By Amada Estabillo
The first memory I have of seeing Salvador Cabrera’s paintings is when I was eleven years old, just before my father passed away. Selected by my mother in a gallery several hours outside Manila, the two paintings by the Filipino artist would hang in our house and go on to survive various moves over the coming years, eventually emerging from our storage to join the family again.
Of the two paintings, my favorite is the one with a girl wearing a green shawl, her hair tied in a loose braid. She looks out at me while the girl standing behind her—perhaps her friend or sister—has turned away, looking downwards in side profile. Both subjects seem to emerge from a brushy, beige background, their skirts slowly flattening into the scumble of the surface.
The second painting also contains two girls. The one in the foreground holds a basket of fish. For me, it is her hands, more than her face, that draw my attention. Draped over the basket, her fingers seem to be brushing the scales of the fish, her hands unusually large for her body. The other girl, obscured in the background, appears smaller and is farther from the viewer; her head, facing downwards, is hooded by a cloak.
Cabrera’s work ranges from being figurative—rendered with painterly, romantic brushwork—to stylised, large-eyed portraits that border on cartoonish. These two paintings, dated to 1980, are more realistic than some of Cabrera’s other works.
The bodies are simple; their form created with a minimum of lines or gradation. Perhaps, while growing up, these distinct characteristics defining Cabrera’s subjects seeped into my subconscious as I sat in their presence—writing essays, or doing homework, or, when I was older, hanging out with classmates, or secretly drinking and flirting with to-be boyfriends.
I like to think that the figures I paint in my work are distant cousins of Cabrera’s girls, who watched over me through my adolescence, silently witnessing my juvenile achievements and mundane humiliations. In my practice, I strive for the same economy of line and form. For areas that combine and dissolve into colour and texture, flattening into the paint, graphite or oil that they are. I tend to also favour a doubling of the figure, or figures that nest within one another, displaying multiple features repetitively.
While growing up, I passed Cabrera’s paintings by at home almost everyday; they offered me a visual counterbalance to most of the girls I saw in magazines, or those I sat across from in class. Dark-eyed, olive-skinned, wide-faced, these girls existed just as much as any other in my imagination. They were unsmiling but not unhappy; their thoughts and feelings, inscrutable.
Now, they are stationed on the wall of my parent’s living room, a bright, airy space in a down-sized townhouse, their fourth home since I first remember seeing them. I like to see these women here, watching; unchanged while being surrounded by movement.
I think about Cabrera, deciding when each figure would be completed. Was his emphasis on the medium, on the flatness of the canvas, intentional? Was it his rush to finish his paintings, rumoured to exceed three works a day, that dictated his application of paint? When, in the midst of painting a work, did Cabrera step back from it and realize there is enough, just enough?
I try to imagine his process, his quiet figures, and hope that somewhere in the future the work I make will join them—these girls, or women, looking out; living as observers in homes, watching over, keeping watch.