“FALLING. In 2020, I’ve resolved that: mistakes, the sketches, the erasures to show, as explicit, as inherent to the part of the work, and inherent to the intent behind it.”
Bree Jonson posted this on her Instagram account on August 29, 2021. It was a caption for a photo of one of her three Falling Birds paintings while in progress. The painting still half done – it was not even on an easel; just standing on the floor against a wall, on a bed of used brushes, mostly stained black, wrinkled empty paint tubes, a small white palette smeared with black paint, a stainless steel brush washing bucket, a couple of dirty plastic containers, and her white MacBook that stands out of the grimy yet eerily beautiful tableau.
This was going to be her last post.
Twenty days later, Bree was found dead in La Union – accused by her companion of hanging herself. The only witness. Alleged boyfriend. The public suspects. But of course, in a world where Lady Justice is blind, the man with the heavy name and more money has the ironic right to fair trial. As of this writing, the victim continues to be blamed. And the person in question is free.
Looking back, her words now sound like an epitaph. Was Bree showing us a premonition of her death?
The painting in her last Instagram post was part of her most recent exhibit at ArtInformal Gallery last February 2021. According to the gallerist, Tina Fernandez, her exhibit was a commercial success. Bree had always wanted to build her own studio and chose La Union to be her artist’s residency. The money that was pouring in got her all excited and so off she went. What was supposed to be a plan for next year became the immediate next step.
The exhibit was entitled ZZYZX. According to the exhibit’s catalogue, it was inspired by two things: the abandoned nature preserve in the Mojave Desert and a night club in Malate where, as the catalogue says “predation of the human kind can be observed every night.” And maybe it was a coincidence, but ZZYZX is also the title of 2006 American thriller film where a jealous boyfriend led to murder.
Accompanying the exhibit was a video with its clips projected on various old TV sets showing Bree playing the role of a stripper behind a glass. As if it were a peep-show. Amidst the Falling Birds on the gallery walls, there was Bree as a bird in a cage.
“Bree subverts the route of escape by showing us how to dematerialize completely. Layers of clothing are discarded as she performs the vulnerable, objectifying, empowering role of the stripper. The caged bird sings, dances, teases, and vanishes, daring to claim the sky,” the description says.
I couldn’t help but wonder, was it just a creative depiction or was Bree telling us a stark reality? Maybe not exactly hers but that of her kind – someone like a vulnerable but fantastic creature trapped in a menagerie called “the art world” with patrons claiming to be angel investors when they are actually angels of death. The ironic commercialism of art.
Birds don’t just fall from the sky. They are hunted.
In the painting entitled Beyond, Bree shows us a deer in the distance with its mirror image on a pond. Perhaps this is about a hunter chasing a fast and elusive deer deeper and deeper into unknown areas of a vast forest, into some strange world. The upside down. Beyond the land of living.
With the way Bree’s death came to be and how it’s portrayed on the news, I couldn’t help but liken her to the animals in her paintings – feasted on by beasts with money, power, titles, and their minions on social media.
Bree was a self-made artist. She dared. She took a risk. But she was preyed on. Like the bird who flew off the nest but was shot for its beauty. Like the deer hunted for its prized head. The story of her death on full display for everyone’s ogling and criticism.
This carnage is depicted on her painting Anubis where vultures and hyenas partied on the carcass of what looked like a wildebeest. Anubis in Egyptian mythology was the ancient god of the dead. But what caught my attention were the two foxes on the foreground; hiding behind a rock. They bore red streaks of paint on their bodies and some on their head. It seems, they’ve just escaped the carnage. They were survivors.
And this leads me to the painting called Gestures. Two paintings that can be placed together or apart. One shows a mongoose in the defense. And the other, a cobra. Their positions in a face-off. I think most of us are familiar with that famous grudge match written by Rudyard Kipling. We’ve seen it captured on National Geographic. The skinny mongoose versus one of the most venomous snakes in the world. And we’ve seen it happen. There aren’t very many animals out there that could fight a king cobra and eat it for dinner, but a mongoose is one of them. Small but terrible.
I felt a gush of hope when the message dawned on me. The issues surrounding Bree Jonson’s death are something the artist herself would have fought. On her Instagram account, her description says “The Personal is Political” – a feminist slogan explaining that all personal experiences of a woman (or any marginalized person for that matter) are caused by one’s position in the system of power relationships.
She is being blamed for her lifestyle by a bunch of testosterone-filled armed men in uniform. She is being framed by a male scion of a dictator’s crony. What match can a simple-living single mother have against a billionaire tycoon?
We still have ellipses in this story but if ever Bree really had a premonition of her death, perhaps the clue would be in the murder of blue crows, the 5-inch bird figurines that stood as sentinels to the last strokes of Bree Jonson’s genius.
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