About the Project

I. Background of Study

This study seeks to archive and analyze the works and art practice of Elisa Y. Tan, a Filipino-Chinese artist who worked in Europe, the United States, and the Philippines before retiring to Baguio City in 1995. Although she achieved some success including a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship as well as several other prestigious art residencies and solo exhibitions in New York and Paris, she has received little in the way of scholarly attention, and barring recent and ongoing activities by the group of which this researcher is a part, none at all from the Philippine context.
I first heard of Elisa Tan through my parents, an artist and a professor of Philippine Studies at SOAS, University of London. But my first encounter with her works was in the form of three crates, large enough to fill the room in which they sat, untouched for almost thirty years. Originally the plan was, at Ms. Tan’s request, to help mount the first exhibition of her works since her retirement from the art world, and the first on Philippine soil since the 1970s. Her goal was to have any proceeds donated to her church and other humanitarian causes, but this venture was cut short by her untimely death just days after that first meeting. From then the goal for me, my parents, and a few other researchers stayed very much the same according to Elisa’s wishes, with the added goal of the preservation of her works and the reintroduction of those works into the Philippine art world.
Our work thus far has mainly consisted of archival and digitizing processes, with the intention of cataloguing her works, almost none of which are dated or titled, and creating a comprehensive art historical database from our findings. This particular project, building on the work already done but separate from it, intends to represent one of the first analytical forays into the work and art practice of Elisa Y. Tan.

II. Objectives

This particular project, entitled “Letters to Home: Emotional Locality and The Abstracted Word in Elisa Tan’s Painted Envelopes”, seeks to analyze and curate just a few of her works of a unified formal and thematic style, a series of mixed media pieces done on standard unfolded C6 size envelopes. Of the more than three hundred pieces archived and documented thus far, this particular cross section was chosen not only to exemplify some of the broader formal themes in her larger body of work, that of the “abstracted word” and the deceptive impact of the small scale, but also to exemplify how these practices represent a unique approach and perspective in the world of Philippine abstract expressionism and contemporary art.

With this in mind, this project arose from several questions which I hope to tackle in this study.

a. How can we create discursive space for Filipino perspectives in art outside the norm? How can we avoid pigeonholing these perspectives with our predetermined art historical tools?

b. How do we craft narratives from and around these artists? How do we pay respect to the narratives these artists themselves would have wanted to portray, even in death?

With these questions in mind, I will attempt not only to analyze this cross section of Elisa Tan’s work from this concept of outsider art or art from “elsewhere”, but also attempt to reframe and recontextualize my previous research on this topic through a virtual exhibit featuring 16 of Elisa’s works.

III. Methodology

In order to tackle some of these questions I would propose a twofold approach, focusing on the particular qualities of the works themselves but also the contexts in which the artist, her work, and the reception to those works is situated. We might do this firstly from the perspective of engendering Art History. In her essay *What is Women’s Art, or is There Such a Thing?*, Professor FM Datuin seeks to interrogate concepts of the feminine in art practice, positing that while there are no essential definitive characteristics that can differentiate a woman’s art from a man’s, and that the assumption of such a position it can gesture towards stereotyping and “essentializing” art produced by women, there are certain “strategies, themes, and feelings” that, when situated within their particular historical and cultural context, can still be identified and identified with by women upon looking (2). Though a cursory reading of Elisa’s work might not yield much in terms of explicitly feminist messaging, I would argue that her work is still worth analyzing from this perspective, particularly when taking her historical context into account. This analysis might be taken yet further if combined with a somewhat decolonial approach. As a member of the Filipino diaspora, Elisa Tan and her works were undoubtedly influenced by the privileges and difficulties that came along with her frequent migrations. It is also worth noting that it wasn’t until close to her death that her works, largely produced for Western viewing publics, began to be thought of from the Philippine context. Secondly, as much of her work seems to experiment more with form than with radical themes or overt ideology, it might be relevant to look at her work through an Aesthetic framework. H Yu-Rivera’s essay *The Ontological Status of the Non-Figurative, the Found Object and the Conceptual in Art* might prove to be of some use in providing some context to terms such as the “contemporary” the “conceptual” and the “abstract” in art, (8) as well as some insight into the space these terms and the practices attached to them take up in Filipino art histories.

