At one point in his dense, utterly brillant and much misunderstood book The Art of Seduction (2001), American author Robert Greene mentions a line from the French writer Stendahl (1783-1842): “Love is a costly flower, but one must have the desire to pluck it from the edge of a precipice.” According to Stendahl, the closer the loved one brings you to the edge of the precipice, to the feeling that they could abandon you, the dizzier, more lost, attached and addicted you will become. As troubling as this may sound, the fact remains that it is human nature to take somebody for granted once it is believed that you have them forever, easily and without conditions.
In his other book The 48 Laws of Power, Greene shares a rather erotic quote by another Frenchman, François de La Rochefoucauld (1613-1680), that has stayed in my mind: “Absence diminishes minor passions and inflames great ones, as the wind douses a candle and fans a fire.”
The release of true joy depends on anxiety, and withdrawal of the self magnifies identity—that is, if its initial impact on the other was genuinely deep. I thought about these two observations while engaging with the work of Filipina-American artist Fatima Ronquillo. Even though they evoke serenity, they explore the intense theatre of pain and pleasure, absence and presence in love—the manner in which these contrasts happen to be two sides of the same coin, the negatives defining and reinforcing the positives.
Flowers, the penetrating gaze, strings of pearls, red ribbons that you’d tie around gifts, letters with handwritten script, arrows, serpents, occasional drops of tears or blood—the elements of Ronquillo’s art transport the viewer into a world the inhabitants of which oscillate between opposing emotions and states. They go high and low, they are fully alive.
The artworks also contain literary, religious and mythical references. For instance, the concept of the “florilegium”—a collection of literary extracts (an anthology). The word comes from early 17th-century modern Latin, (flos, flor- ‘flower’ + legere ‘gather’), literally meaning “bouquet”. And so in these paintings, one will find excerpts from Shakespeare, Christina Rossetti, Emily Dickinson, William Blake and others.
There are also references to devotion and vows—figures and objects. Nuns and saints, and “recuerdos”, souvenirs of that which is sacred and precious. Characters from classical mythology make an appearance in idyllic landscapes—Cupid, Juno, Dionysus, Apollo, Athena, Hermes, Venus—displaying their respective powers. Finally, there is a sense of adventure in Ronquillo’s work—with a cartographer here, a wanderer there.
The artist explains more: “I am fascinated by the complex nature of love, at once a source of pleasure and pain. There is the ecstasy felt by the chosen beloved and ardent admirer. Love’s fleeting nature however, highlights the despairs of the forsaken, unnoticed and forgotten lovers, often symbolised by physically visible wounds.
“Compositionally speaking, the framed ornamental eye gives context and a reason for a floating third or fourth eye in a painting. It’s a device of conceit: a portrait within a portrait. For me, it’s an iconic symbol about the figure represented not unlike the reliquaries of saints in old devotional images. Love tokens such as Cupid’s arrow, the billet doux or the lover’s eye are symbolic of the figure represented and the absent figure―the object/source of affection/heartbreak.
“The surreal aspect of an isolated lover’s eye attracts me tremendously—the idea of physical dismemberment which is symbolic of a removal or estrangement of a loved one. For anyone who has ever been in love or had a crush on someone, the photograph of the beloved is treasured. It reminds me of the Mexican ‘milagros’—little charms of different body parts used to aid in praying for the healing of broken arms or hearts, or even eyes.”
Born in San Fernando, Philippines in 1976, Fatima Ronquillo emigrated as a child to the United States in 1987, where her family settled in San Antonio, Texas. She currently resides—and maintains a studio in Santa Fe, New Mexico—with her husband and west highland terrier. Her work is included in private collections throughout North America and Europe.