A Filipino artist on the strange beauty of sea urchins and anemone

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"Dispersed Among Us (A Family Photo)" by Bree Jonson. Photo courtesy of OUR ARTPROJECTS

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — In Bree Jonson’s “Writhing,” her second solo show with OUR ArtProjects (OAP) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, held last June, there is a departure from her usual depictions of the wild’s hunter-predators.

Jonson, who graduated with a degree in engineering in 2012, found her way to art only after trying on a few hats. After leaving the engineering world (and everything she knew, pet dogs included) for good — where human workers were treated “as a robotic unit of [the] workforce” — she turned to writing and music.

“I miss them,” she says of the parts of her old life. “But I’ve always felt like I’m that one errant piece in a puzzle.”

She tried out music, performing in a band, and although she still writes from time to time, Jonson finally found solace in painting. “I can hide away for months, and keep all my tribulations private,” she says. “The subject is the work produced, related to me, but it isn't me.”

“Writhing” features a subtle departure from her usual renderings and observations of animals and wildlife, turning her attention to the seabed. Here, Jonson considers sea urchins and anemone, particular creatures of the deep which are seen as beautiful, but can be deadly when provoked. Jonson has produced contained portraits of the seabed in rich and lush oils, some in ink on paper, accompanied by an installation comprised of 50 wooden urchins painted in black, which are scattered across the exhibit space. These pieces in particular serve to recreate the feeling one may get during an encounter with these creatures: panic, an awareness of mortality, and one’s physical distance from these particular dangers.

"The Red Queen" by Bree Jonson. Photo courtesy of OUR ARTPROJECTS

As can be expected from Jonson, her animal subjects serve as mirrors of the human condition, but takes care to not anthropomorphize them, choosing instead to portray them as naturalistic as possible. Her job, it seems, is to make these connections between wildlife and man, to help the viewer cross the bridge with her.

“The conversation of the whole show is founded on the concepts of alienization of the human nude, and of the dichotomy of human feminine as both beautiful, yet deadly, predator and prey,” Jonson says.

In her construction of her pieces, Jonson recalls the inherent qualities of these animals. Of the wooden urchins, she says, “[They] look like steel, but they aren’t; they look dangerous, and they are, but they’re also fragile.”

Fifty wooden sea urchins accompany Bree Jonson's paintings in "Writhing." Photo courtesy of OUR ARTPROJECTS

Reading Aesop’s fables at four years old made it clear to Jonson that the animals in the stories always stood in place of something or someone, which is how she’s learned to process life. “I’ve come to apply that sort of thinking to everything around me,” she says, “that everything can be taken as a metaphor for something more personally profound.”

For her, her paintings represent a number of things, “like discovering your own gender, and being in the presence of a nude figure, and the experience of the monstrous feminine.” But, more than a departure from her usual fare of “creatures eating, gnawing, hunting each other,” “Writhing” also includes a poem Jonson wrote, which she originally didn’t want to include as it was extremely personal. The poem was etched on to the walls, written at the same time she was working on this show. “It was about things that writhe and how they are mostly struggling to be alive,” she says.

"Crunch Slurp Yum," an ink on paper work by Bree Jonson. Photo courtesy of OUR ARTPROJECTS

“It's not drastically different in theory, as all these anemones and urchins are still sitting pretty around waiting for prey,” she adds of “Writhing.” “It's just that this new body of work is more up close and personal, more specific to me as woman and artist. I've made a decision to be more upfront with my thoughts, my words, my works, to put all of my experiences back into my work. No more filtering; no more saving this idea for that show, no more worrying about what will people think, etc. I still don't see myself fitting anywhere, but I'm getting more comfortable with the idea.”

“Writhing” is Jonson’s second show with OAP, the first held in 2014 before the opening of their permanent gallery space in January of this year. Founded by Liza Ho and Snow Ng, OAP is concerned with working with emerging and established contemporary artists from Malaysia and across Southeast Asia through exhibitions, special projects, and connecting patrons and artists with one another, as well as putting together offsite exhibitions and creative projects that support urban regeneration, museum programming, and cultural commissions, among others, alongside the Malaysian government.

"I’ve always felt like I’m that one errant piece in a puzzle," says the artist Bree Jonson (right). Photo courtesy of OUR ARTPROJECTS

Aside from Jonson, OAP has worked with Jason Montinola, and both Ho and Ng have independently worked with Filipino artists like Geraldine Javier, Yasmin Sison, Elaine Navas, Patty Eustaquio, Poklong Anading, Lena Cobangbang, Jonathan Ching, Maria Taniguchi, MM Yu, Gina Osterloh, Wawi Navarroza, Costantino Zicarelli, Don Salubayba, and Kaloy Sanchez prior to putting up their consultancy-cum-gallery.

There are a number of residency initiatives in Kuala Lumpur that work with Filipino artists, according to Ho. “There is definitely an appetite in our local collecting scene for Filipino art,” she adds. With OAP, they envision a growing regional artist network where it’s easier and more feasible for Malaysian and Filipino artists and curators to meet and collaborate with one another.

Although Ho is hesitant to rigid regional categorization implied by “Southeast Asian art,” stating that it’s important to stress the distinct identities of each ASEAN country, she says that “we do, as a region, share certain patterns and cultural developments based on shared landscapes, migration, colonialism, trade, complicated politics, religion and growing economies.” For Ho, these “various currents” that run through the region create some sense of shared experience.

In terms of their role in this emerging art scene, Ho believes that supporting Malaysian artists and exhibitions, as well as bringing interesting voices from Southeast Asia, in this case, Jonson’s, into their program are what they bring to the table. “We believe in the importance of art as a marker of culture,” Ho says. “We hope this enriches the perspective of our audiences on what art can be.”