Other related literature in this vein might include Rakhee Balaram’s book Counterpractice, Spencer Catherine’s Acts of Displacement: Lea Lublin’s Mon fils, May’68, and Feminist Psychosocial Revolt and Forms of Difference in Sorcières which chronicle and analyze feminist art movements in 1970s Paris, of which Elisa Tan was a prominent member among certain circles. Tan was a founding member of “Collectif Femmes/Art”, which is featured heavily in these writings. In terms of further decolonial literature, Parul Dave Mukherji’s Whiter Art History: Whither Art History in a Globalizing World might be relevant, which tackles issues of globalization in art history from a decolonial perspective.

It should also be important to acknowledge my biases and gaps in learning that will undoubtedly manifest in the rest of this paper. Firstly, though in many ways essential to any comprehensive or thorough reading of Elisa Tan’s art, attempting to contribute to discourses around engendering Art History as a man will undoubtedly prove difficult. According to Datuin’s writings, much of the feminist reading of art is directly related to or indeed borne out of uniquely or relatably feminine experience. Secondly, it will also be worth noting some of my own similarities of experience with Elisa Tan, who like me spent much of her life as an outsider not only to her ancestral culture but also to the cultures of the many new places in which she lived. While undoubtedly this is part of what sparked personal interest in the project, it is also true that my life experience might make any thematic or formal qualities relating to it more difficult to ignore. In this sense, where narrative and constructed assumptions become as crucial as they are difficult to navigate, some level of reflexivity is undoubtedly important.

Furthermore due to the lack of comprehensive sources of information on Elisa Tan’s life and art practice, it will also be important to avoid conjecture or other biases in this regard. It should be acknowledged, whenever possible, that at this point in time this researcher, or projects this researcher is involved in, constitute the vast majority of dedicated scholarly attention to Elisa Tan. This contributes to an issue of narrative building which I will attempt to analyze further in Part V of this study.

IV. Research Process

Much of the preliminary research conducted for this study was done during the aforementioned archival project of which this researcher is a part. Conducted from June 7 to July 21, 2022, my task at this time was to photograph and otherwise document (including measuring, attempting to construct a timeline, etc.) the entire contents of Elisa’s personal collection. This process took several weeks and involved a team of three researchers. I handled technicalities including cataloguing, condition reporting, and some preservation and storage of the works, while two friends from University of the Cordilleras in Baguio handled the photography. Some reshoots were also required for this particular project which were handled by the same team.

During the course of study, our findings reached far beyond the artworks themselves. The crates, shipped from Paris in 1995 contained not only a fairly comprehensive collection of her artworks but also personal writings, photographs of past exhibitions, diagrams of proposed shows, as well as other oddities such as a children’s book written and illustrated by Elisa, a metal tin full of cookies, most likely from the 1980s strung together with ribbon supposedly as an art piece in itself, and a “play” as she called it, which consisted entirely of the word “words” written over and over again, getting progressively more abstract and uneven over the course of its 12 pages. Most usefully perhaps we found a memoir outlining her life in Paris and the spiritual crisis that led to her retirement which was originally presented to her church, from which much of her biographical information is taken. This text was reproduced in its entirety by this researcher and another team member for a separate project, and is freely available to read here.

In terms of Methodology our goal at this time was quite simple. We attempted to think of it as a straightforward documentation project, where no one particular object, including slides, photographs and personal writings were given any more importance than any other. Upon further analysis however, this approach is met with several potential problems, which I will attempt to begin outlining in the next section.

V. Analysis and Conclusion

Of the 16 pieces chosen to be featured in this project, each seems to experiment with form in a particular way. Her choice of medium, especially the use of envelopes seems to be the most obvious form of experimentation in this respect. The scale in particular imbues them with a deeply personal quality. These could have been produced anywhere from readily available materials, as well as brought or sent anywhere without much difficulty. There is a level of intimacy to these works as if one is peering into the artist’s personal visual landscape. Abstraction here arguably serves as a distortion effect, where the light that enters the artist’s eyes is refracted through her feeling. In Yu-Rivera’s essay, she draws a comparison between abstract art and minimalist music, in that it is based in a “repetition of motifs, an insistent pulse and a slow transformation”. This is arguably the case in Elisa Tan’s works as well, which figure themselves mainly in the aggregate. One might not understand what the artist is gesturing towards visually from a single piece in this series, but viewed together and a meaning becomes more clear. In the case of Elisa Tan however, I might also make a similar comparison to Ambient music, which according to one of its forerunners Brian Eno, is intended to blend, more or less, into the background with the ambient noises around the listener. The intention is not to create music that is meant to be ignored, but instead to encourage a closer listening of the interplay between intentional musical choices and ambient sound, to craft musicality from chance sound and unintentionality. I would argue that these landscapes, serene and impactful yet inarguably unassuming in their approach of the audience, achieve a similar effect. One might get the feeling that there are deceptively vast structures hiding beyond the edges of her vision, of which we can only obtain a piercing yet narrow glance.

