Jay Cabalu is a Filipino-Canadian hand-cut collage artist based in Vancouver, BC. Through comics and magazines, Jay creates his own expression of the world in a pop-surrealistic tone. The collage artists work is filled with colorful and complicated stories often shaping self-portraits.
How did you get interested in the art of collage?
After my family moved to Canada in 1991, I got into collecting comics like Archie and Marvel and eventually magazines. We didn’t have much and there wasn’t a whole lot to do at home— only three TV channels and no video games. This media was fairly cheap to buy and I would read these things and learn about the world around me. When I went to university my pop cultural interests— comics, mainstream entertainment, celebrities, fashion— led me towards pop art and soon I was inspired to pull from my personal collection of materials to make collages.
Your work is a pop-surrealistic expression of your world view, can you tell us a little bit about that?
I wasn’t the most outgoing kid growing up— I spent a lot of my free time looking at the comics and magazines I now use to collage. As someone who felt so different, the real world didn’t always feel safe so I would escape into this imaginary world. I’m taking the media that excluded me and creating my own representation. When you take a closer look at my work there are several narratives taking place at once. It is a fantasy world where the imagery is familiar and beauty is omnipresent, but something is still off. Perspectives and environments are ambiguous and the characters I use are experiencing a wide range of emotions. This is the world to me— it is not just our singular experience.
You use magazines and comic books for your work, what is your favourite comic book and why?
My favourite and the most influential comic book to me is the Archie Digest Magazine— the ones you find at the grocery store. The Archie franchise has been around since 1939 and the digests compiled stories from decades of social commentary. This was the first comic I collected and as an immigrant I soaked up as much as I could. As a brand, Archie comics were always striving for relevancy so they would often place the characters into cultural phenomenons of that era. I drew these characters constantly and I learned about Americana through Archie— trends, styles and social movements were all touched on by this comic.
What things or people or emotions inspire you?
Visually, I’m inspired by the types of imagery I saw in the magazines I read. The composition of works like The Count of Monte Cristo and De Los Reyes play on setups I’ve seen many times over— celebrities and models on the phone, states of undress, oversized products in advertisements. Seeing myself occupy spaces I was never included in has been very liberating. As well, I’m interested in identity and selfie culture. Putting myself in my work was a difficult choice because while it is powerful to represent yourself, it is also incredibly vulnerable. When you consider how labour intensive these “selfies” are both the power and vulnerability become amplified. It can be seen from both lenses— loving yourself in such a grand way while spending hours meticulously crafting a self-portrait for validation. I think selfies express both sides to varying degrees and that everyone on Instagram is a self-portrait artist. Whether you show your face or not, you are crafting some kind of a persona.
What is your working process? How long does it usually take to finish one art piece?
This is a very difficult question to answer. I can say how many hours of physical labour a piece takes, but that doesn’t factor in the amount of time I spend thinking and composing ideas in my head. I could argue a piece like, De Los Reyes, which is about my family’s immigrant struggle, took 30 years to come to terms with and create. As well, each piece is different and I am always learning how to translate colour and texture into my aesthetic. It can take one to several weeks. There are a lot of factors. As for my process, I start by finalizing the main image. Afterwards, I gather materials to collage looking for the desired colour palette as well as any pieces that reflect what the main themes are. When I start to collage there is a huge element of play— cutting up characters and objects and creating a little scenes is the fun part. There is always a different reason for why I include certain images. The reason could simply be colour or it could be representational. Sometimes the reason is totally silly or for my benefit only. This ambiguity gives the viewer to room create their own narrative.
What are you working on at the moment?
The last couple of years have been devoted to self-portraIture, which has allowed me to find my perspective. I will continue to do them, but am interested in all kinds of art. I’ve just completed my first still life Dreamland, using the props and clothing from The Count of Monte Cristo. There is no central figure so the close-up narratives become highlighted. It establishes that my work is as much about the environment as it is about identity. The context is important. For a long time, I put so many restrictions on myself to be a specific kind of artist. Once I realized I developed such a unique style I started to expand my vision. I want to see everything in collage now.
Photography by David Koppe