The saddest and most telling piece in “Carlos Villa: Worlds in Collision,” an exhibition that will be at the Newark Museum of Art through May 8, uses thousands of feathers, each one stained black. But that’s hardly unusual for Villa’s work. Feathers are used throughout his oeuvre.
What’s important about the feathers in “My Father Walking Up Kearny Street for the First Time” is how they catch the light and suggest the play of illumination on the sleek, forbidding exteriors of office buildings. In plexiglass, gesso and angled wooden panels, Villa gives us a scene: a foreigner in a strange and imposing land, wandering the urban canyons of Downtown San Francisco, lured by distant desires. Instead of a human figure, Villa gives us a Panama hat — a father’s hat — suspended in space in front of the feather-towers.
We know at a glance that this is an immigrant’s story. We recognize the curiosity and the alienation, the immensity of the world to be discovered, and the desperation that drives the newcomer to step from the familiar into the unknown. “Worlds in Collision” is full of leaps like this. Villa’s art is made somewhere in the air between cultures, traditions and psychological states — ungrounded, full of the exhilaration of weightlessness and the fearsome pull of gravity. The invisibility and incorporeality of the protagonist of “My Father Walking Up Kearny Street for the First Time” is no fiction. It’s something that all immigrants feel. If we can’t see the man beneath the Panama hat with our eyes, perhaps, Villa’s work suggests, we might well be able to sense him with our hearts.
Villa (1936-2013) was born in San Francisco’s Tenderloin, not far from the Kearny Street symbolically depicted in his sculpture, and lived, taught, curated and agitated in the Bay Area. But his work is most associated with the land of his ancestors on the far side of the Pacific: The Philippines. In his later years, he engaged, allusively but ferociously, with the stories of the Manong — the first wave of Filipino immigrants who came to California in the early decades of the 20th century and lived harsh lives in segregated communities. Kearny Street was once part of San Francisco’s Manilatown, a working-class neighborhood with powerful cultural ties to the old country. By the time Villa reached maturity as an artist, Manilatown was mostly gone — absorbed into the surrounding neighborhoods, knocked down, polished up, homogenized, “Manhattanized.”
The effects of this erasure are felt all over his work. His pieces are dented by the collisions of spectral bodies. People are there, and also not there. They may have been removed, but they’ve left traces of themselves. Villa’s art, radical as it may seem, is grounded in these traces. It’s an exercise in preservation, and a defiant act of remembering.
It didn’t start out that way. Villa began his lengthy career as a talented, but not atypical, abstract expressionist — one who studied under the great California landscape painter Richard Diebenkorn, no less. But flat canvases must have felt insufficiently physical for Villa, unable to capture the body in action or accommodate the irreducible impression of the maker. By the late ’60s, he had turned, hard, to traditions and tropes from his own heritage, adorning his three-dimensional pieces with bone dolls and decorating them with swirled patterns reminiscent of the folk artworks of the South Pacific. His best-known pieces are technically wearable, although few would have the courage to wrap themselves in his great, quill-spiked, mothlike cloaks, brilliantly trimmed by arcs of colored feathers.
Exhibition curators Trisha Lagaso Goldberg and Mark D. Johnson wisely give these garments, big enough to wrap several people in, plenty of room, hanging them right in the middle of the second-floor exhibition space. They look quite a bit like masts on a canoe. A stiff wind could set this whole gallery sailing.
Wisely, these pieces never chase authenticity. Though they draw their inspiration from the barkcloth textiles traditionally worn throughout the Pacific Islands, they’re often fabricated from synthetic materials. “Third Coat,” imposing enough for a tribal warlord, is festooned with feathers and tattooed with tiger stripes — but it’s also made of taffeta, an artificial fabric associated with prom dresses. Villa found effective uses for industrial products like acrylic paint, paper pulp and aluminum frames. Nevertheless, they all radiate a powerful sense of timelessness, and in-between-ness: not Filipino, not wholly American, summoned from a trans-oceanic netherworld of the artist’s own invention, simultaneously pre- and post-modern, both residue and reverberation.
Villa’s best Westernized art material might have been his own Filipino American body. He was constantly throwing himself at his work, shielding himself with it, armoring himself with it, trying to punch through it. One large-scale painting is comprised of impressions of the artist’s face, smashed on the surface of its panels like a passport stamp. He cast his hands, his head and his feet, creating feather-tickled slippers out of paper pulp. (Notably, for an artist consumed with the examination of the unseen, these shoes were inspired by Pacific sorcerers’ footwear believed to render the wearer invisible.) His full-body cast, multi-colored, streaked with charcoal and blood, reclines on a white slab at the far end of the gallery. It looks more than a little like a mummy emerging from a slab of cement, ready to conjure a fireball of phoenix feathers. In piece after piece, the artist is present, and he’d like a word with you.
Though the Newark Museum of Art isn’t loud about it, “Worlds in Collision” is a historic undertaking. This is the first major retrospective dedicated to the work of a Filipino American artist in the United States, and it’s fair to say that it’s unlike anything else you’ll see in the special exhibition galleries of New Jersey and New York museums this year. Once it closes in Essex County, it will go back home to the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. It’s an honor to get it first, but it’s also appropriate: There is a large Fil-Am community in the Garden State, and it is, too often, ignored.
Carlos Villa’s artistic journey was a deeply personal one, beholden to no school or formal tradition. But by orienting himself toward the land of his forebearers, he made a powerful statement against the erasure of Asian-American experience. He challenged us to see things we’ve overlooked. In feathers, blood and hair, paint, pain and Panama hats, he made his mark.
“Carlos Villa: Worlds in Collision” runs at the Newark Museum of Art through May 8. Visit newarkmuseumart.org.
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