The mysterious deep
Filipina artist Bree Jonson takes her enquiry into the human psyche a step further in Writhing.
BREE Jonson is more than a little like her paintings – or is it the other way around? She’s articulate, has a wicked sense of humour, laughs easily. But pare away the surface, peel back the vivid colours, and there’s more than meets the eye with artist and paintings alike.
Writhing, her second solo in Kuala Lumpur after Therion Mythos in 2014 (and her sixth solo overall), comprising oil paintings, sketches and an installation piece, feature a never-ending supply of adorable sea anemones waving their tentacles lazily, drawing you in like they do with their prey. So venture just a little closer, and then perhaps just a little more, but watch out, their tentacles might sting!
“Life as a teenager was very depressing for me,” says Jonson, 25, when asked about how she got into visual art. But something clicked when she was sent to the counselor’s office (at school) to sit for a psychological test of sorts.
“I had to look at paintings and drawings and other images, and then make up stories for each one. It could be a painting of a sad girl, or a dot in the middle of the page, or just black everywhere ... but good art brings your subconscious to the fore. It wasn’t all good art during the test, of course, but it was what got me interested in visual art,” recalls the Manilabased artist.
In her new series Writhing, now showing at OUR ArtProjects in Kuala Lumpur, Jonson has sea urchins scattered around her oil paintings, their spikes contrasting with the blobs and happy colours and deceptively cute anemones.
“The sea urchins here signify the unknown, the barriers and dangers you will come across in life. They serve as a reminder of our mortality, reflecting the feeling you get when you are underwater and see them everywhere, and are mindful that you should not drift too near them because you don’t want to touch them and don’t want them to touch you!” she explains.
This point is driven home with a 50-piece wooden urchin installation, scattered around the exhibition space, forcing visitors to carefully skirt around them.
“There is always this chasm between the sense of conscious self and the mortality of the body you live in. Does it really end when you die? These are among the many questions and issues I wanted to portray with this series,” she says.
Jonson, who pursued industrial engineering in university (Ateneo de Davao University), has never had formal art training. Instead, after graduating in 2012, she trained as an apprentice under a painter who had a penchant for surrealist works.
“So that was how I started out, with paintings that were rather surreal in appearance,” she relates.
“But after more reading, selfstudy and reflection on what I wanted to do with my art, I realise that what speaks to me now is something more realistic, more natural. I am at a point where I want my work to be more representative of the world around us, rather than just something from imagination ... although I do like to be playful about it!”
It is quite obvious that her work has shifted from the surreal to the more realistic in this new body of work, but the viewer can’t help but notice as well that it is not just the playfulness apparent in her earlier works that is retained in these paintings. There remains a hint of something darker half-hidden in the depths, an undercurrent buried in each work that hovers between mystery and inky black.
“I don’t really want to say it, but now when I look back at my earlier works, it feels like I was just scratching the surface then. It feels materialistic. Now I want to escape that materialism and go deeper, add several more layers to my paintings,” confides Jonson.
Writhing delves deeper into her exploration of the layered complexity of the human psyche, where things are often not what they seem to be.
Her oil paintings can indeed be admired on purely an aesthetic level – after all, what’s there to not like about a gorgeous underwater world – but there is just something about the deep blue that beckons to you, drawing you closer to the whispers emanating from it.
By the time you realise that there is something ominous lurking in the background, it might just be too late to withdraw.
It might be a little unsettling, something a little dangerously hypnotising about it. But maybe there is nowhere else you would rather be.
Writhing is on at OUR ArtProjects, Zhongshan Building, No. 80 Jalan Rotan, off Jalan Kampung Attap, Kuala Lumpur till June 24. Hours: Tuesday to Saturday 11am-7pm; Sunday by appointment; closed Mondays. Visit ourartprojects.com for more info.
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