Rodel Tapaya at Vargas Museum

The Jorge Vargas Museum is a humble and elegant institution, but I have sometimes thought that the artist who is offered a one-man show there might well think twice before accepting. Maybe it’s the air of self-importance that surround those exhibitions they hand an artist there, maybe it’s simply that few men have the actual skill and scope to shore up such sweeping production for a museum exhibition.  In any case, I can think of at least three men who received such showings in recent years and came out of them with their reputations seriously disabled. I must, confess, too, that I had my qualms that something of the sort might happen when I learned that the Museum was planning a big exhibition for Rodel Tapaya.

Tapaya, as you certainly know is the maker and so far practically the only known practitioner of the artistic mode known as ‘literary painting’ and I instinctively saw Bulaklak ng Dila as a result of a long and labored establishment of a style that began from when Tapaya started picking up ideas from books. His winning piece for the Nokia Art Awards was entitled “Deconstruction,” a painting which possibly relates to the philosophical thought of Jacques Derrida most used in literary criticism. In addition to this, the show refers to the “idiomatic expression pertaining to the exaggeration of truths, relating it with the everyday and with the current social climate.” [i] It’s a smorgasbord of technique for the painter who incorporated various media from oil and glass painting, to sculpture, installation, diorama, mural, drawing, and portraits framed by tin (in his own design).

Then and now he has two faults which I feared might make his show either droning or heavy, or both. He’s a little bit orthodox creatively, so once he has found a pattern, image or stroke that appeals to him he is likely to repeat it, (which isn’t really a problem at all unless you have seen much too many of his works) and he seems to be unfazed by his deliberate didactic-ism, with the result that at times one finds him venturing, apparently blindly, into fields of expression that offer small outlet for his peculiar genius.

He is also, however, one of the few truly fantastic artists around today, with a clarity of grace about his vision that are hard to find equaled somewhere else, and I’m glad to report that in this case my fears were groundless. Beautifully arranged by curator Patrick Flores, the show is from first to last a brilliant success. Flores once wrote about Tapaya’s style as “recalling the propensity of the folk for decoration and adornment, a profusion that is about pride of place and bounty.” He said that for Bulaklak ng Dila, Tapaya “is challenged to transcend the descriptive and didactic so that he could dwell on the allegorical: that the telling of the tale is about its moral elsewhere, across time and place, through people and predicaments.”[ii]

While I have always adored a Tapaya painting, I have never fully grasped that it is actually in employing the orthodox and in the words of Flores, “the didactic and descriptive” that one is able to enact a ‘transcendence’. Transcendence being the main goal of most if not all contemporary art.

The faults I have mentioned appear in it, as they should of course in any well-rounded study of the man and his art. The painter once told me a story that after studies in New York and Finland he stopped painting for almost a year. In a loose interpretation, it was because he was trying to distill the blanket effects of experience and influences incurred in the exposure. When he started painting again, it was not to return to an old technique, style, or subject matter for one witnessed that there was a drift and that there was a bigger transition behind Rodel T. Garcia now signing his art with his mother’s maiden name: Tapaya.

The grid, so evident in his paintings before, receded in the background and now only remains conceptually, and replaced in form by excessive use of patterns. His evolution must have been a breakthrough for him, marking an arrival to full-maturity, the character that would define him anew as the Rodel Tapaya we now know. The critic Constantino Tejero dotted him early as ‘the young painter that paints like an old hand’[iii]. But we no longer see the heavy investment of Cy Twombly or Chuck Close in his paintings—influences also mentioned by Tejero. Only the colors remain, and these too have seen infractions in his latest exhibitions, duller but no less significant and more subtle, whereupon the abstract form was still distinguished, is now fully incorporated into the figure. I asked him about his black figures in the murals and Tapaya has this to say about it “They are important (in the composition) to create a more graphic appearance” I assume to balance an otherwise line-heavy painting. Rodel is full of things like that. He is certainly a man that knows what he is doing.

A large part of the charm of a Tapaya painting derives from the very easy appearance of his difficultly executed patterns and imaginative playfulness, taking your eyes here and there in juxtapositions of tales drawn from both old and new, historical and fictional. We were certainly completely up for a surprise when, some five years ago, he began tinkering with sculptures-whose 3D appeal were simulated in context to scale and space and hence rigid requirements of an architect’s skill; perhaps there should also be emphasis on how Tapaya perceives space in his diorama and story houses.

