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Between The Wacky Universes of Gilda Cordero-Fernando

Breathtaking, immense, poetic, picturesque – none of the above apply to the watercolors of Gilda Cordero-Fernando. Hilarious, wacky, fun-filled, far-out (like the Far-Out Catalogue she wrote for a women’s weekly in the old days). These more aptly describe the artworks she has amassed for her 2009 exhibition. Also on display will be interpretations of Gilda’s animals, in lamps by her daughter Wendy Regalado, and soft sculpture (stuffed animals) by Alma Quinto.

Before she became a popular painter, Gilda had earned fame as a prizewinning writer of fiction and essays, book editor, and publisher of Filipiniana under her trade name GCF Books. To this list she has added the lustrous career of watercolorist.

Early last year she mounted a sell-out exhibit in Le Souffle restaurant in Rockwell. The show’s title, befitting the artist’s personality, was “SENIOR MOMENT: Age-Defying Paintings.” Her debut exhibit (2005, in the Podium) displayed an array of paintings against the background of the Garden of Eden, labelled “Paraisong Gulo-Gulo.” Confusion in Paradise resulted from a reversal of roles: Adam did the laundry while Eve relaxed, a glamorous cavewoman in skimpy leopard-skin outfit. The Paraiso opening coincided with the launching of Gilda’s memoirs, The Last Full Moon.

And now comes “Between Universes,” the title of both her exhibition and one of her watercolors. She explains the cosmic theme: “Indigenous Filipinos believe the universe is made up of seven layers – three above and three below the earth. Middle earth, as Tolkien refers to it, is the middle layer. The pair here has wandered into one of the layers. See the roots of the plants sticking out below. I really don’t know where that is because I can’t figure out the animals I drew.” The pair are an awestruck man and a woman, surrounded by a cluster of animals in odd stages of evolution. That creature at the bottom – is that a dog or a chicken?

Nobody but nobody paints like Gilda. Nobody else subverts all the academic rules and traditions and gets away with it. Totally unschooled in the fine arts, she can’t draw an elbow, but she can draw hands skilfully, especially if they’re unfurling a roll of toilet paper.

Her style stands out as a unified blend of words and watercolors. The wit, humor, and satire of her prose have wormed their way into her captions, which are integrated into the paintings as components of the works themselves. One can often read the text right on the painted page, in comic-strip balloons. “Telebabad” is a cartoony rendition of her two plump granddaughters, slouched side by side, chatting on their cellphones. Their dialogue rambles on in the balloons. “These two sisters are hung up on their cellphones,” their Lola comments. “Actually they’re only talking to each other.”

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At times there are no balloons to contain the text, just handwritten remarks floating beside the subject. Or the text may simply flow from his/her/its lips, as in the painting entitled “Quacks,” where a group of intertwined ducks and one bird equipped with stethoscopes utter words of wisdom. The duck is one of GCF’s favorite humanoid birds. If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and talks like a duck, it must be a quack doctor. “Luckily I am a bird, a duck is a quack,”the yellow bird declares. The pink duck, whose body is pincushioned by acupuncture needles, retorts, “Needles are better by far than chemicals.”

Gilda’s images materialize either by design or by accident, mostly both. Drawn by design is “Duet,” in which two women flaunt their ugliness. Gilda admits she avoids doing pretty faces because “they too easily tend to become stereotypical.”

“Pinoy Hitchhikers to the Galaxy” shows four persons wearing huge lopsided glasses embarking on a visit to their friends in Venus, Pluto, and Mars. Concerning these balikbayans of outer space, Gilda notes, “Some of us earthlings have actually lived lives in other planets and are just walk-ins of our present home.” Her galactic paintings fit neatly into the theme of “Between Universes.”

