Ordered chaos in Zean Cabangis’ art

The compulsion to amass objects-from works of art to basic commodities and mundane items-has been a popular topic for social and psychological research. People have long been fascinated by the drivers behind the desire to accumulate things until they literally pile up in layers, beyond the reasons of logic and need.

Many visual artists have likewise engaged this phenomenon in different ways, creating works of art on the subject and appropriating its ways of ordering and displaying materials, particularly through mediums such as installation art and the use of found objects.

This month, young contemporary artist Zean Cabangis utilizes mixed media and painting to examine the idea and process of hoarding in his third solo exhibition entitled ''Goat Paths'', ongoing from November 9 to 24 at Art Informal's Main Gallery. The exhibit is composed of around 10 paintings produced through acrylic and emulsion transfer, superimposing images of structures, objects and forms and merging both figurative and abstract forms.

Avenues for meaning

Produced in the span of four months, the works in ''Goat Paths'' chronicle Cabangis' aesthetic and personal responses to this compulsion to collect and accumulate, documenting the different stages of his observations and reflections. Interested in the act of remembering and finding personal value in objects from the past, he utilizes their images as materials for the creation of new images.

Like other works of art dealing with the subject, Cabangis creates seemingly random accumulations of different forms, simulating the cramped spaces of cluttered rooms. Images usually associated with clutter populate his canvases. Chairs, clothes, textiles, machines, wood scraps, toys, and debris gradually pile up and fill each empty nook and crevice, until these individual items become unrecognizable in themselves and eventually form a collective mass, a new presence. This is particularly demonstrated in the works entitled ''Wall to wall, floor to ceiling'' and ''Reality settles as the memories raced'', where Cabangis realistically portrays a combination of old items-clothes, desks, a bicycle and boxes-as masses of floating weight.

Interestingly, his use of canvases with rounded edges is also based on an accidental act of collecting. Cabangis sourced the idea of using the said format after chancing upon vintage family photographs mounted on wooden boards with rounded corners. The titles of the individual works are also similarly ''collected'' from other texts and song lyrics.

The term ''goat paths'' popularly refers to the narrow trails or aisles left by hoarders to literally walk through clutter, used to shepherd anyone passing through heaps and mounds of accumulated stuff. Many places inhabited by hoarders have these paths cutting through a swath of objects and providing a clear pathway to navigate through such a metaphorical jungle. Similarly, Cabangis' works also seem to serve as symbolic goat paths: trying to break down, deconstruct and delineate the experience of viewing and navigating through clutter for the viewer. The works attempt to lay down new avenues for finding meaning in chaos.

Process of layering

Cabangis' process of producing these paintings is consistent with the concept of collecting objects and images. His use of acrylic and emulsion transfer was a technique first learned as a painting student at the University of the Philippines College of Fine Arts. Later on, he would increasingly incorporate the use of emulsion transfers in his works. This enabled Cabangis to directly reproduce and build layers of different photographic images on canvas instead of painting the images one by one.

This process also runs parallel to the hoarder's propensity to collect and layer each batch of objects one after the other. Cabangis' treatment of clutter, however, goes beyond painting stacked things in bulk. By superimposing geometric forms, such as lines and planes, against the backdrop of images he creates the impression of translucency, impermanence and illusion. Images are simultaneously obscured and revealed.

In comparison to the works featured in his earlier solo shows, Cabangis' recent paintings seem to juxtapose more elements and forms, layering them over the other. Some paintings in the show also seem to indicate a growing preference for enhancing the abstraction of form.

Structure in chaos

As an artist, Cabangis treats the subject of hoarding as both a literal scene and a process to generate new representations of reality. The predominant images and forms in his paintings point to the intention of seeking structure in chaos, of trying to construct new meaning and relevance from the rubble of entropy.

Cabangis' preferred geometric forms also allude to the act of creating definition and structure: the use of thin, precisely defined and brightly colored lines and modular structures for containment (such as bricks, cubes and houses).

His larger paintings, for instance, often incorporate the image and shape of a house, which is often a signifier of order and psychologically a symbol of building the self. This is seen in the largest painting in the entire show, entitled ''You thought you had enough,'' where the form of the house emerges, like an apparition, from a concentrated mass of vertical lines juxtaposed against the bleak conglomeration of clutter. He also incorporates many forms from the interiors and exterior facades of houses.

Other works use the form of bricks and cubes to denote compartmentalization and order. In the work entitled ''It's almost like we have nothing left,'' he creates a green cube of contained grass: an image that perhaps denotes the folding and fragmentation of reality; the last piece of meaning that one can hold on to.

Cabangis also includes an installation work in the show, composed of smaller rectangular canvases which are painted and laid side by side with each other to simulate the look and structure of brickwork. By building piece by piece and composing that by layer upon layer, the artist seems to assert that there is indeed a way to sift through the random existential rubble that one faces daily; that there is a matrix of meaning and structure behind all disorder and chaos.

All in all, Cabangis' works in response to the themes of recollection and collection emphasize the potential of his art to further explore the areas linking abstraction and reality.