What’s Keeping You Awake? • Isabel Santos

Feb 2 to Feb 24, 2018 • Upstairs Gallery

In a deliberately more personal show, Isabel Santos showcases a collection of work that is both a creative expression and a look into her interior life.

Some aspects of her work for What’s Keeping You Awake? are gestural, borne out of the stored images in her mind and the many things that plague her during her bouts of insomnia. It is during this state of in between wakefulness and sleep that she is forced to confront her inescapable issues: “things to do, things I could have done, my regrets.”

The onset of sleep does not mean rest, as Santos is prone to exhausting, violent dreams that feel real, sometimes reliving a dream version of events from that day, close to the reality but not quite there, leaving her grasping for what the truth really is. The line between her dreamspace and her reality is often a blurred one, and the exhaustion of coming face to face with both realities bleed into both night and day.

What’s Keeping You Awake? is an exercise in catharsis and exorcism, where everything from Santos’s anxiety, anger, and sadness undergo a transfiguration — from internalization into potent and evocative charcoal figures. Every stroke elicited comes from “a strong feeling,” and working on these pieces has been a plea for release; sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. The resulting hazy images are what she sees in her mind — at least, the fragments that she remembers — a glimpse of what haunts her mind.

Santos periods of wakefulness are the only times she writes in her notebooks, too, often tinged with self-loathing and bouts of insecurity. What’s Keeping You Awake? marks a return to her past thoughts, reacquainting herself with the demons that keep her up at night and the work she has done, so far. While preparing for this show, she encountered at her first solo show, one that she had been remembering less positively but has now chosen to revisit after finding the beauty in them that had been elusive for her before.

Her process for What’s Keeping You Awake?, and the rest of her practice has been riddled with self-doubt and unsureness of what comes naturally to her. Santos is sure of what she finds beautiful, but struggles to grasp the reason for these judgements. She thinks about the importance of the images, whether they have a deeper meaning, and even the act of choosing to portray them, over many others.
What’s Keeping You Awake? is, in many ways, a return and a revisitation, a suspicious and reluctant homecoming of sorts. There is a pull to come back and reconfigure certain moments in her life. But, by returning to the point at which she started, Santos is faced with even more questions: “Have I not learned anything from then? Am I back to where I was?”

—Carina Santos