There are times, as in the installation, “Isang Kahig, Isang Tuka,”–an army of about 60 or so chicken heads on santo nino maquette–when his commentary reduces his art pretty close to the level as that of magic realism—nice and interesting but also in danger of being one step off from contemporary reality that it becomes rather smack in the mouth, folk and exotic.

These are minor objections, though, in the face of the sweep and brilliance of the exhibition as a whole. Tapaya’s paintings are hard to describe, being made up as much of story and of nuances as of anything else, and I won’t try to do much of his stories and of nuances as of anything else, and I won’t try to do much itemizing of individual pieces, though there are three—“ Diwata,” “Tabi-tabi po” and “Tikbalang” with their rather grim and harried strokes, along with  delicate glass paintings—that I’d like just to mention as being particularly worth searching out. What one mainly sees, though, is connections, not of one piece but of many, and as it is the beauty and mystery of pure riddle in images that give the show its interest, so it is the variety and ingenuity that the artist has displayed in developing that beauty which gives him his stature as an artist. Rodel Tapaya never seeks to define, but rather to preface; it is all leads instead of immediate substance, periphery,  scene rather than actual content in the painting. If one takes him of these terms, as the show so gorgeously does, it must be seen that his stature is unique and firmly in place.

A Tapaya mural

A slight banter during installation expressed Tapaya’s sense of accomplishment in doing three big paintings for this show, “Nang wala pang ginto ay doon nagpalalo, nang nagkaginto ay doon na sumuko,” “Baston ni Kandangyan, bilang pero di mabilang,” and “Alamat ng Bayabas”. I asked him what he would do to the murals after the show and he retorted “Balik sa bahay ko.” Tapaya also laughs realizing about his experience doing things in large scale. “Hindi ko nga alam kung bakit ko naisip (laughs) pero gusto ko talaga gumawa ng malaki.”  Not finding the words to describe the work load he said, “Sa madaling salita, matrabaho ‘yan.” It took him almost a year of preparation and on and off work on the mural before finishing “Baston ni Kadangyan…”. “Hindi mo naman magagawa nang diretso ‘yan, mangangawit ka,” he said.

I won’t try to explain what these three beautiful murals are all about. I guess this is one of those moments when you just have to go and see for yourself.

The exhibition marks an achievement for probably the youngest ever to hold a solo exhibition at this museum. While his murals deserve a separate review, Rodel’s drawings are still the best for me or perhaps it is more accurate to say that I found them (also) exciting. His sculptures are always neat, well balanced, and thoughtful, but it somehow lacks crispness and authority, which the works on canvas sensitively handled as they are (see “Tikbalang” and  “Diwata”),  perhaps a little too safe in their construction of  modern and folk. The drawings (which, incidentally, represent a considerable departure from his earlier manner) are far less able but I think more satisfying. There are six in all, and they are concerned with a set of symbols which includes trees, spears, fairies and mysteriously recurrent characters, and other objects intended to anatomize society’s predicament today. But the symbolism, if at times obscure, is never insistent, and the drawings themselves are unfailingly brisk and vivid.

His “Folk Naratives” (drawing series) have their rather wry humor not unlike from the three murals.

In an interview as a 20 year-old winner of the Nokia Art Awards in the Asian Art News, Tapaya is recorded to have said “I always liked drawing.” “When I went to art school I did learn the technique of good painting. But my work at the moment is all about line…I like the ideas of artists like Picasso, Mondrian, and Paul Klee, for example.” Only ten years after, one wonders now how far Tapaya has gone from that humble and determined voice and from exploring just that one line.

—Geronimo  F. Cristobal, Jr.

“Bulaklak ng Dila” runs until 5 March 2011.For more information, please contact the Vargas Museum at (+632) 928-19-27; (+632) 981-85-00 loc. 4024

[i] Vargas Museum press release for Bulaklak ng Dila, accessed through

[ii] Flores, Patrick D. “Bulaklak ng Dila” exhibition pamphlet, December 10, 2010

[iii] Tejero, Constantino C. “Art of the primitive” July 25, 2004, Philippine Daily Inquirer-Arts and Books, accessed through

Photos : Vargas Museum

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