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Erasing erasure: Two historic exhibits cement the legacy of late Filipino artist Carlos Villa

‘Painted Cloak’ (front), 1971. Airbrushed acrylic on unstretched canvas with liningof feathers and taffeta. | Courtesy of San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

The artist, activist, and educator Carlos Villa (1936-2013) spent his career grappling with what it means to feel invisible while striving to make a place for himself and others in art history. Now he’s getting his due, with two exhibitions in his home town. Worlds in Collision, at the Asian Art Museum, is billed as the first-ever major museum retrospective of a Filipino-American artist in the United States (it debuted earlier this year in Newark Museum of Art), while Roots and Reinvention, at the San Francisco Arts Commission Main Gallery (located opposite Civic Center Plaza from the Asian), expands on Villa’s legacy with deep cuts from the artist’s estate.

Villa was born in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood, within blocks from the exhibition’s two locations, to Filipino immigrant parents. He attended the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) on the G.I. Bill after returning from the Korean War in 1958, studying with major figures like Joan Brown, Bruce Conner and Manuel Neri. But perhaps the single most impactful experience of Villa’s early education was the declaration made by one professor, Walter Kuhlman, that “Filipino art history doesn’t exist.” Villa became determined to set the record straight.

His first step was to become a successful working artist in his own right. Villa received his MFA in Painting from Mills College in Oakland in 1963 and moved to New York City in 1964, quickly making connections and exhibiting in commercial galleries. But he abandoned the East Coast in 1969 to return to San Francisco, inspired by the Third World Liberation Front movement blossoming in the Bay Area between student coalitions at UC Berkeley and SF State. He accepted a teaching position at SFAI and began making art that explored the same concepts of multiculturalism he promoted in the classroom.

"First Impression," 1980. Bones, hair, rags, and Stuc-O-Life paint (latexwith silica, quartz, sand, and fossil remains) on unstretched canvas. | Courtesy of the Asian Art Museum

“Carlos gave equal attention to the work that he did in the classroom in his role as educator, as much as he thought about his work in the studio,” said the exhibition’s co-curator Trisha Lagaso Goldberg.

Worlds in Collision shares a title with a series of symposia Villa curated between 1990-2013, which featured thinkers such as Angela Davis and bell hooks, and focused on the decolonization of textbooks, museums, classrooms, arts education and history.

This is where the exhibition picks up, showcasing Villa’s work from the 1970s, with pieces from the Asian Art Museum’s own collection supplemented by loans from the Whitney Museum of American Art and SFMOMA, among other institutions. Here, we see Villa directly reclaiming his own experience of invisibility in art history, incorporating a broad range of artistic references, to produce works of art that would come to establish him in that very canon.

Many of the works on view are airbrushed, cloak-like pieces, adorned with feathers and chicken bones (the bones he collected from dinners with friends), which he typically activated in shamanic ritual performances. Villa said he “liked the idea that someone could wear a painting,” a process through which the art and artist become one. On their own however, these pieces are weighted with the absence of the artist’s body.

“Tat2," from the Tatu series, 1971. Ink on Itek photograph. | Courtesy of the Estate of Carlos Villa

Villa activated his body as an artistic tool more directly in other works, such as the breathtaking “First Impression” (1980). The piece, discovered in 2015 in the crawlspace of Villa’s old studio by the exhibition’s co-curator, Mark Johnson, is a grid of 60 acrylic paint impressions of Villa’s face onto canvas squares. The transfers are ghostly traces of the artist (in which Villa said he recognized his mother), literally insisting on the presence of his own body in art history while showing that presence to be ephemeral. In the “Tatu Series,” 1971, Villa gestures toward Bontoc warrior tattoos, drawing body and facial tattoos on top of photographs of himself, another experiment with visibility and obscurity, as well as artistic influence.

In 1990, Villa visited the Philippines for the first time. He was only there about two weeks, but when he returned, he refocused his art practice to explore his family history and the history of Filipino immigration to the Bay Area. Roots and Reinvention focuses on this work, the most impressive of which are a series of life-size doorways, referencing the SRO hotel rooms Filipino immigrant laborers often called home upon arriving in San Francisco. Many of these sculptures include floating Panama hats extending from their surface, alluding again to the invisibility of the Filipino body in American society. 

Also significant in its depiction of Villa’s ethos is “Bend Break” (c.1999), a painted wood panel affixed with aluminum plaques inscribed with the syllabus for his Worlds in Collision class, blurring the boundaries between art, history and life. 

“Carlos was the first person to start talking about the importance of Filipino-American art history,” said Jenifer K Wofford, senior adjunct faculty member at the University of San Francisco and a student of Villa’s. “All of a sudden I could see myself reflected in work and ideas by other Filipino-American artists. That had never happened before, and I didn’t know how much I needed it until it was there.”

Worlds in Collision and Roots and Reinvention prove that Filipino art history very much exists—in no small part thanks to Villa. By insisting on his own existence, he created a path forward. Emphasizing this impact, an entire gallery space at the Asian Art Museum has been given over to work by artists who studied with, or were inspired by, Villa, including Michael Arcega, Paul Pfeiffer, and the artist trio Mail Order Brides (Eliza O. Barrios, Reanne Estrada, and Wofford) who Villa introduced to one other.

“The ways in which [Villa] was thinking and advocating for inclusion of many different artists in the same space still feels so relevant and fresh and important,” said Lagaso Goldberg. “It’s not something that is in the past at all.”

Worlds in Collision is on view at The Asian Art Museum through October 24, 10AM-5PM Fri-Mon and 1-8PM Thu. $14-$20.

Roots and Reinvention is on view at the San Francisco Arts Commission Main Gallery through September 3, 12-5PM Wed-Sat. Free.