Her experimentation with the written word is also worth analyzing. In these works the word is treated as both figure and ground, teetering on the point between legible and illegible. In the context of her larger body of work, this meaning might become more clear. One of Elisa’s most prominent exhibitions as a member of Collectif Femmes/Art was of her 1978 performance art piece *Conju-gaison du verbe travailler* or “The Conjugation of the Verb, *to work*”. In this piece, according to Balaram’s account, Tan sat at a typewriter and typed the words “I worked you worked he worked she worked” over and over again for 9 hours, each page was moved and typed over itself several times, each becoming more abstract than the last as it devolved into illegibility. According to Balaram, this piece was reflective of the tedium and “shared solidarity” of Elisa’s time working in a handbag factory in 1977. In her later works, this trend continued but was abstracted yet further, retaining the repeated, devolving words in successive art pieces but choosing instead to repeat letters, nonsense phrases, or most commonly simply the word “words”. The pieces chosen for this project follow in this vein. Some involve abstracted words being painted over with subtle pastel, lending color and emotionality to these loosely structured tableaus. Some crafted a landscape less inviting, one of rigidity, repetition, and confusion. This arguably represents the artist’s unique perspective not only in the context of the Paris art world in the 70s, as her experience as a factory worker and immigrant was doubtless far removed from her Sorbonne educated, upper middle class contemporaries, but also in the context of Abstract Expressionism in the Philippines.

This connects too with the expression of the “feminine” and the “feminist” in her pieces. When compared to her contemporaries, Tan could not easily be called the most politically radical nor the most overtly feminist in her work. While artists in her group such as Françoise Janicot and Lea Lublin tackled these themes very directly, Janicot’s most famous performance piece involving her quite literally gagging herself with thick rope wrapped around her head and body, Tan’s art at this time such as *Conju-gaison du verbe travailler*, while still exploring themes of capitalist exploitation and class divisions, was rooted less in broader political struggles but instead firmly situated in her own life experience. It is also worth noting that as an immigrant and one of the few successful Asian artists in Paris at that time, creating art for audiences widely removed from her locus of enunciation, Tan position in society was somewhat more tenuous than her contemporaries as it was theoretically possible for her at any time to be forcibly ejected from that society and sent elsewhere. I would argue that Tan from this set of perspectives and limitations crafts a uniquely personal approach to her art practice, feminine only insofar as she is feminine, deeply rooted in her life experience.

It is from this however, especially when looking at an artist so centrally situated in her own narrative, that some of the potential problems with my own approach, as mentioned earlier in this study, arise. If attempting to analyze Elisa’s Tan’s life and work from so broad a lens as I took up at the beginning of the Elisa Tan Archival Project, one so straightforward and almost intentionally lacking in framework, it was important for me to realize that any comprehensive argument will eventually collapse under its own weight. It is a structural problem but also a narrative one. In a sense despite our best efforts to apply uniform, objective pressure to each individual work that we catalogued, there was also the feeling that regardless of what we do, the level of control we had over the construction of this artist’s narrative and perception by any Philippine audience was a more complicated problematic which could not be easy to ignore. Ms. Tan was no longer with us to prescribe what aspects of her life and art practice constituted the narrative she wished to portray. She had after all, chosen to abandon and hide away that part of her life and it was only very briefly that we were able to ask her intentions in this new resurgence of her art practice. The crates, which Ms. Tan had barely acknowledged or touched in 30 years contained not only her works but also personal effects, photographs, and writings, an entire lifetime, as well as a career, stored away in an attic with old books and water tanks. In this vein the truly difficult question arises. Which of her works would she even have wanted to reintroduce to the world? Are these works, which I have chosen for my project, even for public consumption? Or is that personal, intimate quality of these pieces found because they are in fact personal? These are questions we cannot answer, but they engage with the process of meaning making we who seek to archive and analyze artworks and practices undoubtedly engage in regardless of intention or theoretical framework. These works may have just been studies, or absent minded doodles, or reflections on deeply personal memories, but for some reason it is to at least some extent me, a 25 year old Filipino American struggling through his sixth year of an art studies degree, so far removed as I am from the artist’s lived experience, who gets to decide?

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