Pacita Abad: Underwater Wilderness to Open at Tina Kim Gallery




The Far Side of Apo Island, 1989. Oil, acrylic, gold thread, plastic buttons, lace, sequins on stitched and padded canvas.
Image courtesy of Pacita Abad Art Estate. Photo: Hyunjung Rhee.

Tina Kim Gallery is pleased to present “Underwater Wilderness,” the gallery’s second solo show dedicated to the late Filipina-American artist Pacita Abad. Featuring eight monumental trapuntos, a form of textile-painting that Pacita pioneered, this exhibition offers a focused selection of significant work created between 1985 and 1989 from a small series inspired by the artist’s fantastical experiences scuba diving in the Philippines. The whimsical paintings originally debuted as an immersive installation in 1986 at the Ayala Museum in Manila, and will be reunited in New York for the first time since their 1987 display at the Philippine Center. On view at the gallery from June 27th to August 16th, this stirring presentation runs concurrently with Pacita’s major retrospective at MoMA PS1, which closes on September 2nd before traveling to the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto.

The “Underwater Wilderness” series developed after Pacita learned to dive at the British Sub- Aquatic Club in Thailand in the 1980s. Prior to this, she had a fear of water after a traumatic childhood experience in which she nearly drowned. Conquering her aquaphobia, Pacita became a proficient scuba diver and made over 80 dives across the Philippines, from Sepoc Beach to Dumaguete, Puerto Galera, Apo Island, and the Hundred Islands. The wondrous sub- aquatic ecosystems that Pacita encountered during her dives provided ample inspiration for the inveterate colorist.

These dense, kaleidoscopic, and sensorial paintings—marked by Pacita’s signature vibrancy and visible stitching—transport viewers to a mesmerizing undersea locale. To portray the inspiring and lush marine environments that left her in awe, Pacita sewed pieces of fabric together to form complex and layered compositions before painting and embellishing the canvas. In Dumaguete’s Underwater Garden (1987), she clearly delineates parts of the reef through a laborious combination of stitching and stuffing while rendering other parts in impressionistic strokes to create the illusion of motion. In Shallow Gardens of Apo Reef (1986), fluorescent corals, sinuous vegetation, and diverse aquatic life emerge through a highly inventive use of found materials culminating in a maximalist, vertical composition.

An abiding interest in alternative, non-hegemonic systems of meaning connects Pacita’s diverse subject matter, from the politically charged “Immigrant Experience” works exploring the possibility of “third-world” solidarities to the idiosyncratic “Masks and Spirits” series tackling complex questions about the mutability of representation and tradition in modernity. Though described by critics as her least political body of work, “Underwater Wilderness” harkens back to the artist’s Ivatan roots and connection to Batanes, Philippines, where she was born and raised. The series can perhaps be read as Pacita’s bridging of personal and political histories and the “manifold lived realities” of the Philippines. After she led student demonstrations against dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the late ’60s, her parents encouraged her to complete her studies abroad after her family home was sprayed with bullets. She was only able to return to live in the Philippines in 1982 after twelve years away, and started this body of work the year before the fall of the kleptocratic regime in 1986.

For an artist whose multimodal life resists essentialization, “Underwater Wilderness” further complicates the discourse around her practice. When describing her diving experience, Pacita said that she felt like “an infidel intruding into somewhere sacred.” In a body of water where different currents both literal and metaphorical collide, Pacita found a space of liberation, recovery, and possibility.

About the Artist ~ Born to a family of politicians and activists in Batanes, the furthermost-north island state in the Philippines, Pacita Abad (1946–2004) made a brief stop in the US en route to Spain to finish her graduate studies after political violence initiated by Ferdinand Marcos put her life in danger. Pacita decided to settle in San Francisco in 1970 and met her husband Jack Garrity a few years later, embarking on what would be an itinerant, global life together. Pacita obtained an MA in Asian History from the University of San Francisco in 1972 and studied painting at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C. in 1975 and the Arts Student League in New York in 1977.

Pacita’s oeuvre featured an immense array of subject matter, from tribal masks and social realist tableaus to lush and intricately rendered underwater scenes and abstractions, predating contemporary discourses around postcolonial feminisms, globalization, and transnationalism. She has had solo exhibitions at the Jameel Arts Center, Dubai (2021); Spike Island, Bristol (2020); the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design, Manila (2018); Cultural Center of the Philippines, Manila (2004); National Museum, Jakarta (1998); the National Museum for Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C. (1994); Hong Kong Arts Centre (1986); and the Bhirasri Museum of Modern Art, Bangkok (1980), among many others.

Her work has been featured in notable exhibitions, including the 60th Venice Biennale, 11th Berlin Biennial; 13th Gwangju Biennial; 4th Kathmandu Triennial; Asia/America: Identities in Contemporary Asian American Art, a traveling exhibition organized by the Asia Society, New York; Beyond the Border: Art by Recent Immigrants, Bronx Museum of the Arts, New York; La Segunda Bienal de la Habana, Cuba; and Second Contemporary Asian Art Show, Fukuoka Art Museum, Japan. Her work can be found in the collections of Tate Modern, London; the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C.; M+ Museum, Hong Kong; and the National Gallery Singapore. She passed away in Singapore in 2004.

Pacita is the subject of a major retrospective currently on view at MoMA PS1, New York, before traveling to the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto. The exhibition debuted at the Walker Arts Center in 2023 in Minneapolis, where it was curated by Victoria Sung with assistance from Matthew Villar Miranda, and has traveled to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

About the Gallery ~ Tina Kim Gallery is widely recognized for its unique programming that emphasizes international contemporary artists, historical overviews, and independent curatorial projects. The gallery has built a platform for emerging and established artists by working closely with over twenty artists and Estates, including Pacita Abad, Ghada Amer, Tania Pérez Córdova, Mire Lee, and Lee ShinJa, among others. Our expanding program of Asian-American and Asian diasporic artists, including Maia Ruth Lee, Minoru Niizuma, and Wook-Kyung Choi, evince the gallery’s commitment to pushing the conversation beyond national frameworks.

Founded in 2001, the gallery opened the doors to its ground-floor Chelsea exhibition space in 2014. The gallery was instrumental in introducing Korean Dansaekhwa artists such as Park Seo-Bo, Ha Chong-Hyun, and Kim Tschang-Yeul to an international audience, establishing public and institutional awareness of this critically influential group of Asian Post-War artists. The gallery partners regularly with prominent curators, scholars, and writers to produce exhibitions and publications of rigor and critical resonance.

Pacita Abad: Underwater Wilderness will be on view from June 27 to August 16, 2024 at Tina Kim Gallery, 525 West 21st Street, NYC.