), there is, in Isobel Francisco’s paintings, just as often something oddly approaching a sense of peace, maybe even ecstasy, in self-recognition, in the possibility of floating free. This work is both vulnerable and unflinchingly tough; it looks back at you, speaking with a truth that is vital for this era of violent disruption and change.