by Rachel Haggerty
Immediately engaging, the work of Fatima Ronquillo reminds us of another time, one that may or may not exist. Painted in a similar manner to that of the European masters and using much of the same language as Early American Colonial art and Latin American art, each piece feels like a secret world revealed. Her symbolism is the only clue as to what lies beyond.
Born in the Philippines in 1976, Ronquillo moved with her family to San Antonio, Texas when she was 11. Finding herself friendless in a new country, Ronquillo sought refuge in the local libraries. The endless supply of books opened up imaginary places and characters into which she escaped. Studying the pages of art history and mimicking the masters, Ronquillo taught herself to draw and then to paint. Using flat planes and blocks of color, she began to formulate the symbolic language she uses today. Round faces with crescent eyes and latching stares appeared holding bowls of fruit and flowers. A young girl clutched a dove and simple pastoral landscapes eased into the backgrounds. Over the years, her technique tightened and her color choices became richer. Her artistic voice echoed many of the same notes as before, but it began to mature. Her symbolisim flourished into a fascinating visual language that hints at her characters’ intimate and mysterious worlds.
Ronquillo’s symbols have evolved from the passive to the active, inviting our curiosity and stimulating our imaginations. At first, flowers painted in a folk style appeared as offerings to the viewer. However, in recent paintings they appear as more of a possession. Wings that had once adorned her characters innocently now rest on coy and confident shoulders. The sweet monkey appears as a devious playmate. Her birds are no longer quiet bystanders, but messengers carrying promise of other lands. Her arrows point toward a mischievous and deliberate action. We are led to believe something or someone exists beyond the picture plane.
Ronquillo began incorporating literal depictions of these other worlds in 2007. In “Susannah”, an Italian landscape adorns a bowl full of cherries set in front of a young woman. One cherry is lifted from the bowl but held close to the figure’s chest. A bird sits on the edge, not looking down at the cherries in front of him, but up at the one withheld. The landscape on the bowl is like the cherry for the viewer, it draws us away from the current plane and tempts us with a glimpse into another world. In many of her pieces, Ronquillo’s subjects hold single objects. These objects seem less of a peace offering and more like bait to draw us closer. In 2008, through the inclusion of a miniature portrait in “The Miniature”, we see the first pictorial depiction of someone other than the main character. This keepsake is clutched close to the heart while a small dog comforts the sorrow of his master. It is with this painting that Ronquillo begins to more deeply explore the idea of her characters’ friendships and romances.
Ronquillo’s most recent body of work, Devotion, delves into this symbolism specifically though the mysterious and alluring world of the Lovers’ Eye.
Originating in the 1700’s, Lovers’ Eyes are Georgian miniatures depicting the eye of a loved one. These were usually commissioned watercolors on ivory with richly decorated frames and worn as jewelry. e first eye is thought to have been sent by the Prince of Wales to the widow Maria Fitzherbert. The court frowned upon their romance, so to maintain decorum, the prince sent Maria a portrait of only his eye. Lovers’ Eyes became fashionable shortly thereafter, when the couple married despite royal opinion. It is said when George IV became king, he wore Maria’s eye under his lapel. Inspired by this mystery and romance, Ronquillo moves beyond the sentimental miniature portrait. A glimpse of an eye, an eyebrow, a tear, a lock of hair does not suffice, but rather urges us to wonder: What is the nature of their relationship? Is the eye representative of a forbidden love, a child lost, a spouse? The surreal aspect of an isolated eye attracts Ronquillo; she says, “It is an idea of physical dismemberment which is symbolic of a removal or estrangement of a loved one. For anyone who’s ever been in love or had a crush on someone, the photograph of the beloved is treasured. So these are portable remembrances before the camera so to speak.”
The dress of her characters also points toward estrangement and danger. Many of the eyes are held by uniformed or exotically dressed figures accompanied by wild animals staring out of the frame. Arrows pierce the skin near the keepsakes, externalizing the pain of a lost or ruined love. In “The Inconstant,” the pain depicted is not that of the main character but of a lover. High atop her head, affixed to a gold turban, a single tear falls from a green eye toward its pearl frame. The eye of another lover is pinned close to her heart. A langur sits almost menacingly in her lap. These signs of infidelity and faithlessness betray the subject’s round, innocent face. More subtly, in “The Treasured,” a young uniformed boy sits with one finger covering a Lovers’ Eye brooch. A shell, fire-red coral and a strand of pearls balance precariously nearby. His eyes are shy and his mouth is tight with reluctance. His cheeks are red with embarrassment. We can only suspect that this young voyager has been asked to share his love story. He is not willing. Perhaps he believes his heart is as unstable as the still life on the ledge and, strangely enough, we are satisfied with the mystery of his reluctance.
In addition to these intimate oils, Devotion also includes larger mixed media works that present multiple firsts for the artist. The transition from the many layers of oil paint lends the pieces a graphic, contemporary feel. Ronquillo uses acrylic and watercolor to focus on line and flat color. The largest piece in the show, “The Runaways,” is a breakthrough piece. For the first time, her character is in motion. The larger format gave Ronquillo the room to move away from the seated portrait. No longer a tableau for the viewers gaze, the runaways seem to pause for only a second in order for us to wonder what they are up to. Ronquillo’s growth and ability to successfully traverse mediums is a testament to her skill and intelligence. Year after year, she continues to further fascinate us with windows into mysterious worlds, urging our imaginations to take hold.