Scroll down to read essays by J.W. Mahoney and Deborah McLeod.



My work is inspired by the ancient script called the Baybayin, a pre-colonial form of writing in the Philippines. It was a script abolished by the Spanish colonizers but has been rediscovered in the recent past. Many Filipinos are excited about it’s discovery and have been tattooing the script on their bodies and proudly displaying it in other art forms. I’ve always been inspired by the history of empire and imperialism and how the desire for power has affected those countries subjected to Colonialism in largely negative ways. I see the script as a positive light in the history of the Philippines -- evidence of a time when there was no Western Civilization or Catholicism that in essence was the Spanish Colonization that endured for over 350 years in the Philippines.


The script is based on Sanskrit and each character can be translated phonetically to form words in Tagalog, the national language of the Philippines. As the daughter of a Philippine Languages and Literature Professor, I have always spoken Tagalog -- even growing up in Madison, WI. I also taught Tagalog as a graduate student while working towards my MFA. The Baybayin first appeared in my work in 1996 around the time when it’s discovery was gaining public attention. I took a break from the script until just a few years ago. I started painting and writing the Baybayin again forming them collectively in patterns inspired by the ancient tradition of tattooing in the Philippines. I love the rhythm and decorative nature of the patterning in Filipino body tattooing. Since moving back to the U.S. after living in Berlin, Germany for three years, I’ve began to work again on gessobord again -- a stiff surface that allows me to pour, drip, splatter and spill paint in a way where it can be heavily layered. This is a process I have been doing since my college days well over twenty years ago and back then, inspired by the great Helen Frankenthaler.


Each piece begins with a Baybayin character and then layered by many more. The characters evolve to be integrated into a geography and topography of pools and lines of paint and negative space. I call this show “Unscripted, Naturally” because it is about using the script in a non-linguistic way that resolves into an image that makes reference to nature. The kind of nature that appeared in my work in the early 2000’s that is beautiful and foreboding all at once. (Romantic landscape painting).


“Unscripted, Naturally” brings together my love for language, calligraphy, collage and the process of abstract expressionism all together in this new suite of paintings as a dedication to my cross cultural heritage and identity as a Filipino American.


"If Only", Cut photographs and oil on yupo. 30" x 30", 2011/12.  

On View at Addison Ripley Fine Art from March 10 - April 14, 2012 in a show titled "Bits of Elsewhere"


The following is an essay by Writer J.W. Mahoney in conjunction with "Bits of Elsewhere", April - May 2012, Washington D.C. Addison Ripley Fine Art.


I S A B E L   M A N A L O ' S   N E G A T I V E    C A P A B I L I T I E S


"... several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what

quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in literature &

which Shakespeare possessed so enormously - I mean Negative

Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties,

Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason."

                                                                John Keats  (28 December 1817) 

A capability is both a grace and a power - and what John Keats was suggesting is that accepting uncertainty, doubt, and Mystery on open terms can be an empowering grace.  Modernity, in all its forms, has depended on Negative Capability ever since.  So does Isabel Manalo. 

As viewers, without looking for either "fact & reason," we're presented with evidence - wild biomorphic abstractions, images of her children in forests of bare trees, of a nature whose foliage has been irradiated by light so strong that it may have come from the detonation of an atomic weapon.  And interspersed in her pieces are fragments of real photographs, so we're observing several worlds at once. And her compositions are sometimes fully abstract, so we might be comfortable just appreciating the play of beautiful and personally intensive forms and colors?  We're supposed to be used to that, with contemporary art. 

 But that's not at all what Isabel Manalo's work is about.  The wild range of wistful beauties in Isabel's artworks center around a very restless awareness.  There is a firm relentlessness in this art, the feeling of an ongoing narrative, whose passionate privacy reveals itself only in what Isabel makes as her art.   Referring to recent work, Isabel speaks of its carrying the uncertainty of desire and hope, and of her use of alizarin crimson and burn umber as colors symbolizing (her words) passion, pain, joy and solitude.  So - with regard to Negative Capability - Isabel's intentionally offering clear uncertainties and mysteries, along with the feeling of a significant yearning toward something actively just beyond the picture plane... 

