Before moving to the United States at age 14 (2010), Isabelle Gotuaco split her childhood years between Hong Kong and the Philippines. She studied philosophy at Haverford College (2014-2018), where her undergraduate thesis on Kantian Aesthetics earned the Charles Schwartz Memorial Prize in Philosophy. In 2023, she received a post-baccalaureate certificate in studio art from Brandeis University.
Isabelle specializes in genre and interior scenes, with a focus on themes of racial embodiment and subject formation. Her current work considers how the knowledge and possessions of embodiments like race structure one’s passage into a distinct phenomenal experience of the qualitative world. Isabelle paints about points of passage—moments of connection, evaluation, spiritual loss and recovery—to negotiate this articulation of raced personhood.
The staging and strategy of her compositions are very often informed by the philosophical tradition of Chinese Ming and Qing dynasty narrative painting, where the idea that a figurative subject should be looked at and described in relation to the totality of a lived world was already a possibility well understood. One aesthetic consequence of painting personhood this way is that a work of art might call not for interpretation of the subject, but for one to suspend oneself in the subject’s lived world, which is a nondidactic training of an ethical impulse. This call to suspension is at the center of Isabelle’s practice.
What initially compelled you to pursue art?
The honest answer is that there are ideas I can work out on a canvas that I don’t know how to work out anywhere else. I’m interested in different ways of seeing, and painting gives me room to move around.
Who or what in your life influences your practice the most?
A lot of my initial energy comes from reading fiction, especially short stories. I’m not totally sure why that’s the case, but sometimes I think the short story form and painting share a similar set of compositional challenges and aesthetic rewards, and that’s why one leads me to the other.
What do you feel is the key concept that connects your works?
These paintings are “about” describing subjectivity, so the work is always in particularizing and personifying some mental space.
Tell us about a moment that ultimately made you look at your art and/or practice differently.
In the last year I’ve moved from timid, to willing, to adamant about making room for improvisation in my work. The change doesn’t trace back to a specific moment really, but I came to realize that as a young artist still figuring out my own “hand,” negotiating with instinct—knowing when to follow or fight it—is where a lot of good work happens. Plus, I think we all welcome those opportunities to surprise ourselves in the middle of making.
What does your art give you that nothing else can?
There can be a sort of freedom in it. If the conditions are right, my usual overactive, overthinking mind will fall away, so that I’m not worrying about me or what the painting in final form “should” look like, and so on. I can just try and react to what’s happening, focus on just the next thing I do for the painting to be a better painting, without the burden of reservation. It’s a clarifying space to be in.