By some serendipity, Maia Paroginog and I had both chosen to eat lunch at Arrillaga an hour before our scheduled meeting in Terra.
I’d only seen a photo of Paroginog in their artist statement, so I approached the lone diner — presumed-Paroginog — with the kind of hopeful caution reserved for chance celebrity encounters. I’d sighted a familiar stranger, one with a septum ring and close-cropped hair.
They glanced up. In the photograph I’d seen, Paroginog had seemed severe, their mouth unsmiling, but they smiled now and laughed when I expressed surprise at their non-severity.
“I’m kind of a goober,” they said. “I was super pissed when that photo was taken.” This, followed by another slightly-giddy belly laugh.
They brought a refreshing levity to the topics we’d discuss over the course of the next hour — Filipino identity, representations of gender and the body in art, queer bodies in art, Western imperialism in the East. Paroginog, who was born in Bacolod, Philippines, spent much of their childhood and adolescence in rural-suburban towns in Washington State.
“We were ‘in nature,’” Paroginog said. “Cows and shit.” The quiet and isolation of their hometowns compelled Paroginog to look to themself and the Internet for artistic inspiration. Paroginog’s more diffuse explorations during these early years became more structured at Stanford, as mentors introduced them to working artists and influencers. Paroginog, now a senior majoring in Studio Art, cites the likes of Ana Mendieta, Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, and IDA artist-in-residence Jerome Reyes as inspirations by way of Stanford.
From Mendieta, a Cuban artist, and Reyes, a Filipino, Paroginog took thematic cues; from Frankenthaler and Louis, Paroginog adopted abstract-expressionist mark-making techniques. Mendieta, shunted from her Cuban homeland in the 1960s, produced “earth-body” art that gave form to the abstract yearning of a refugee cast away from her mother country.
“She was trying to connect to the earth in ways that were really profound,” said Paroginog. “She would dig a silhouette of her body in the earth and lay in it, or fill it with flowers, or set it on fire.” There was something so visceral about her performance art, said Paroginog — something akin to being cast from a womb or searching for such a bodily home.
“Mark These Cradles,” Paroginog’s new exhibit at the McMurtry, holds a suggestion of a similar search for ground (even the title, with its reference to cradles, is a tribute to Mendieta). But Paroginog’s imposing, vertical canvases aren’t a means to grounding — rather, Paroginog says, “Mark These Cradles” seeks out ground, then summarily “obliterates it.”
The sprawling proportions of a landscape portrait are reassuring, safe, said Paroginog — akin to a prone human figure. The vertical canvas, however, looms. The painting, far from a passive thing in repose, becomes aggressive — intimidating, even.
The physicality of vertical painting appealed to Paroginog, who stood on step ladders to access swaths of canvas beyond their own reach and wielded hairdryers to direct the inevitable drip of paint down an incline. Where their earlier, smaller-scale pieces took about 30 hours to complete, Paroginog worked in hour-long bursts on the canvases of “Mark These Cradles,” devoting about three to four hours to each piece. The result: a collection of canvases impulsively and alternately dark and troubled, light-hearted and serene, embodied and disembodied. Paroginog worked intuitively. “When your canvas is so large, your perspective just shifts entirely,” they said. No amount of planning could account for the sheer expanse of vertical space.
“Mark These Cradles” marks, among other things, Paroginog’s formal departure from figurative, photorealistic painting, which takes its cues from the human body. But Paroginog’s figurative roots are still subtly visible throughout “Mark These Cradles” — even in the abstract, certain marks might hold a suggestion of a torso, hips, the placement of a head and shoulders. Of course, these somatic intimations aren’t the paintings’ sole interpretations. Among their reasons for defecting to the abstract, said Paroginog, was its potential for engagement with its viewers (Paroginog was disappointed that their eight canvases would be exhibited behind glass, at a remove).
During their figurative phase, “I was posing for self-portraits that were really literal — I had a piece called ‘Body Not Mine,’…I was really tired of putting myself out there,” said Paroginog. The abstract could interact with its viewer; likewise, it made the process of displaying work more artistic conversation than self-confession.
Paroginog likens the vertical canvas to the screen of a smartphone — an intentional irony, given Paroginog’s preferred palette of earth tones: ochre, burnt sienna, and thalo blue, organic hues diametrically opposed to the brushed-metal aesthetic of an Apple product.
In the course of conversation, we uncovered another distant relative of the vertical canvas — we agreed that the proportions of Paroginog’s paintings bore a striking resemblance to the hanging wall scrolls of Japanese and Chinese art. The connection served only to strengthen Paroginog’s statement on fraught East-West histories.
If “Mark These Cradles” dis-embodies the embodied, Paroginog’s sketchbooks rend the embodied to pieces. In the more intimate confines of their sketchbook, Paroginog experiments with ink drawings and collages. Paroginog’s exploration of grounding and the out-of-body is twofold: the loss of literal ground and homeland, on the one hand, and the representation of queer bodies on the other.
One sketchbook work, called “Land/Mine,” consists of iterations of “This land is my land is my land is my land…” For three pages, Paroginog’s writing, in all-caps, beats out a kind of visual tattoo. The wall of words is sans punctuation. You can’t help but feel a little out of breath, looking at it.
There are also collages — images of the West Coast that Paroginog has oriented sideways on the page so that the landscape, again, is unsettled and unsettling: “There is a reason men moved west” is the name of one. Paroginog sought to evoke the “violence of the West on the East”: imperial Spain in the Philippines, France in Vietnam, the British in China.
Then, there is a drawing, called “three people of various genders engaged in a sex act,” which is precisely what its name would have you believe. The trio of figures on the page have been rendered as large, blobbish shapes with diminutive hands and feet. Each person has a dab of color where you’d expect genitalia — blushes of pink, blue, yellow. The piece is a study in “gender fuckery,” as Paroginog has taken to calling it. “It’s a trans aesthetic,” they explained, referencing an exhibit they’d viewed in New York City called Bring Your Own Body. The artwork of BYOB, a show by trans artists, displayed “the body being the body, allowed to be whatever it is,” said Paroginog. “Trans aesthetic” isn’t a monolithic term for a body of work, but a catch-all for a multiplicity of trans experiences. From BYOB, Paroginog recalled a fabric sculpture of a breast made by an artist who’d had top surgery.
In an act of intentional reductionism, Paroginog refers to the process of creating on a canvas as “mark-making,” where the “mark” can refer to a literal application of color or, more abstractly, a kind of predestination. (“Mark These Cradles” holds a sense of fate from the time of birth, Paroginog explained.) The title of each piece in “Mark These Cradles” is a long chain of numbers — geographical coordinates. The numbering of Paroginog’s paintings is complicated by the randomness of the pieces’ ordering.
“I don’t remember which coordinates I’ve assigned to each painting,” Paroginog said, pointing out that the ordering of the eight canvases would likely change with every re-showing. Coordinates are the most literal understanding of place, the translation of a locale, its people, and their customs into cold, impersonal numbers. In Paroginog’s case, these numerical titles are not fixed, and we’re once again left to consider the impermanence of grounding and homeland.
They attempted to show me photos of the exhibition on their phone. By some accident of wifi, the titles of the pieces — their coordinates — loaded before the images could appear.
“Oh, god,” they laughed, scrolling through a page of coordinates and empty image frames. “They’re serial numbers.” They laughed, bewildered.
The anonymous digits slipped smoothly under their fingers, and it occurred to me that neither of us — not even Paroginog — knew which image would appear above each pairing of numbers. For a moment, watching the vacant screen before a digital brain reproduced Paroginog’s work, we came close to groundless.