Why artist Allan Balisi hides the faces of his subjects

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Artist Allan Balisi shares why he’s drawn to old photographs and anonymity. Photo courtesy of ALLAN BALISI

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — When I gazed at an Allan Balisi for the first time, I thought I saw myself.

Last year, Balisi’s “Span of the Image,” a painting from his 2016 show “Room Full of Elephants,” was exhibited at UP Vargas Museum. The painting depicts a seated audience with their backs turned to the viewer. They appear to give their full attention to what is in front of them: a blank wall. There’s no sign of impatience. Or perhaps those with heads bowed down are the disinterested ones. Maybe they are scribbling nonsense, maybe they are looking at their watches, or maybe they have already trespassed the world of dreams. But the person whose back looked like mine — hair covering the nape, shoulders rounded — is seated in the front row, concentrating on what the unseen speaker is saying.

It’s tempting to make assumptions about what’s going on or who the people are in a Balisi painting. When something is missing, curious viewers exercise their liberty to supplement and augment the work with imagined information.

Balisi derives his subjects from old pictures and film stills. The references in “Room Full of Elephants,” for example, were from found photographs of people attending seminars and conferences. Not only is photography a point of reference for the artist, but it also informs the way his final output appears. With colors washed out, most of his paintings somehow resemble old comics and faded photographs. And as if coming from a bright flash, light engulfs the countenance of his characters.

Allan Balisi, "Room Full of Elephants." Photo from WEST GALLERY/OFFICIAL WEBSITE

When you picture a Balisi painting, you will perhaps recall it down to its minute details. After all, the painter has deducted elements from the source material that the mind may soon forget. This process of omission is deliberate. For Balisi, it tests the “ability of an image [to] hold what I want to express when translated into a painting.”

With a collection of paintings currently on view in a show called “Pathfinder” at Pablo Gallery, CNN Philippines Life talks to Balisi about his interest in old photographs, how he protects his work from misinterpretation, and why his characters are often faceless.

What is the core philosophy that guides your work?

To have a stance in what you do, in free, natural expression. And to never compromise my creative practice.

And how does that relate to your current project?

Creating our own ways to play and act in it are fundamental parts of human life, and almost every space we can explore has an already designated meaning and prescribed use for it. Resources for representing something have been thoroughly exhausted. So much has been done in expressing and re-interpreting reality. There’s fewer undeveloped space left. In the exhibit “Pathfinder,” I focused on familiar subjects and imagery as other pathways for representing. [I am interested in] the idea of breaking spaces that have pre-set meanings and defending a liberated territory.

Allan Balisi, "Pathfinder (expect resistance)." Photo courtesy of ALLAN BALISI

Most of your previous works are based on old photographs you found in thrift stores. Does this hold true for your new exhibition? And why are you drawn to old images?

My starting point [is] always from photographic sources: screenshots from films, thrifted photographs, and old family photographs. It depends on the ability of an image if it can hold what I want to express when translated into a painting. For me, most old photographs and freeze frames from old movies have a certain and natural obscure detail that can be taken away from the whole picture which I cannot find in newer images. Every time I hunt for images, I always look for this particular detail. In this show, the images are from film screenshots and one from a photograph borrowed from a friend.

Which one is that?

“Charting the Frontier.” [The reference is] a photo of atis leaves taken from a phone camera. I was fascinated at the dewdrops that looked like they were carefully placed on the leaves. Upon studying the photo's possible compositions, it led me to the lower part of the photo where there is an abstracted reflection magnified on the droplets. I encountered this while in the process of searching images that can represent maps and movement.

The exhibit is called “Pathfinder,” which is also the title of a zine of drawings published last year. Is the exhibition a continuation of that project? What’s the relationship?

“Pathfinder” started as a series of drawings I made in 2017. They’re drawings of hands holding a blank paper accompanied with borrowed texts from pre-code comics. I released a zine with this set of drawings in 2019. I also did a few group exhibitions with this series. I see it more like branches rather than a continuation.

How do you decide whether a work belongs to a canvas or to a much smaller medium like a zine?

It’s the same process in making zines, making a drawing or a painting. The effort is all the same. I treat zines like shows and drawing like painting.

The human characters in your paintings are somewhat elusive. They hide their faces. Sometimes, it feels intentional as in the painting called “Mutual Admiration.” Most of the time, it seems like their faces are simply washed out by strong camera flash. What accounts for this?

I like the idea of anonymity in human figures.


Faces have their own expression and have the tendency to misrepresent the work. The expressions also distract or mislead some of the focal points of the painting. Anonymity will give the image [its own] identity.

Allan Balisi "Pathfinder (seeds)." Photo courtesy of ALLAN BALISI

Your titles are evocative. Can you tell us more about the process of naming your work?

Even if I declare that the works are open to interpretation, I somehow want to shield them from an impulse of a viewer’s convenient misinterpretation. The title has an important role to articulate the ideas of the images.

Do you look back at your past work? Why or why not?

Sometimes. To see what I can learn or unlearn to improve.

Do you have a mentor? Do you think it's important to have one?

None. For me, it’s not really necessary to have one. It might lead to not doing your own voice.

How important is social media in your work?

I see social media as another way of archiving, I find it more useful that way.

What skills do you wish you had?

Writing and being good in answering questions.

What do you think are the biggest challenges faced by people in your field today? How do you overcome them?

Aside from the discomfort and anxieties given by the pandemic, the collapsing of little freedom left in our state is a big threat to creatives. In this stasis, I am inspired by the courage and collective efforts of my artist friends.

Allan Balisi, "Pathfinder (no worries)." Photo courtesy of ALLAN BALISI

What myth about your field of work would you like to debunk?

That painting is easy.

What have you learned from work that you've applied to other areas of your life?

To finish what I’ve started doing, to move beyond limitations of what I feel to be possible and permissible.

How has the pandemic and the quarantine affected your work?

The constant worrying paralyzed me in the first few months. It’s tiring, but I still managed to continue studio work.

What do you do when you can't paint?

I get back to doing studies or other chores. I don’t force myself into it. I also don't spend a lot of time on the act of painting. There’s a lot of tedious process before painting, from making canvas to deciding and conceptualizing an image. I’m not the type of painter that just paints.


“Pathfinder” is on view at Pablo Gallery, 1th Ave, Taguig, Metro Manila, until November 21. Weekends only from 12 - 5 p.m. by appointment via