*Featured photo: Hold On, 2020 – side view. Sewn cotton, denim, nylon, canvas. 20 x 24 x 1.25 inches (50.8 x 61 x 3.2 cm). Photo credit: Colin Conces, copyright Paolo Arao
Paolo Arao, a Filipino-born visual artist, trained at Virginia Commonwealth University and the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, currently living and working in Brooklyn, NY.
Arao creates installations and textile compositions. The language of geometric abstraction expressed through fabric allows the artist to explore themes of queerness and his Filipino cultural heritage in a new and personal way. He creates stitched works appearing as collages with distorted geometries. Through bold and sometimes consciously mismatched colour combinations, the artist expresses the need to move beyond rigid schemes and given definitions to create a dynamic and eclectic space.
Arao uses loom weaving to create engaging textures and chromatic mixtures in which colour, used in its philosophical and symbolic value, provokes an emotional response and reveals the social and political implications inherent in the artist’s intentions.
How did you approach art and what was the path that contributed to your artistic formation? When and why did your interest in weaving and the textile medium in general begin?
Music was my first love, and it helped pave the path to my becoming an artist. I played classical piano from a very young age and received a scholarship to study music performance at Virginia Commonwealth University. I thought that I would become a concert pianist, but halfway through the first semester of college, I decided that I wanted to pursue painting instead. I realized that I was more interested in making something visual and not interpreting a piece of music composed by someone else.
My first meaningful experience with textiles (and weaving in particular) happened in 2016 as a visiting artist in the Fibers and Materials Studies department at the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia. I was invited to Tyler by my friend and fellow artist, Jesse Harrod. I had the wonderful opportunity to translate a painting of mine into a woven textile on a Jacquard TC2 loom. It was my first real experience with weaving and I created three woven pieces while I was there. I absolutely fell in love with the process! This specific experience had a profound impact on me and it marked a pivotal turning point in my studio practice from painting (in the traditional sense) to a wholehearted embrace and love of textiles. It also gave me a deeper respect and appreciation for the making of cloth. This is when my obsession with textiles began.
What kind of research characterizes your production? What mainly influences your imagination and your artistic practice?
A majority of my research has come from reading about textile histories from all over the world as well as learning about artists who have incorporated textiles in modern and contemporary art. It is through this research that I became more familiar with the rich and varied textile histories from the Philippines. I continue to feel a personal connection to the indigenous ideologies of Filipino textiles – especially with regards to the use of certain colors or patterns. It has sparked a deep curiosity in me to imagine ways to work with and honor these ideologies in my studio practice.
For the past few years, sampling on the loom has been another important aspect of my research and practice. It’s become similar to a sketchbook for recording my visual thoughts. Through sampling, I am posing questions about materiality and color interaction, and developing ideas for future work. I really love the simplicity and versatility of plain weave, working with color through the optical mixing of fibers and the haptic play of different textures is completely engaging and fascinating.
Weaving is a process that is both overwhelming and liberating. I find comfort in the fact that I will never learn everything there is to know about weaving – but I can draw from the insights I’ve learned through the process of making and through the collective wisdom of other weavers and artists.
How does Filipino culture, art and textile tradition permeate your work?
My works often draw inspiration from the colors and motifs found in textiles from the Philippines. To be clear, I’m not interested in simply replicating the motifs or patterns. It’s not just about an aesthetic relationship. As mentioned previously, I feel deeply connected to ideologies originating from the textile traditions of the Philippines where colors and patterns are often imbued with a spiritual, healing and protective power. The more dizzying the pattern and the more colorful the textile, the more protection it offers to its wearer in warding off evil spirits. This faith (or superstition) in the power of color and pattern is not only fascinating, it is an essential source of inspiration and gives vitality to my work. It’s important to acknowledge here that these ideologies overlap with and are shared by other indigenous cultures. And my intention is to honor my heritage through the use of textiles and through the process of weaving. I’m interested in the idea of stitching the past with the present to create a dialogue that’s forward thinking.