“Krismas Kard” is Gilda’s nativity painting. Mama Mary has brought out her breast so she can nurse her cute infant, whom someone (maybe Joseph) has wrapped in striped swaddling clothes. Gilda notes that all over Europe there are paintings of the Blessed Mother breastfeeding Baby Jesus, but not in the Philippines. Her version of the blessed event locates the Holy Family in a cave. A hallelujah angel carries a candle to light up the world. Looking on are a carabao, a goat, and even the ubiquitous duck announcing excitedly, “It’s a boy!”

Christ’s Passion is the subject of “Testaments,” which has our hero in the center, carrying the cross amid wailing women. Frizzy hair and beard, plus exhausted upturned eyeballs, produce a woebegone look that is almost funny, to tell the (blasphemous) truth. No wonder Peter asks Jesus: “Sigurado ka ba sa ginagawa mo, bos?” Gilda observes that “JC has been cruelly tortured so he must have looked a lot like a Pacquiao challenger after a fight.”

Philippine folklore occupies a special place in her art. Engkantos abound, slithering around tree branches. A housemaid about to install a roll of toilet paper in the bathroom encounters a naked cigar-smoking kapre squatting on the toilet, its knees meeting its chin. Christian and non-Christian versions of the generic Maria are outstanding in this gallery of paranormal figures. “Apat na Maria” portrays four lovely engkantos – Mariang Makiling, Mariang Sinukuan, Mariang Cacao, and their gorgeous “commander in chief” – drifting in a rarefied haze of pink and yellow.

Satirically affiliated with the pagan Marias are female idols inspired by Virgin Mary statues and fair ladies perched on carrozas during religious processions and beauty pageants. Thus we have a festival of “Pinoy Household Saints”: Our Lady of Perpetual Rain (“not a happy day in her life in this valley of tears”), Our Lady of Perpetual Sorry’s, Nuestra Señora Fashionista, Santa Kusinera, Santa Desnuda, Goddess of Allure, Nuestra Señora Abandonada, Pop Madonna of the Broken Heart, Madonna Going Through Flames – revered in all their crowned, flamboyant glory. My favourite is Señora Fashionista. (Gilda herself is a fashionista whose wardrobe is a melange of designer wear and ukay-ukay discoveries.) The iconic Fashionista’s pedestal is a cross between a mosque and a layered birthday cake. The dome supports the lady’s chartreuse gown, which resembles a pair of giant boobs, each nipple a large spiral of green embroidery. The peak of the mosque intersects the cleavage. (This is a Freudian, not a political, reading).

When a blank sheet of paper confronts Gilda, and she hasn’t an idea in her brain, she rests one hand on the paper and lets it glide uncontrolled. Lines interconnect gradually and contoured shapes emerge. She fills the shapes with colors. A dot here, a slit there, and the shape becomes an expressive face, smiling, scowling, meditating. Wild prints sprout from plain-colored spaces, as in “Three Little Pigs” (also called the “Year of the Lechon”), where crisscrossing pigs sport Fabric Warehouse designs on their skin.

Gilda’s text weaves itself into the work during and after the act of creation. “Chain of Command” evolves from interlinked lines, where triangular and trapezoidal military faces bark the wrong orders, such as “Ten-sion!” and “Sugod mga kapatid!” and “Patay kung patay!” “Year of the (Good Luck Kawai) Cat” is a row of triangles like pennants hanging on a laundry line. Topped by a head, the triangles embody a blue Japanese cat waving a hand, its fur a pattern of black stripes curving in all directions. Another picture grows out of swirling circles and ovals transformed into pussycats’ faces. An astonished mouse, trapped with the felines in their extraterrestrial buggy, gives the painting its title, “Holy Cats! They’re Driving the Space Ship.”

In “Chartered Trip to the Moon” four self-confident animals man a space shuttle with a solitary human passenger. Gilda predicts that we may live to see this.

I’ll tell you a secret. The nameless creatures swimming in her “Aquarium of the Mind” are cut-and-paste transplants from the underwater universe of an unsuccessful painting.

“Between Universes” will be on exhibit from Feb. 17 to March 17.

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