Text by Khyne Palumar; Photography by Jovel Lorenzo
Have you heard of the Helleborus flower?” Aileen Lanuza asks, while we gaze transfixed, perhaps a little too long, at the series of finished and unfinished canvases of acrylic-painted women covered in large flowers at her garage-turned-artist-studio in Meycauayan, Bulacan. A two-hour drive from Manila by our estimate, but traffic was light so we got there in half the time, giving us ample time to gawk at her renditions of women engulfed in flowers (a series similar to her recently concluded show Sanctuary of Singularity at Galerie Stephanie last May).
“It’s a bit surrealist in that the flowers are growing out of the women. I don’t want it to look like a portrait. I want it to look like the women and the flowers merge,” Aileen tells us. About the Helleborus: “It’s poisonous,” Aileen continues. “It’s actually my favorite flower. The poison is a defense mechanism. They can survive winter and still bloom and be that beautiful. I admire their resilience. They fascinate me.” This newfound love of nature, translated in her most recent style, a series of works on floral females, coincides with their move out of Manila almost a year ago. “To be honest, I didn’t think I’d like nature. My last studio was in a more enclosed space. I guess because the city is so congested, when we moved here, this place was literally a breath of fresh air. I felt more free.”
The studio faces an open-air garden, with manicured greens, tables and chairs for entertaining guests, four dachshund lounging loosely when a shooting crew isn’t present, and a well-placed duyan for breaks. “I also do yoga here in the morning. You should see it in the summer when the flowers are in bloom. There’s butterflies, birds are singing, it feels like you’re in a Disney movie,” Aileen beams. “So this immersion in nature became a source of inspiration. The flowers became part of my paintings and I was able to merge it with my love and interest in Filipiniana, and it worked.”
The Evolving Maria Clara
If you’re allowed to know only one thing about Aileen Lanuza’s body of work –regardless of where she is in her 16-year creative evolution in the art industry; discounting that she’s married to equally esteemed artist Vincent de Pio, son of renowned painter Gig de Pio; and even forgetting to take into account that Aileen graduated with honors (Cum Laude) at the country’s oldest arts and design institution (U.P. Fine Arts) – it’s that she has a deep affinity for Filipiniana and/or Maria Clara, and it always shows.
Women dressed in traditional garb is a recurring subject. “Maybe I have an old soul. Ano ba ito, reincarnation?” She jests. Then, in earnest, she affirms her deep love for vintage and antiques, and how she likes to hold fast to some traditions, because for Aileen, “The Maria Clara is sort of a fading art. It’s not as accepted as compared to Japan and their kimonos, where everyone’s still wearing it. I want to retain and preserve the culture as much as I can. The burdas, no other country can do the weaves that we’ve done. It’s very beautiful, it’s very unique, and it’s very Filipino.”
As for the woman in her paintings, “Maria Clara has always been my muse. I’ve always been drawn to her spirit, her pride, her beauty, her elegance.” Asked if the implied conservative nature of Maria Clara feels like an ironic symbol of modern woman empowerment, Aileen replies, “I don’t think it is. Just because the cut of the dress is conservative, doesn’t mean the woman has to be.” She adds, “I think silence can be powerful. A single gaze in a specific moment can produce a litany of emotions. A piece I did called ‘In Stillness and Silence’ is a manifesto of that. Even in stillness, you can command attention.”
While the Maria Clara has always been in her paintings in one form or the other, this time, with her work on flowers, there’s a change in the way she paints women’s faces. “It was a conscious decision when I paint women that it has to represent a Filipina face. The reason the faces I did in the past resembled me and felt like self portraits is because I’m also Filipina. But then at this point in our generation, our culture is also very mixed, so I also wanted to show that.”
“I wanted to do all ranges of faces. All the color of the eyes. All of the skin tones: morenas, blacks, even albinos, the whole spectrum. I don’t want to limit myself in terms of culture, because we’re already a mixed culture. It’s still women, still Maria Clara. But the faces, I want it to look like everyone.”
Reimagining Pop Surrealism with a Vintage Filipina Touch
Aileen’s earlier works feature equally strong, popular female icons such as Frida Kahlo, Marilyn Monroe, The Wizard of Oz’s Dorothy, and the Queen of England, for good measure. All of them weaved in a Warholesque pastiche of pictures and colors, sometimes re-imagined as movie posters: Pop Surrealist takes with a vintage Filipina touch (i.e., Academy-Award Winner Maria Clara in “A Love Story” featuring Judy Garland, George Murphy, and Snoopy. Did we mention she’s holding knife a behind her back?) “Women’s portrayal in pop culture has always been subjective. It’s always variable. What I can only control is myself and how I want to present women in pop culture. I’ve presented women in different aspects of the spectrum, all of them a play on fantasy and reality.”
As for her skillful way of telling a story using an assortment of pop culture characters: “I’ve always been interested in Pop Art because of my background in Advertising. I’m a huge fan of Andy Warhol because his works appeal to both my advertising and painting background. His colors and visual compositions are strong. There’s a sense of play and whimsy in his works that is something I also want to delve into.”
A Quiet Strength in Bloom
At this point in the conversation, we’re treated to a visual unfolding of Aileen’s paintings as we tour her studio where new works are in progress, and parts of her home where a few of her earlier works are mounted on display. A decade-and-a-half old exquisite and prolific progression. But that wasn’t always part of her plan. “The plan was, after college, I would get a day job in advertising, and then once or twice a year, I would exhibit my paintings,” Aileen says. “But I found that I couldn’t do that because it’s like asking someone to split their heart. I love painting, and if I didn’t focus on this, my work probably wouldn’t have evolved to what it is now.” “I think I was just very fortunate to have found my calling in life very early on. I knew at the age of five that I wanted to be an artist. So starting at that point in my life, I was able to focus and harness my talent as best as I can. It’s not all about talent though. If you want to be great at something, you do the work.
You do something a thousand times, you improve and get better,” Aileen recounts. She’s also somewhat of an art prodigy, having mounted her first solo exhibition in high school, then winning various art competitions early on, including one hosted by former President Fidel Ramos. Almost two decades after, she’s produced for multiple group and solo exhibitions locally and abroad. Far removed from how she remembers herself as a kid, before applying herself completely to her love of art, Aileen remembers, “I was an extremely shy kid. I barely even talked to anyone the whole of my elementary school years. But through art, I was able to gain confidence to speak and be heard.”
The irony of it is Aileen Lanuza has come to the point where she doesn’t need to tell you this. There’s a quiet, refreshing boldness in her paintings that speaks for itself and does much of the heavy lifting. Perhaps this mirrors the title of a painting that Aileen personally holds dear, a tribute to her father, who would always tell her, “Darling, There is Strength Within You.”