The Filipino-American artists Leo Valledor (1936–1989) and Carlos Villa (1936–2013) are important figures in postwar American art, who are just starting to get their due. This is not surprising — as much as the art world in the United States shows interest in globalism, it is still just beginning to recognize how many artists of different ethnicities have made significant art.
Both Valledor and Villa grew up in the tightly-knit Filipino community in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill neighborhood before it became gentrified. Although they were not related, they referred to each other as “cousins.” As close as they were, each followed his own path in art. Their work — Valledor’s geometric abstraction and Villa’s use of body prints and feathers — pushes against the art world’s frequent practice of equating ethnicity and racial identity with figuration and anecdote. They are not storytellers.
Despite their long friendship, the exhibition Carlos Villa & Leo Valledor: Remains of Surface at Silverlens is the first time their work has been shown together, which is a step forward in considering the relationship between very different artworks beyond the category of style. The 12 paintings are evenly divided between the artists. They are paired on adjacent walls, side by side, or opposite each other just inside the gallery’s front door, like friends who don’t want to lose sight of each other while hiking.
Five of Villa’s six pieces (all dated between 1978 and ’86) are on unstretched, unprimed canvas to which he has attached, integrated, or collaged canvas elements, feathers, a photograph, and a wig. Using acrylic paint he marked the surfaces with face and body prints. In “Untitled (Face Prints with Wig and Photograph)” (c. 1979), Villa made individual face prints in white acrylic on separate pieces of raw canvas, which he attached in rows to the canvas. In the left-hand corner is a wig and a canvas and a photograph collage of the artist’s mother is in the lower right. The combination of these elements prompts all sorts of possible readings. What traces of our parents stay with us? Is it inevitable that we become like them? The faces, which look in different directions, raise another line of speculation about time and aging.
“I’m Beside Myself” (1981) is composed of white body prints of Villa’s face, hands, feet, face, torso, and legs on an unstretched gunmetal gray canvas. The face and body prints suggest two standing figures with their hands upraised. I was reminded of the Shroud of Turin, which is revered by many as the burial cloth of Jesus of Nazareth. What is the meaning of the doubling? Why are five faces above each torso?
In these works, Villa opens a space for the viewer to speculate on their meaning. He is never didactic about identity. With more than 7,000 islands and more than 182 ethnolinguistic groups, Villa understood that Filipino identity can be fluid.
Valledor was 19 when he showed in the legendary Six Gallery, which was started by six young Bay Area artists and poets. It is where Allen Ginsberg first read Howl on October 7, 1955, changing the course of literature. In 1961, he moved to New York and became one of the founding members of the Park Place Galley (1963–67), a number of whose artists were exploring the possibilities of shaped canvases in their pursuit of the fourth dimension. According to a prominent critic of the time, David Bourdon, “this was not classical geometry — akin to Dutch de Stijl — but rather a dynamic, new geometry of complex spatial effects.” Their interest in space amounted to a rejection of Minimalism and its emphasis on flatness. That rejection and Valledor’s ethnicity certainly did not help him find success in the New York art world of that time.
Aside from “Young Blood,” dated 1955, all of Valledor’s exhibited works were made after he returned to San Francisco from New York in 1968. Along the vertical center line of “Earth Sign” (1970) is a small yellow-orange circle against its earth-red field. Further down the artist has painted a thin horizontal blue bar above a green one. Valledor’s choice of color and placement of shapes are deliberate in this work. In Buddhism, one meditates on yellow to transcend pride and vanity. The yellow circle is a focal point. Was Valledor reminding himself not to be vain, even though he made the painting? Do the green and blue bars signify earth and water? He was not a minimalist and did not embrace formalist literalism. He took its language, and that of geometric abstraction, and reinvented them through the lens of Buddhism and the quest for enlightenment.
What Villa and Valledor understood about living in the Filipino diaspora was that they could never fully assimilate into American mainstream society; they would always be outsiders. Once they recognized this, they set out on their own paths. The fact that they did not try to obscure this part of their identities is a testament to their determination to make something unprecedented, urgent, and necessary.
Carlos Villa & Leo Valledor: Remains of Surface continues at Silverlens (505 West 24th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through November 4. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.