Isabel de Obaldia
Winter 2006 Fellow
The figurative glass sculpture of Isabel De Obaldía, a Winter 2006 fellow at the Creative Glass Center of America, ignites an explosion of associations. Glass is glass in De Obaldía’s work. Its fragility becomes a metaphor in De Obaldía’s typical deconstruction of the figure into torso and limbs, sometimes suspended and sometimes mounted on a stand. The curving idealized forms De Obaldía chooses suggest both Classical statuary and dolls or puppets, perhaps sacred lay figures intended to be dressed in identifying garments. The absence of a head and fragmentation of the body in many of these works recalls the time-honored revenge of the victor: the obliteration of the enemy’s personal stamp on a culture’s art by removing or damaging his or her head, literal defacement. It could also reflect a knowledge of old dolls, the kind with china heads and limbs.
But, ultimately, the absence of a head gives rise to a sense of depersonalization. In addition to fragmentation as wounding, there is the sense of a universal being. A 2004 figure without head, feet, or arms is covered with relief images of eyes. Missing much that is unique and individual, it remains tragically heroic and projects the essence of the human struggle, of human history.
De Obaldía chooses minimal gender-defining characteristics, though the over-all effect of the figures seems to be masculine and youthful. Shoulders are broader than hips and the chests of the mannequins are deep, like that of a Greek kouros figure. The waist is athletic but not excessively narrow. On occasion a minimal loincloth is outlined, but genitalia are rarely noted. Such details are not essential to De Obaldía’s vision. This generalization would be consistent with the idea of an articulated religious lay figure which would ordinarily only be seen clothed in real clothing.
The artist’s original decision to make the figure in sections was a practical one: it is very difficult to kiln cast a life-size figure, but she has made an expressive virtue of this necessity. A series title like “Fragmentos de Guerreros” tells us that some of De Obaldía’s figures are soldiers (guerreros), young men whose bodies are all too expendable. Men can be treated as little more than dolls moved about the map in a game of war.
“Transfiguraciones” (2003) has a more animistic and mystical quality, as De Obaldía integrates plant or other symbols with the body. Frequently color is embedded into the glass De Obaldía uses this simple and direct vocabulary to evoke historic and religious associations.
The headlessness of these figures implies a universality beyond that of an individual portrait. In addition to reminding us of ancient works which have been beheaded for political reasons, there is an even more base reason for the missing heads on statues in museums. Often they were removed by 19th or 20th century plunderers for sale to collectors. The head is more portable than a whole statue, and the most marketable part.
The second most marketable part of an old statue is the hands. The hands of the Buddha, with their delicate mudras or symbolic gestures, have frequently been severed and sold. It is easier to destroy religious images when the religion is not one’s own. Although De Obaldía frequently omits hands, arms or feet of figures, on other occasions, she displays only limbs, suspended like ex votos.
A 2001 series composed exclusively of torsos seems to suggest a literal transformation from human into another internal animal or vegetative form. De Obaldía has described the simplified shapes as “almost a canvas on which I could explore possibilities of colors and textures.” Both leaves and feathers cover some figures and the arms of one are becoming wing-like. Another is covered with green cactus-like spikes.
A successful painter for many years, De Obaldía became involved in glass around 1989 when she left Panama to distance herself from the unstable political situation, though she also was passionately involved in Panamanian politics. The highly expressive figures she painted can be reminiscent of the work of Leon Gollub, though the messages are less pointed. Figurative, expressive and surreal, they share many elements with her sculpture, including the headlessness of some figures and other physical distortions; however, the strict, rather static frontality of her sculpture is a step away from her paintings.
At Pilchuck in the late 1980’s, she had contact with Libinsky and Brychtova, and other pioneers of large-scale cast glass. She likes the transparency of big chunks of glass and the possibility of placing colors and images in the interior as well as on the surface.
De Obaldía continues to rely on sketches in planning her work. “I think that it is very important to be able to draw. To express yourself through your sketches.”
In Panama she is restricted to kiln casting, in which the mold based on a clay positive is filled with glass pieces and heated to a melting point. At the Wheaton Arts and Cultural Center, she began a new series which she has been planning for a year in which she will sand cast using hot glass (something which is not possible anywhere in Central America she says). The forms will be cylinders based on recent excavations of third century BCE “Estatuas de Barriles,” barrel-shaped statues found in the province of Chiriquí. She’s also inspired by pre-Colombian sites she’s visited in Mexico and Peru and wants to treat the new castings as pieces of stone which can be stacked and formed into a structure.
But not all De Obaldía’s ideas come from the past: she is considering using light as an element in these finished works. She’s also moving into cast heads which may be integrated with the structure.
While she says, “I love history. I love reading. I can absorb from everything,” De Obaldía is thoughtful about the ways she allows older works to inspire her work. She recognizes a danger in becoming too “folkloric” or succumbing, as well known glass artists have done, to the popularization of “junky” imagery which does not fully respect the tradition.
“I have enough stuff from my own culture to feed on. I’m very keen on the body and exercise and like that. The thing that I love about sculpture right now is that there is much physical work to do.”