It’s Hidden in the Details: Artist Interview with Mai Saporsantos

  • by Elo Dinglasan

What are the defining marks of an artist, her process and sensibility, if not the ones left to dry on her canvas?

With the artworks of Mai Saporsantos, we might notice an acute sensitivity where obsession ought to be. Instead of a compulsion to totalize, measure, or determine to exacting detail, Mai’s artworks offer a way out of that all-too-nominalizing cul-de-sac. Like the recurrent woman in her pieces, whether in the bathtub turned canoe or lounging in the bathwater as otherworldly scenes unfold before her, we are not confronted with uncertainty. We’re simply cradled towards it.

It’s an aesthetics of suggestion, not pronouncement. Through Mai, we get a look at a different kind of common sense, one attuned to a hidden rhythm that, like the elements in her pieces, blend and morph objects together, have them click into place, and form, in the most natural way, a composition worth volumes. The secret, as they say, is in the details.

Cartellino Mai Saporsantos Exercise in Motion (detail)
“Exercise in Motion” (detail). Acrylic on canvas. 30 x 36 inches. 2019.

Cartellino: Your works are hardly either/or. It’s abstract and figurative, whimsical, and also ruminative. The symbolism is not at all cut-and-dry, while the compositions come across to the viewer like half-remembered dreams. 

Without resort to lyricism, it’s difficult to pin your works down with words. Maybe that’s the point. What are some good footholds for us to understand what you do?

Mai Saporsantos: The works for me are like collages.

There is a sense of place in my work that’s partly invented, partly borrowed - from memory, from life. There’s a certain familiarity but not all too familiar to me. I take one of my drawings and it takes me somewhere else.

Someone asked me once about why there always seems to be a scene, and I said it’s how I try to make sense of things or to understand the world around me right now. It is as much as the sense of place in the picture whether interior or exterior, which once in a while for me become symbolism for certain states of disposition. As it is with the occasional figure and the elements that are in them that draws me in more into the picture, hoping to capture its essence regardless of subject matter rather than foretelling.

I like humor and quirky things I can build upon, sometimes they’re not all that funny, but I crack myself up when I’m making. It’s like a response to things that happen rather than a premeditated response. Of course, it’s not always a laughing matter, too, as life is, but it depends on how you see things.

I also like that there are things in the picture that you can get hold of or anchor yourself in while possibly getting lost in the details, whether in the patterns, color, or composition, making it as close to something I imagine it to be. Enjoying painting, getting lost in them but also learning so much more about yourself - wandering about and discovering. It’s fascinating when you have this lexicon of curiosities that mostly forms non-linear narratives, and you see them come to life.

Cartellino Mai Saporsantos Dispelling The Myth of Being
“Dispelling The Myth of Being While Bathing.” Acrylic on canvas. 36 x 48 inches. 2018.
Cartellino Dispelling the myth of being while bathing 2
“Dispelling The Myth of Being While Bathing” (detail). Acrylic on canvas. 36 x 48 inches. 2018.

C: Equally telling is your talent with titling your works. “What’s in the middle of your mind is the middle of your mind” and “Snippet from over here,” for example, sound observational, matter-of-fact. But that’s not all there is to it, either. How does that speak into your creative process? 

MS: I’m influenced by a lot of things — from books, tv shows, movies, design, food, music, a conversation, et cetera.

I like writing things down. Things that can be from observation or those that happen to just suddenly cross my mind randomly as I go through the day. They’re usually phrases or sentences, sometimes just words. Since words tend to also lend some sort of rhythm or mood, which usually influences the works’ titles or they become starting points for beginning a work. It’s more intuitive.

C: How would you compare your exhibits Cues from the Sun with Mono8 and Fortune Favors the Brave with Artery Art Space in terms of concept and execution?

MS: In Cues From The Sun, each of the works was a standalone piece, where the only thread connecting them is the show’s concept and probably a few visual cues. They were more like vignettes / montages / interconnected fragments of memory and time, each one having a narrative. I had larger works since the intention was to also invite the viewer in the picture as I also was when making the paintings. With larger scale, it’s easier to move around and also enjoy your marks.

For Fortune Favors The Brave, I was interested in weaving more of a series, a linear narrative stemming from the medium-sized painting in the show to the zoomed-in details that changes in each of the small paintings.

Cartellino Somebod Series (nose)
“Somebod Series (nose).” 2019.
Cartellino Mai Saporsantos The Death of a Nobody
“The Death of a Nobody.” Acrylic and print on shaped wood. 14 x 20 inches, 2011.

C: It takes a certain sensibility—a ceding of control—to produce work that leave much to interpretation. Yet, when we think about the painter or authorship, there still remains a measure of sovereignty accorded to the artist. In terms of intent, is there a kind of direction you would like your viewers to have or understand?

MS: One of the things that I find most interesting is looking at a blank canvas because sometimes it can be daunting just looking and not really doing anything. I had this dilemma before where everyone in the studio were all making work, and I felt pressured and left feeling defeated that I haven’t done anything. I walked and went home. I found good veneer wood being given away, so I took it with me not knowing what I’d make of it. The next day I saw a dead pigeon - one I took photos of.

I manipulated some of the images and printed them on the wood. I cut the wood into shape, and that became one of my works in the series. There is some degree of control needed too in the creative process of making work, and it is essential.

But I find that the more I try to control or force things, the more it doesn’t happen.

So, for me, it’s also knowing when to let go to actually gain control.

C: Does that idea tie in, also, to tasks related to your being a gallerist and co-founder of Artery Art Space? What makes up Artery’s “progressive aesthetics?” It must be quite the challenge to map out criteria for such a thing.

MS: As an artist-run space, Artery started as a creative project organically formed by time, place, and community, which have allowed it to grow and still be. So, progressive in that sense, and progressive because it’s contemporary art. Though there is art history that we all continue to be heavily influenced by, there is no turning back - only moving forward.

Cartellino Mai Saporsantos Commonplace Mystique
“Commonplace Mystique.” Acrylic on canvas. 36 x 48 inches. 2017.

Anchor Photo: “Exercise in Motion.” Acrylic on canvas. 30 x 36 inches. 2019.

All images courtesy the artist. She’s on Instagram!

Mai Saporsantos's “Foot Up” and “Snippet From Over Here” acrylic on canvas artworks are available at the Cartellino shop.

For Zero Hunger PH

We thank the artists Kiko Capile and Manix Abrera, as we happily pledge part of the proceeds from our “Athena” and “Mandirigma ng Dalam-Hati” tote bags to Zero Hunger PH’s crowdfund. Zero Hunger PH is a youth-led movement aimed at creating and distributing food bags to the homeless and families at risk, following the ECQ’s suspension of work.

To learn more about initiatives like Zero Hunger PH, Help From Home PH is an online information hub that connects people who want to help with people who need it the most.