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The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2020

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SEPT 2020 Issue

Maureen Catbagan

In this year of ongoing disasters, it’s a challenge to find the plot. The thickness of time has especially revealed the fiction of temporality as a linear and accordingly, thought bends in increasingly supple ways to account for this multiplicity. Without many of its external markers, the phenomenology of time has been profoundly altered: we exist in a constant negotiation between realities and temporalities. In its excavation of memory—both personal and collective—Maureen Catbagan’s recent painting series plumbs the psychological space of this uncertainty. Catbagan is a Filipinx multi-media artist and theorist who does individual work in photography, painting, and video, and collaborative performance-based work with Jevijoe Vitug as the Abang Guard in addition to collaborating with Flux Factory and HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN? (They and I also co-write critical essays on art, identity, and representation, some of which have been published in the Rail.)

In this untitled painting series, Catbagan paints images and words on large (3 × 4 foot) sheets of paper using black and red tempera paint and posts photographs of the finished work to Instagram (April 2020 – ongoing). Each painting consists of a set of concepts, two black outlined figures, and red shapes. In Plant Music (2020), black vertical lines look like architectural renderings of sculptures. There are red horizontal curly shapes layered on top—one connects the vertical structures while the other two are separate. It is difficult to describe the images; they are comprised of intersecting lines and shapes. They are clearly of something, but as soon as anything recognizable appears, it shifts out of view. I think of them as roadmaps; in their irresolution, they demonstrate complexity and interrelation. Plant Music also contains the evocative phrases “Ramen Cash,” “Repeat Cycles,” “Biophilia,” and “Khaki Scapes.” What do these words mean? What narratives might they be conjuring through their spatial arrangement? How do they intersect with the lines and shapes? Each painting is its own closed infinity loop. In Plant Music, perhaps we palpate toward forging a relation between gentrification, globalization, colonization, and the extraction of natural resources. Is that a drill? A factory? An oil spill? There is also, however, exchange, desire, affinity, and music. A gramophone? Cash register? Bench? These relations cannot be reduced to critique but are expansive and complex. They gesture toward political landscapes that operate on multiple scales. Another painting, Resilience Shifts (2020), featured in the Immigrant Artist Biennial, for example, combines “Liquid Earth,” “World Event Lines,” “Native Stories,” “Cascading Impacts,” and “Resilience Shifts.” Does this speak to climate change, Indigenous struggles for sovereignty, folk knowledges?

Despite their tonal differences, the paintings are consistent in composition, the black figures always roughly the same size and distance from each other. The words help us assess whether this might be an adversarial or cooperative relation—being alongside others encompasses many possible dynamics, after all. These black outlines are also structural, providing the affective anchoring for each piece. The red shapes I see as shadows—revealing the underside of concepts and affects—asking the viewer to think about possible connections between the central figures.

Each painting is also marked with a set of numbers in the bottom left corner. They are dates, shorthand for Catbagan’s daily journal entries indicating when these concepts took root in their mind. In unhurried moments at work, Catbagan takes notes and does quick sketches of the art they watch as a security guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This accounts for some of their paintings’ familiarity—we are seeing paintings of sketches of art objects in the Met. The paintings themselves, produced during stay-at-home orders, further abstract these meditations. The artist had to pause the series because paper supplies ran out, but now that the Met is reopening, Catbagan’s journaling will resume as will their painting. They offer connection to a recent past while also providing insight into Catbagan’s strategies for time and affective management—how to make time for creativity and critique while also doing something else.

Catbagan’s insurgent method of making time and meaning amid the durative is instructive for many of us now, as we each seek to work through the morass of upheaval and destruction. Though we cannot sense the texture of the tempera paint or their large size, their condensation into Instagram’s smaller scale feels apt. The platform provides accessibility (for artists as well as viewers) and archiving. We can see these paintings—some closely cropped, other times a glimpse of a living room and paint—as well as Catbagan’s other work producing conversation that would otherwise be unavailable. There is something special, too, about seeing them on the IG grid (or as a parade of images); it is in this vastness that we get a sense of what this infinity means. We work through much time and many thoughts with Catbagan, but how (like life) is up to us—we can move through them quickly or pause for more contemplation.

By working around such concepts, Catbagan has given us a set of coordinates to find our own way toward thinking. The place where these images and words meet can always only be specific to every person’s history and memory; an elusiveness that illuminates the instability that all representation is built on. Words and images are always fictional attempts to produce communication. Here, however, we are not communicating with Catbagan, but are, instead, invited into our own internal processes of thought. We are being offered guidelines to provoke insight and the discovery, perhaps, of constellations of thought that we may previously have been unaware.


Amber Jamilla Musser

Amber Jamilla Musser is Professor of English at CUNY Graduate Center and the author of Sensational Flesh: Race, Power, and Masochism (NYU Press, 2014) and Sensual Excess: Queer Femininity and Brown Jouissance (NYU Press, 2018).


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2020

All Issues