An Eerie Beauty: Gregory Halili’s Trompe l’Oeil Eyes & Excavated Skulls

Painter Gregory Halili creates meticulous, ornate works that are inspired by his experiences living between the Philippines and the United States, and that investigate life, death, and resurrection. Born in Manila in 1975, Halili moved to the the U.S. at age 13, received his BFA from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, and began a career in which he is known for his miniature paintings that depict a wide range of subjects—from saints to cityscapes to butterflies.

Recently, Halili has been experimenting with painting and carving on nontraditional materials and has homed in on eyes and skulls—two subjects that were chosen for their ability to transcend the limits of geography and time. Meticulously carved, polished and painted on the surfaces of vintage ivory and mother-of-pearl shells, respectively, these works speak to universal experiences, and fuse manmade and natural processes into a single form.

The “Eyes” series references circadian rhythms, drawing a parallel between the image and shape of the human eye and that of a rising sun or moon. The eyes used as models include those of his his wife, father, and mother, an allusion to the 18th-century tradition of the “eyes of the beloved,” as Halili explains: “Throughout history humans have believed the eye is the window to the soul. I am interested in the idea of how the eye can transcend religion, become universal and evoke emotion.” 

Halili’s “Memento Mori” skull series is a progression from his work with eyes, begun after the artist noticed the way in which the large, iridescent, mother of pearl shells he saw at Filipino markets echoed the shape of the human skull. He has developed a painstaking process involving many layers of carving, sanding, and painting, drawing upon the Renaissance sfumato technique of careful tonal blending without outlines. The iridescent, undulating form of the shell gives these new works a mystical quality that imparts both a distinct historicity, like a fossil that has been unearthed, and an eerie, uncanny beauty of form and light.

Memento | Gregory Raymond Halili” is on view at Silverlens, Makati City, Philippines, Nov. 27–Dec. 20, 2014.

—K. Sundberg

Discover more artists at Silverlens.

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