An Echo from the Fields

An Echo from the Fields
Lex Marcos paints a Miguel Hernández tribute
Geronimo Cristobal, Jr.
April 16, 2010

The Spanish poet Miguel Hernandez’s last verse written on a hospital wall said, “Goodbye, brothers, comrades, friends: let me take my leave of the sun and the fields.”

In this gripping final act of poetry, Hernández was completing the image cycle manifested in his body of work. To observe Hernández, one would notice a clear evolution of his persona from being the beast and guardian father, to a soldier poet, and finally, becoming the “wind of the people” in death that surrounds us in breeze and echo. That same succession in Hernández’s literature is sought and displayed in this assembly of new paintings by Lex Marcos. They are mostly referencing the pastoral images primary in Hernandez’s poetry that is melancholic and elegiac in tone.

Now to fully appreciate Lex Marcos’s paintings, one must inescapably look through the life and poetry of Hernández. Let me give you a starter. Miguel Hernández was born in Orihuela, Spain more than a hundred years ago. He is, in the Spanish-speaking world, regarded as one of the most important poets of the twentieth century—equal in distinction to Federico García Lorca, Pablo Neruda, and Octavio Paz—but has never received his just acclaim in the English-speaking world as a victim of the artistic oppression exercised during the period of Francisco Franco’s totalitarian regime.

Much more in his life than in death, Hernández is perceived as a wounded poet (as most poets are wont to be suspected of). Hernández dealt with tragedies of a lost war and perhaps more severely with the death of his first born. Both internal and external factors would figure much in his works and would also lead subsequently to his death from tuberculosis, or in the words of Lord Byron—consumption—after being a prisoner of war for the final ten years of his life. He was only 32. The Spanish civil war may be unfamiliar to most of us who didn’t dwell much in European History after the 20th Century, but roughly, it is a major conflict that devastated Spain from July 1936 to April 1939. It began after an attempted coup d’état by a group of Spanish Army generals against the government of the Second Spanish Republic and concluded with a decisive win by the fascist Nationalists against the Republicans; installing Franco as dictator.

Among those who fought valiantly on the losing side with Hernandez were other literary figures such as Ernest Hemingway (as part of an international contingent), poet-playwright Frederico Garcia Lorca, and the painter, Salvador Dali. Alongside familiar memories of this war, the experience of imprisonment and seclusion is the background against which his works must be read. This is also instrumental in looking at the paintings of Lex Marcos.

In “Nanas de Cebolla,” or “Lullaby of the Onion”, Marcos’s image is clearly that of a prisoner whose furtive serenade-lullaby is written through the canvas. Words such as wings and tears, with its Filipino translation become valuable parts of the composition. The 46×46 inches acrylic on canvas painting according to him, is the one he most contemplated about. He wanted to serve the purpose of interpreting it visually, while being strained by academic training to avoid treating the painting as a literal vehicle. He settled by hinting through symbols complimenting the strongly geometric gestures of his figures, one of which is the recurrence of a bald man’s silhouette. His paintings can be read as a frozen frame in the rolling interpretation of Hernández’s poetry. It “can never be a direct translation,” he once said; that in the relation to text as image, the text are much “more static and more definite.”

Herein do we realize that much more than offering an interpretation of Hernández’s poetry, Marcos is also dealing with such problematic relationships of text and image or the domain we call, Semiotics—the study of signification. Lex efficiently negotiates between both channels to present a chain of signified, making the entire affair a little less problematic and elusive for the viewer.

Metaphor, one of the stirring elements of poetry which is strong in Hernández is also employed in constructing a meaning for the works. This quality is however not stringent in Marcos’s oeuvres with his ironic tendency towards a more raw form of expression. His interpretation comes across as expressionistic and instinctive, as well as an incisive cross-section of the textual meaning for the viewer. In this, Lex quips, that his “use of color and line is enough metaphor,”anything more would be going against the purpose of translation: it is a new work coming from the same origin and not a supplement of the original, unlike the images in children’s books, these are images that can stand on their own. Lex Marcos paintings are not only reflexive of Miguel Hernández poems, but also of his milieu, perhaps in the way fascism in its new form whips the same oppression for today’s artists. No one will dispute the universal appeal of the poems; in particular it touches the collective unconscious of us Filipinos who were once connected by umbilical cord to Spain as our mother country.

What explains Marcos’s fascination, as an individual, with the life and work of a relatively obscure poet is perhaps his attachment in playing the role of Hernández in the critically-acclaimed stage play “Recoged Esta Voz” (Dulaang UP 2006) about his life and writings. While performing for the stage, Lex became fascinated with human nature and on capturing drama with the different inflections present in every script. The play became a defining moment for Lex who found similar patterns in Miguel Hernandez’s creative method with that of his own practice as a painter at the UP College of Fine Arts. While in college, Lex concentrated on both studio work and art history. He was keen on seeing things visually in any art form. From the stage, he moved on to do sets for various theater companies and has gathered a repertoire of designs that draw on the works of artists that he studied more often than not, spurned by stage critics for lack of knowledge in the visual arts and stubbornness to remain in an antiquated paradigm of separate disciplines. Lex yet again breaks this stasis saying that “Art is a language,” an adage that Lex holds on to for El Eco. Being as such, it is not so different from creative writing with a pen or performance with the body, it involves some form of substantation that echoes the essence of human life.

