Paint a Photo’s Story


By Tanya Silverman

Dog Pillow. By Maia Cruz Palileo. 2013. Oil on canvas.

Our conversation keeps turning to tunnels.

However, we’re well above ground, in NYC’s Cuchifritos Gallery, situated in a cozy corner of the Lower East Side’s Essex Street Market. Surrounded by several of her solo show’s colorful oil-on-canvas paintings, multidisciplinary artist Maia Cruz Palileo alludes to her power animal: the woodchuck.

But we don’t just discuss the earthly tunnels that this brown critter digs–or the calming power its humble essence provides her when she’s busy–but also the fascinating figurative ones that Palileo probes into with her paintings.

The artist’s technique often involves excavating mental-image artifacts she holds from looking at family photos while growing up in the Midwest. A Filipino-American child, she plowed into her roots, studying her kin’s depictions of their old life–aunts embracing on the street, uncles drinking beer, and other slices of the distant, tropical land.

The Woods. By Maia Cruz Palileo. 2013. Oil on canvas.

“What did they bring over with them? Nothing,” says Palileo. “My grandma brought over a frying pan that she didn’t think she‘d be able to get in the States.”

Years after Palileo’s grandmother established her American life in Montana, she bought a knitted couch, adorned it with an embroidered throw pillow of two dogs, and took a flash photograph of her homey living room. A rendition of this ‘70s domestic scene, based off of a flimsy old photo, hangs as an oil painting at Cuchifritos.

“There were only parts of the photograph I was working from… where I could actually see patterns of the couch” admits Palileo. “So, I ended up repeating whatever I could see because the quality of the photograph was so bad since the flash was so strong and parts were are just blacked out.”

The fuzzy ambiguities of memory and the holes that the imagination fills is another theme exhibited in Palileo’s art. A separate painting presents a seated extended family poised around a stone patio amidst the backdrop of a densely vegetated, verdant jungle environment. Palileo’s mother sits among the scene–a warm, familial one that never factually existed, but was fabricated from speculated visions.

For years, Palileo’s acted as an ancestral archivist from the third-party information she could gather. Last year, she finally flew out to the Philippines. The journey brought her to the house where her father was born and the home where her grandmother grew up, so these places finally became concrete to her. However, the trip also introduced Palileo to unfamiliar relatives who narrated new stories, which only left her “exploring more tunnels.”

Palileo’s recent portrait paintings at Cuchifritos.

“I think that’s why I’m still working on isolating these figures,” she says, pointing to her newest series of three smaller, lighter-colored portraits, “[they’re] a little more specific about the narrative, but there’s still vagueness.”

From whatever tunnel a woodchuck may enter, and for wherever it leads, many depths may still be dug.

‘Lost Looking’, Palileo’s solo show, will be on view at Cuchifritos until Feb 8, 2015.

All photos courtesy of Samantha Wrigglesworth.