Hyphen magazine - Asian American arts, culture, and politics

Portrait of the Artist as a City

What strikes you first about Carlos Villa’s artwork is the abundance of lines. Sharp and straight, they slice through his massive wooden canvases like pinstripes, and cross like dense city grids. The curved ones layer on top of another, tracing the musculature of a face, or worming around a canvas seemingly aimless. The work is abstract -- all form and no referents at first glance -- until certain signs begin to reveal themselves. Above an intersecting axis hangs a fedora, a symbol of an early generation of Filipino men who migrated to the West Coast. Alongside a grid are street names -- Kearny, Montgomery, Washington -- names that mark the vanishing geography of Manilatown, San Francisco. There’s history in these pieces -- a Filipino American history of migrants, empire, and selfhood -- but its traces only emerge after you look closely.

Villa’s artwork is the subject of the recently edited collection Carlos Villa and the Integrity of Spaces. Theodore Gonzalves, the book’s editor and a professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, isn’t coy about his opinion of Villa. He is, Gonzalves writes, the most significant US-based visual artist of Filipino descent of the twentieth century. Others in the volume attest to Villa’s impact. Moira Roth describes Villa’s presence in the Bay Area as “casting spells for […] two decades,” not only as a superb artist but as a legendary teacher. And David A. M. Goldberg, one of the artist’s collaborators, compares Villa to Public Enemy and graffiti artists, grounded as all three are in repurposing the idioms of style and the streets. Yet, for the most part, in the halls of academia (in art history and ethnic studies departments, alike), Villa’s work has gone unnoticed. Carlos Villa and the Integrity of Spaces tries to correct that through a series of critical essays and artistic tributes to his career, both from folks in the academic world and from long-time friends and activists.

Villa grew up in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, in what he describes as “a Filipino ghetto side by side with a Japanese ghetto, in the middle of a Black ghetto.” Born in the immediate aftermath of the Tydings-McDuffie Act, which reclassified Filipinos from “US nationals” to “aliens,” Villa’s art explores this formative era of Filipino settlement in the US with an eye for both political critique and communal remembering. And though his projects celebrate that earlier generation of immigrants, Villa’s engagement with the past is never wrought by sentimentality. Gonzalves explains, “Villa is unsparing [with] the flaws that he saw in many of his parents’ generation -- whether it had to do with compulsive gambling or womanizing or alcoholism.  […]  Of course, he’d be the first to tell you that his parents’ generation lived and worked in a time when racism was the law of the land.” In his installation series My Uncles (1993-96), for instance, Villa used the metaphor of “doorways” to comment on the constantly shifting immigration policies toward the Filipino community; quite literally, too, framed doorways, painted black and affixed with fedoras and photos of the manong generation, stood in the middle of a gallery, deliberately leading the spectator nowhere.

It took years, however, before Villa developed an aesthetic that could meaningfully engage Filipino identity. Villa’s earliest work was born out of San Francisco’s abstract expressionist school, which, despite its ethos of freeing the artist from formal conventions, still constrained his ability to explore the various facets of his cultural roots -- tribal, national, and regional. Using different media and materials, interestingly, is what finally allowed him a way in. In an interview with Margo Machida, Villa explains, “I started using blood along with my acrylic paint… [as well as] shells, hair, broken mirrors. I started extending what I knew of modernism to what I just discovered about these cultures. And in some way, I was trying to bring about an answer or a way that I could become Filipino American.” In Worlds in Collision (1994), Villa makes another revealing comment about his process: “I have always striven for a gumbo, for a creolization of aesthetics in my own work.”   

That “gumbo” approach to aesthetics, in a way, describes Villa’s ideas on art education. Since 1969, Villa has taught at the San Francisco Art Institute, where he has been a pioneer and tireless advocate of multicultural art education. To be sure, Villa’s “multicultural” isn’t limited to a tepid politics of inclusion -- what Goldberg describes as the soft multiculturalism of “sharing food, fashion, and tunes.” His is a far more radicalized multiculturalism that begins by recognizing the intersections between different communities of color. Gonzalves explains that Villa’s attempts at fleshing out multicultural art history had “less to do with adding brown faces to predominantly white spaces,” and more to do with community building across the city.

So why have critics overlooked Villa’s body of work? Why is not that complicated, Gonzalves insists, and is symptomatic of a broader erasure from American public memory of US imperial relations to the Philippines. “Every academic discipline still functions much like those guilds of the past -- one group of specialists training another,” Gonzalves tells me, and “[i]f most ‘Americans’ have no idea about the meaning and context of events like the Spanish-American or US-Philippine Wars, you can bet that art historians would know much less.” Carlos Villa and the Integrity of Spaces is an important book for that reason alone: it not only celebrates the work of an artist and educator who has inspired so many, but it gives us a way to engage the “political consciousness” of even Villa’s most abstract art. You can’t see Tydings-McDuffie, Manilatown, and the manongs of Kearny Street in the lines of Villa’s giant canvasses, until you learn to read its signs. 

(Visit Carlos Villa’s website for more information)

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Manan Desai recently completed his PhD at the University of Michigan, and currently serves on the board of directors for the South Asian American Digital Archive.

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