The most salient quality in any artform that concerns itself with yearning - from Sufi mystic poetry to 1920's Delta Blues to Mark Rothko's chapel - is the active presence of absence.  What's so alive - and so alluring - in Isabel Manalo's artworks is the sense that every element in the work could be a tracing, a reflection, a memory, or a vision - of or from some swiftly moving conscious being who's just out of sight, but whose invisible eye sees and draws out her visions.  But who?  Certainly - immediately - Isabel herself, but also, vitally, another presence, an Otherness, to which her work is (so privately) radically addressed, her Muse. 

In Jungian psychology, this idea of an autonomous creative force in the psyche is called a daemon, pronounced like the scarier term, but as transcendently powerful, mostly usefully.  And it's an existentially personal compulsion, not a demonic possession. Isabel Manalo's artworks express the radiant mysteries - requiring Negative Capabilities to both express and receive - that continue to emerge from her, in full pursuit of her Daemon...


                                                                                         J.W. Mahoney, April 2012




 Written by independent critic, writer and curator Deborah McLeod who is now the Founder and Director of Chroma Projects Art Laboratory in Charlottesville, VA. 


In the fixed distance--blanched a sporadic white in the jewel thicket of Isabel Manalo's dappled and blistered trees--is the natural landscape of the hypothesis of No Place. Manalo provides hints of presences; children who silently populate its partly extant glens and forests to slip shyly through the watery-colored overgrowth, as pale pink, barely perceptible silhouettes. Like a more benign version of Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Rappaccini's Daughter," these children's innate perfection and innocence, nurtured in such a tempting garden of uncertainties and absences, might be subject to the diminishing atmosphere and decomposing glare that Manalo's vegetation endures, yet respond by becoming essentially eternal.  DM, Baltimore City Paper


Isabel Manalo’s paintings possess an uncommon transcendence and mysticism. Yet they are essentially simple and familiar in their subject matter, often with her two young daughters engaged in exploration and wonder amid the natural world. Even when the scenes are left unpopulated, it is the phenomena of the natural world that has always guided this artist’s landscape imagery. Landscape is however just the beginning of what these dynamic transmissions of time in space envision.


Manalo’s manner of giving us the physical world we expect to find outside our door is to dematerialize it to a barely recognizable degree. She quietly explodes the information, removing much of its supporting structure, allowing a few brilliant and vital fragments in the expected places to keep her viewers grounded and happy. Her paintings may most consciously remind us on a naturalistic level of very early spring or late autumn, when only the boldest foliage and blossoms enter or exit, while the rest, unavailable, exist purely in nature’s mind. 


Subconsciously, the crucial white space that consumes the rest of Manalo’s picture plane offers itself as a kind of immortal reassurance.  White space is generally understood to represent infinitude, the unknowable or the uninitiated, states that nonetheless most nearly describe what we can genuinely perceive of our earthly relationship to The Sublime. It is this crucial infinite white space that is really the land our deepest questions, uncertainties, hopes and prayers, our very breath, lives in.


The skipping, jewel-like glances of vivid translucent color so musically applied to the picture plane meanwhile provide a sense of hopeful providence and even joy, but it remains to that living mutable white ground that is so utterly freeing inside Manalo’s unarticulated imagery to provide us with an ultimate prospective.


Whatever presents itself to us in the concrete always requires some form of reaction, responsibility or maintenance, even if simply as a painting – a thing that holds someone else’s thesis. Once it is beheld it asks for something. The art work we actually choose to live with all contains terms we wish to reciprocate. So its dissipation into a place we cannot access requires that it fall into the purview of some further caretaker. The gift of release from that is perhaps the particular divine provenance of Isabel Manalo’s painted worlds.


Deborah McLeod


Independent Curator and Critic