Country Mouse

Country Mouse, 2008

Self Portrait (Blue Moon), 2008 – not part of this exhibit

City Mouse, 2008

Write-up from Geraldine Javier’s Fictions (27 September 2013)

Country Mouse, Self Portrait (Blue Moon) and City Mouse is a triptych of oil-on-canvas works by Geraldine Javier. They were first exhibited in her 2008 show Sampaloc Cave Paintings in Manila and were last together (as a set) in the seminal survey of Philippine Art Thrice Upon A Time at the Singapore Art Museum in 2009.

The three paintings feature different subjects but are united by a bleak colour scheme and the same or very similar surreal mise-en-scène. Country Mouse shows what appears to be a dead body in a pinstriped suit — perhaps a murder victim, lying prone on a grassy driveway. Brutally grey walls lead the eye to an equally grey sky, looming over the false horizon.

Self Portrait (Blue Moon), which is not part of this exhibit, seems to be a transitional work. There is a curious young buck staring at the viewer in the extreme foreground. The entire left wall and the space beyond the drive way have been replaced by anonymous apartment buildings that look like tomb niches. All colours have been leached out of the painting, leaving everything in shades of grey.

Colours pop startlingly back to life in City Mouse where the deer is replaced by a hunter in rubber waders, aiming a shotgun at a late model hatchback. The car seems to be fleeing from the scene and already seems too far for the hunter’s weapon to be effective. The grassy driveway has turned mysteriously into concrete, and a trail of oil starts curiously where the mouth of the dead body had once been, visually dividing the painting into two halves. The hunter is wearing clothes in primary red, yellow and blue — the historical set of colors used in subtractive color mixing. If blended together in equal proportions, they also produce a muddy shade of grey.

Together the pieces form a finely-crafted narrative, pregnant with isolation, emotional unease and unknown darkness. How did the person die and where did the body disappear to? What is the significance of the deer? Is the hunter the murderer or is he shooting at the fleeing perpetrators? Then there is the almost photo-realism of the works. Javier had used brushstrokes that were so finely and deftly controlled that they seemed almost manic in precision. Collectively the paintings gnaw at what St. Augustine so poignantly called “the belly of our mind”.

On one level, Javier has said that the three paintings illustrated the fraught relationship between her (the deer) and the buyers of her work (the hunter). At the time they were made, her work had started to sell very well under auction and she had started to wonder whether people were buying them for her art or for their investment potential. While this is certainly true, one wonders if this is the only valid interpretation for this work.

Perhaps because of the title of the original 2008 show and the dream-like imagery of each painting, most write-ups for this triptych have made allusions to Plato’s the Allegory of the Cave (from his Socratic dialogue, The Republic). There, Plato has Socrates describe a group of people who have lived their entire lives chained to a cave that is facing a blank wall. The people watch as shadows are projected on the wall by things passing in front of a fire behind them, and begin to construct a reality ascribing forms to these shadows.

Yet it seems more than just a shadow world that Javier appears to have built here. Rather it is actually a manifestation of what she perceives is Reality itself — albeit filtered through the lens of her artistic vision. Javier’s identification with the deer in Blue Moon (Self Portrait) seems to indicate that the paintings could also be interpreted as an act of faith, a line she has drawn in the metaphorical sand. Collectively, they seem to have gone beyond the artist herself, beyond whatever scope that she had originally envisioned. The fact that she had pictured herself as another creature is the key, one that perhaps recalls what Abstract expressionist Willem De Kooning once said: “I know a painting is finished when I’ve painted myself out of it.”

Whatever meaning is ascribed to them, the three works – Country Mouse, Self Portrait (Blue Moon) and City Mouse clearly depict a reality of their own, one that projects a sense of menace and the unease of repressed memories. Like Picasso’s Guernica (1937), looking at them is like picking at an old wound, one that has not gone away despite being covered with layers of scar tissue.


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