Don Dalmacio and the manual of painting

Review of Don Dalmacio’s Condensed and Evaporated at BLANC

Too late for today, Too early for tomorrow. 60 x 48 in, acrylic on canvas, 2014. Photo not mine. Grabbed from the website of BLANC.

I vividly remember going to the Cultural Center of the Philippines in July 2009 to see the works of the latest 13 Artists Awardees at that time. By now I have forgotten most of the works in that show but the paintings of Don Dalmacio are stuckin my head. It’s been five years since then when I visited Blanc Gallery last week and was surprised to see his works have evolved and greatly refined. Five years ago was all about distortion and understatement. I thought of a word for it: ‘satiation’ or repletion: the state of being satisfactorily full and unable to take on more. The irony of being hollow but unable to contain. His style has taken on a life that is intuitive and honest. Dalmacio, whom I have not met in person but have personally written a fan mail appears the most composed of young artists who exhibited at the CCP during that time, in contrast to the frenetic works by Kawayan De Guia or the hideous atmospheric and round drawing by Christina Dy, Dalmacio’s paintings on the wall genuinely appealed to be simple but profound.

In Jose Saramago’s, The Manual of calligraphy and painting, the lead character is a struggling young artist named H, commissioned to paint a portrait of a influential industrialist named S. In the novel, H. begins to work, but he has conflicted feelings about doing yet another flattering, bland depiction. He resents his client’s success and confidence; he envies him and is fascinated by him. In frustration, H. starts a second, secret version of the portrait, painted to adhere to his own developing ideas of art and truth (from the book’s cover notes). Upon seeing the paintings “Hollow Men” at the CCP Hallway, I imagine Dalmacio as that struggling young artist who was probably in the same predicament. They appear to me as alternate portraits commissioned by egocentric oligarchs. Moving because they seem like characters so prominent during the Macapagal-Arroyo regime.

Because the CCP hallway is without ample floorspace, the works worked better when seen from across the hall or from the corner of the eye. In “Hollow Man,” Dalmacio is like Saramago’s H who emphasized on the hunt for truth and therefore meaning. He has turned to producing secret portraits for their potential to tell the story, relying on silence to tell even the most politically agitated motive, hence the subdued images.

The boundaries of his figuration were so undefined, that it was at risk of being misconstrued as repression. The effect is a temptation to disrobe the socio-political dimension of the artwork. What the artist presents is actually a gesture of reluctance, impressionable, and rather contrastingly not a brave decision on his part but timid or calculated but it came out to me as the most deserving of scrutiny in all the awardee’s works on display because it revives something that was already long lost in the tradition of Philippine painting.

I am not so keen on the title of the show or the way simultaneous shows in Blanc are presented almost without celebration normally accorded to solo exhibitions. In Condensed and Evaporated, Dalmacio seems to have thrown out the socio-political dimension of his work and have built upon his form. The paintings have become lighter and skittish. His subjects have become contemplative and easy; natural.

He has created images that resonate, although, quite ineffectively of his own artistic voice that is now just an inflection from the CCP paintings. Don Dalmacio’s monotone, often mixed with drab colors tells of an even more potent detachment. Not a hint of concern or excitement. This cool attitude has also become the source of weakness because they no longer attempt to push or hold something together even if just an empty space. He has become, contrary to his written statement on the catalogue of the CCP, not a man to riot but of temperament. He has eschewed the tendency to paint in large format, which I regret, because he plays so much on focus; what is visible or what remains? In one of the paintings I recalled, rather than leaving out the face, he erases it, thereby ripping off identity in his assumption that the viewer would psychosomatically associate his portrait with the body. But he hides and refuses access to it. It is emptiness and estrangement that abounds in his work like a tamer Antonio Saura who has dissected and deconstructed the human body only to show its gnawing torture and exhaustion.

What Condensed and Evaporated feels like is none of the satiation I found earlier in his work but a less arduous attempt at tabula rasa. Painting the subject to make it disappear. I would wish to obtain full details of the sketched-out objects in paintings such as ‘Close, Open, Close, Open,’ but it has become apparent that in the practice of Dalmacio, this is not the point. Notice ‘Too much sleep makes you go blind,’ where he is articulating the burden of wanting to say so much in a painting; expressing that there is also a threshold in subduing. Any artist who has worked with the most meager of means knows this. Before concluding that the canvas is never empty, Rauschenberg recognized this same struggle, that you have to always give something to see in order to hint at what is being hidden. The most important thing to notice in the show then, is the opposing forces behind the practice of painting, to be both brimming and quiet, and to ride the trembling. #


The exhibition Condensed and Evaporated runs from April 5-26 at BLANC Gallery along Whiteplains Avenue in Quezon City.

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