(SPOT.ph) In A Tree is Not a Forest now running at Silverlens Gallery, foremost contemporary artist Geraldine Javier builds on, or further cultivates, the artistic field she had ploughed and prepared in Five Gardens, her 2021 exhibit. It was in the latter that she revealed her naturalist bent and paid tribute to modern artists who got into gardening with a passion similar to what they accorded to their artmaking—the French impressionist Claude Monet, Mexican painter Frieda Kahlo, British horticulturist-writer-photographer Gertrude Jerkyll, and British filmmaker Derek Jarman.
All artists are in one way or another naturalists, nature being muse to their creative demiurge, but Javier, further inspired like most artists by the growing environmental movement, has established her own studio and farm in Cuenca, Batangas, where she does organic farming while incorporating her investigations into the flora and fauna around her in her artmaking, via botanical printing and mordanting.
Geraldine Javier's A Tree Is Not a Forest at Silverlens Gallery
When one enters the foyer to the exhibit halls of Silverlens, one is immediately arrested by the large portrait of Jarman uncharacteristically garbed in a long robe and seated in what appears to be a throne, looking more like a high ecclesiastical dignitary than the iconoclastic gay rights-activist filmmaker who, upon being diagnosed with HIV in 1986, retreated to Dungeness along the Kent coast where he set up a sculpture garden out of the shingles and gravel of the dry and dreary shore. The garden has become a tourist destination since his death in 1994.
If in her 2021 exhibit, Javier mounted the art installation, “Bones of Jarman,” in which she interpreted the filmmaker’s Dungeness garden, with its luxuriant blooms and plants like dog rose, lovage, marigolds, santolinas, valerians, and poppies, in her latest portrait of Jarman, Javier has inscribed words the filmmaker wrote shortly before he died due to HIV-Aids complications: “The gardener digs in another time, without past or future, beginning or end. . . As you walk into the garden you pass into this time. . . Around you the landscape lies transfigured. Here is the Amen beyond the prayer.”
Portraits of naturalists by Geraldine Javier
Jarman, Monet and Kahlo were artists first and foremost, and gardening enthusiasts secondarily, so the Jarman portrait prepares the viewer to Javier’s tribute to four out-and-out naturalists: David Attenborough, Jane Goodall, Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717), and Leonard Co (1953-2010).
The portrait of Attenborough, the British biologist celebrated for his BBC documentaries which record his seven decades of wilderness exploration, is adorned with several species named in his honor by scientists. Javier’s inclusion of the species shows her interest in phylogeny, the study of evolutionary relationships among different species, organisms, and even genes.
Just when the viewer starts to suspect that her fondness for referencing environmental icons from the West may unmoor her thesis and alienate Filipinos who, after all, are looking for references to their own immediate situation, Javier pays tribute to Leonard Legaspi Co, the Filipino botanist who was killed under mysterious circumstances in Kananga, Leyte in 2010. (The Philippine Army said he was killed in a crossfire between its infantry battalion and the communist New People’s Army, but the Philippine National Police and the Commission of Human Rights have filed charges against several Army troopers.)
Javier’s evocation of phylogeny in the work of Attenborough may form the backdrop to her portrait of Co, who did field research around the Philippines to establish the bio-diversity of the country’s ecosystem. A poignant tribute unfolds as Javier tries to link her work with the legacy of Co’s, emphasizing the role of art in combating “plant blindness.” For the portrait, Javier includes names of common medicinal plants from the Cordilleras that Co had recorded.
On the other hand, Javier’s portrait of Merian serves to bring to contemporary recognition this 17th to early 18th century entomologist and scientific illustrator when those fields weren’t exactly feminine preoccupations. In 1699, Merian bravely sailed from Europe to Dutch Guiana (now Suriname) in South America and from this expedition she made her landmark work of 60 engraved plates and illustrations of the species of plants and insects she had seen. In her portrait of Merian, Javier includes the naturalist’s outstanding illustrations.
The artist’s portrait of Goodall is actually a tri-portrait, showing the primatologist interacting with her favorite apes. Departing from her usual acrylic medium, the portrait is a fabric work employing applique, embroidery, and ecoprinting. During the opening at Silverlens, Javier said she focused on Goodall’s hands as the latter had often been seen holding hands with, or giving food to, apes. “It’s a hand that gives,” Geraldine noted.
The fabric portrait of Goodall paves the way for the next section of the exhibit. “What’s in a Name?” unravels a new artistic chapter for Javier, introducing ecoprinting to her repertoire. The series, delving into the paucity of research on local plant dyeing, features fabric works adorned with embroidered scientific names, echoing the biodiversity ethos of Co.
Javier’s contemplation of life, death, and ecological balance takes center stage in the “Life Cycle Series.” Skeleton figures intertwined with embroidered mushrooms, root system, and elephant foot yam which, were informed, used to be found in her Cuenca farm until expanding human habitation seemed to have stamped them out. Lace-like patterns symbolize the delicate dance between mortality and rebirth. Concerns for species coexistence materialize in a textile installation, showcasing cyanotype images of endangered animals, rust-dyed, indigo-dyed, and chlorinated.
Expanding human habitation resulting in damage to the ecosystem, like what happened to the elephant foot yam, is the concern of the section, “Humans as Predators.” In two fabric works, which Javier has grimly thought playfully titled “Terminator” 1 an and 2, she explores hybrid creatures embroidered with wings—a profound commentary on humanity’s impact on the ecosystem.
At the gallery, “Life Cycle Series” and “Human Predators” are shown together in an enclosed space. A bench in the middle of the hall invites the viewers to sit and immerse themselves in the mounted ecosystem if only to become aware of the delicate balance that obtains between nature and creatures, often disturbed if not damaged by human predatory instincts.
In “New Species in an Anthropocene Era,” Javier ventures into the fantastical realm of fictional creatures, blending skeletal parts, flora, and fauna. Drawing parallels to medieval bestiaries and the enigmatic 15th century Voynich Manuscript, which has a biological section that medievalists and scientists now surmise to be a textbook on medieval plant physiology, Javier’s creations beckon viewers to ponder existence and humanity’s place in the ever-evolving narrative of the Earth.
As the world grapples with environmental challenges, Geraldine Javier’s art transcends mere aesthetics, inviting people to confront their relationship with nature and ponder the threads connecting everyone to the vast tapestry of life.
Just as one tree does not a forest make, one environmental exhibit does not make an artist a naturalist. But with two pathbreaking and extremely well-conceptualized and well-staged exhibits that exalt nature while drawing attention to its human despoliation, Geraldine Javier is getting there.
A Tree is Not a Forest runs until December 20 at Silverlens Manila, 2263 Don Chino Roces Avenue Extension, Makati. For updates, visit the Silverlens Gallery website.