Quote, “I’m experimenting with ways to explore the elastic concept of queerness through abstraction – specifically geometric abstraction.” How does geometric abstraction allow you to explore queerness themes?
My work is firmly rooted in geometric abstraction. One aspect is inspired from the geometries and motifs in Filipino textiles, the other comes from a questioning of geometric abstraction in the context of Modernism. I am mending this lineage of painting with my use of textiles. Through my materials, I’m softening the rigidity and “straightness” of hard edged geometric abstraction while also alluding to queer bodies by including second hand clothing from both me and my husband. Additionally, the tension that is created by stretching these sewn fabric paintings over traditional stretcher bars creates a distortion and a quivering geometry which becomes a form of queer resistance.
Color has emotional, political and personal significance in your work. Can you explain in more detail (elaborate on) this essential aspect of your artistic practice?
Color is significant and meaningful and it’s probably one of the most integral and complex components in my work. It’s important to understand that I use and think about color in a multitude of ways. I mentioned earlier that I was a trained classical pianist before I turned to visual art. My background in music has shaped my aesthetic thinking with regards to color, composition and rhythmic patterns. Sometimes, I’ll begin a new sewn painting by sewing strips of color together to create a chord of color, establishing the tonal “key” of the piece. I try to listen to the sounds of colors or how they resonate and elicit an emotional response.
My color choices aren’t necessarily purely aesthetic or intuitive. I’m also interested in the social and political implications that can be alluded to by intentionally choosing to use specific colors and/or chromatic relationships. Color is expansive and it is powerful. The behavior of a certain color and its capacity to transform, enhance, influence or subdue other colors in a relational context continually fascinates me.
Can you talk about the series of work you call “Textile Constructions“? Why the recurring form of the pennant?
The Textile Constructions refer to a body of works that are not stretched over wooden stretcher bars (like traditional paintings). Rather, these pieces are displayed without a rigid structural support and they hang freely or are pinned to the wall.
The recurring pennant forms are specifically part of a series called “Birds in Flight”. This series is made from remnants of failed paintings that I re-configured into these pennant-like formations. The repeated triangular form can also be seen as a symbol of queer sexuality.
Over the years, you have participated in numerous artist residencies. In the international art scene, there is a big gap about the organization, funding and access to these important projects. Can you tell us about your experience? What impact did the residencies have on your personal and professional path?
I don’t think I would be making the work I’m making now had it not been for the times spent at artist residencies. To have the space, time and solitude to experiment, fail, learn and create has been invaluable. Residencies have been generative for my work. Being in studio spaces away from my studio in Brooklyn has helped me to take greater risks and to work outside of my comfort zone and to be more thoughtful about context. For example, in 2020 I participated in a residency at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts in Omaha, Nebraska and I had the opportunity to make some of the largest textile pieces to date – Uncharted (What It Means to Be and Island) and Pillar (for C.B.). These pieces would never have happened had I not been at Bemis. The immense size of the facilities helped me to imagine and then realize my work on a larger scale. It also allowed me to be responsive to the site.
Another invaluable part of residencies is that you become connected to a community of artists and creatives. I’ve learned so much from the lived experiences and generosity of other artists by being at residencies.
Could you identify one of your works to which you are particularly attached or that has played an important role in your artistic growth? On the contrary, is there a work of yours in which you no longer recognize yourself?
This is a great question, but extremely difficult to answer. It’s impossible to identify just one! There are many works throughout the years that I consider to be “game changing” and important to my artistic growth; each for their own specific reason. My work is still evolving and I’m sure there will be more pieces that will play equally important roles in shaping the direction of future works.
What are you working on in this period?
I’ve devoted a significant amount of time this past year to research and reading. I’m slowly and quietly working on new things in the studio. I’m paying more attention and giving things more time to develop. I’ve focused a majority of my focus on weaving. I specifically wanted to re-visit weaving (and working on a loom) because it’s what shifted my work from painting to textiles in the first place. Working at my loom also feels very much like sitting at the piano and playing music. We’ll see where this path leads to next…