Evoking light and graceful movement, Katrina Cuenca’s works tap into our poetic imagination.
By Gwen Bautista; Photos by Xander Angeles; Make-up by Bettina Lim
Inside the bustling and busy streets of the New Manila district, a high-rise condominium complex sits quietly on top of a hill. In one of its towers, a small outdoor pool welcomes everyone who passes by the driveway. Its stillness takes away the exhausting city energy. Looking down at the blue water, the reflection of the windows from the apartments above becomes visible. This somehow made everything feel calm and weightless.
Katrina Cuenca’s studio rests among these residences. Here, large canvases gilded with gold leaf paint are displayed side by side as the artist explains her progress for this particular series, which she will be presenting in her next exhibition. She proceeds to explain how she had found this studio and invites us for refreshments at her family’s home a few floors up. There, family photos and her old works adorn the living room.
Quantitative Methods of Passion
Cuenca continues, “As a child I always loved drawing and creating things. I always knew I had a love for art, but becoming a visual artist as a profession happened very slowly and gradually.” Her childhood was surrounded by landscapes and still life paintings from her grandfather’s art collection. “He had an office with a library as well. It was full of books and he collected a lot of art books. And that’s how it really started.”
In high school, she took an elective class studying art, but decided to pursue something else for college: “I didn’t take up Fine Arts. I went to La Salle and studied Business and Finance. So although my interest was in art and I was painting and drawing at home, my first job was at a financial institution. I hated it.”
Perhaps time was on Cuenca’s side when she decided to work with a company that hired outsourced animators and motion capture data editors for popular video games like Guitar Hero and Call of Duty. “So from there I decided to put up a small animation studio. The goal was to produce Filipino 2D animation. Unfortunately, that didn’t work out because of the costs. What I did get out of it though was a re-awakened interest in pursuing a more creative career path.”
She later opened an art studio where she facilitated workshops for children. It was here that Cuenca realized how art can quickly change someone’s life, and this time it wasn’t only hers. In one of those classes, the mother of a girl whom she was teaching decided to talk to her one day and asked, “What do you do in your classes?” and started crying. The mother thanked Cuenca because her daughter went silent after witnessing a traumatic event and only started to talk again after attending her classes. “That really opened my eyes to what I really, really loved to do,” she mused.
In 2010, Cuenca was invited to her first group exhibition at the now-defunct Outerspace Gallery in Makati where she presented her work together with other esteemed artists such as Ambie Abaño, Con Cabrera, J.Pacena II, Salvador Ching, and Zeus Bascon. She even took an online course from MoMA via Coursera, and their assigned projects were shown at the institution.
Determined to go after what she had always wanted to do, Cuenca started actively painting in 2011, with the encouragement of her husband Manny. (The couple had even collaborated on an artwork during a “drinking and painting” session at a friend’s house. The work now hangs right by their dinner table.) As it happens, her husband’s uncle needed someone who can manage his art collection, and so Cuenca’s background in finance and her passion for the arts came to a full circle. With the support and encouragement of her family, she joined more group shows, with one of them taking place inside a 205 sqm condominium unit, which was used as an alternative space to host the show.
In three more years, she would mount her first solo exhibition, Chapter 1 at Secret Fresh. MP3 players were installed alongside her paintings, which featured geometric fragments in the background and biomorphic subjects. Art has always been a sort of escape for Cuenca, and rightly so, her works draw influence from abstraction and surrealism.
While working on Chapter 1, she received the unfortunate news that her mother was suffering from cancer and would succumb to the disease in less than five months. Cuenca was devastated by the gravity of the loss and how sudden everything was. Somehow, this led to her new series where she painted what looked like fins of Betta fish over metallic grounds. The Betta fish was her mother’s favorite.
“They’re actually inspired by fins of fish or fabric, and how they move when they’re underwater. I came up with this new series shortly after my mom passed away. I didn’t handle the loss very well. I was really, actually grieving for the first time in my life and I didn’t know how to handle it. This series is about what I learned during that difficult time. I realized that when you feel that level of pain, instead of fighting it, you should allow yourself to feel it. Same goes with love. The more you fight it, the more damage it does to you. But when you allow yourself to feel it, you eventually find peace.”
Drawn by Gustav Klimt and Brad Kunkle’s use of gold leaf paint in their works, Cuenca used the gilding technique in creating metallic groundings for her paintings. However, the artist is also drawn to how colors interact with light. In fact, she recently acquired Black 3.0, a black acrylic pigment that absorbs up to 99% light. Developed by British artist Stuart Semple and Culture Hustle, Black 3.0 is Semple’s critique of Anish Kapoor’s exclusive Vantablack.
Cuenca states, “I like how light affects the metallics in the paintings and how light becomes an external medium that interacts with the piece.” Thus, the same level of grounding can be observed in her works where light places emphasis on the lightness of the subjects, as if they are floating in mid-air or just hovering in the universe. In her works, there’s a sense of serenity that can be felt: one that absorbs the noise and the chaos, yet allows one’s self to be at peace within.
“When I was young, I would go swimming. I’d go to the deep at the end of the pool and I’d let myself sink there and be pushed around by the current.” Cuenca explains that this is the exact feeling she wanted to convey in her works: a way of removing her impulse to control things, a way to let us see the light and be removed from feeling the weight of the world.
She remains sure about how she would like to make more art in the coming years: “I’m working on bringing my paintings into a three-dimensional space. I’m playing with metals and I’m hoping to put out a new way to show this series. I’m also working on some pieces with silver and copper leaf.”
The future looks golden for Cuenca’s art practice, as her works continue to bring us into an ethereal place in this part of the world.