As a painter, his portfolio is thin but not insignificant, for he has achieved in a relatively short time, a substantial following from admirers of his craft. This is in fact not the first time Marcos has done paintings inspired by the poet. It’s been a recurring motif for him to draw once in a while from Hernández because of a certain affinity with the man’s character—the poet soldier.

“Recoged Esta Voz” is the title of two paintings, one rendered in a much more colorful tone and exhibited six years ago while the other is reprised for this show. This 48×72 landscape painting offers a panoramic view of the Spanish Civil War—the buildings melt like candles on the foreground while the shadow of a goat (the symbol of Hernandez) looms guiding soldiers on the battlefield; an allegory to Hernandez’s role as propagandist and soldier for the Republican Army.

“In the bull becomes the bullfighter,” Marcos reconstructs a Hernández love poem entitled “Death in a Bull’s Pelt”. Now, ravenous love-starved beast,/ you may come graze my heart’s tragic grasses,/if you like its bitter aspects./ Like you, I am tormented by loving so much,/ and my heart, dressed in a dead man’s clothes,
winds over it all. (Stanza III and IV)

The strange jibe of metaphor of Bull and wind, stunning at once, perfectly depicts the kind of love that afflicts the poet. These sentiments are rendered in strokes that remind you of an in-between Willem De Kooning and Robert Motherwell (who famously did a series of paintings about the Spanish Republic) while the colors are that of a darker Antoni Tapies. The artists’ tendency to invoke his own analysis about the biography of Hernandez is apparent. The Spanish Civil War, is part of the backdrop, while the lives of his individual characters are also tucked into history and the paintings.

Marcos also touches the sentimental, but tight-lipped in his austere line drawing and cubists painting similar to a more fauvist Braque in “Father and son.” The images are delicate, confident, and voluminous, while the expression takes us away, as it has been, and often with paintings in these series. It is, after all, a child and his stone father. How much more drama can you get?

“El Eco” is a mix of what falls out of history and this sense is important in order to hold the place where our interpretation may be interrupted. “Tristes Guerras” is horror and sadness rendered with primordial urges of the artist, much like how the poet observes devastation in the battle field. Spain’s Civil War is a moment long lost, found again, and folded into the larger story of our country and Spain’s common past.

There is a similar moment in Marcos’s painting and Hernández’s poetic cycle. The world where Hernandez and Marcos exist is reduced in stories of grief, sorrow, and war. It is in traversing these emotions where the poet becomes the father and a bull, a guardian and protector which is highly dramatic in contrast to isolation in prison. Being in exile means that child and father in “Father and Son” will never grow old together. This metaphor extends into the kind of relationship that the war ravaged. Bearing the feelings and thought otherwise unbearable and capturing this perfectly is an achievement of both poet and language. Because of this, “El Eco” will never be the monopoly of the Spanish language and neither will it be the monopoly of the written word. Earlier than being translated to paintings, his poems have been translated to plays, and it is fortunate that Hernández’s poems are now appearing in artistic endeavors like this because they are as important for their historical provenance as for their artistic excellence.

The paintings in this exhibit can be claimed with equal right by exiles for his images are founded on the crossroads between cultures and languages. This exhibition also expresses a significant part of the contemporary consciousness through the unmistakable voice of two men, Hernandez and Marcos.

Not only in choosing his theme does Marcos show his concern for the past, he also paints like an old-hand (a compliment considering he’s only turned 29). His paintings juxtaposed with the poetry are the “old blood singing,” from the first strokes that experiment with form and expose the confusion of life, to the paintings which seem to surpass the text in meaning. Marcos’s works are a weave of poetry, image, and memory into complex works of art.

While Hernández’s tone can be ironic and humorous, or confessional and serious, Marcos’s is more somber, elegiac, and discerning, massaging the viewer’s eye with bravura that is careful of not being “too much”. Lex certainly knows the parallelism of poetic forms and the visual elements; Ezra Pound’s famous line “poet as sculptor” is done in reverse in El Eco, but just as well, concerned with moment and possibilities of interpretation.

In El Eco we are given a comforting vision of the world, where peasants sleep like stones beneath mountains of concrete, in “City Peasant” and where stories are being spun and spun again, as in “Vals de los enamorados y unidos hasta siempre” where the dancing of the living and the dead coexist, for better or for worse. The blood of Hernandez is singing in the veins of Marcos as he echoes some of the most tender and vigorous poetry on war, death, and social injustice written in the past century with his paintings. His images have the distinct tone and texture of a intense man where the indelible spirit of Hernandez lives. The artist is particularly concerned with translating the essence of Hernández. He once said that “Looking at my paintings, their entirety is an expression of freedom.”

To gather Hernández’s poetry in such large visual volumes of paintings is to bring one of the 20th century’s most important poets to life again. His wind is with people like Lex Marcos who have been touched by his life and poetry. We realize that without poets like Hernández, the world community of poetry would not be what it is today. The practice done in the visual arts with El Eco must be sustained and appreciated if the vital link between the sister arts of painting and poetry is to continue with Hernández’s voice, and Lex Marcos’s devotion as an enduring example of why great poetry is timeless.

“El Eco” opens on May 7, 2010 at Galerie Anna, SM Megamall Artwalk and will run until May 21, 2010. For more information kindly visit, http://www.galerieanna.com.

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A portrait of downhearted objects

Caroline Ongpin at Paseo Gallery

September 1-15, 2009

Paintings in oil abound the gallery walls in Caroline Ongpin’s exhibition, ‘Spaces for Contemplation’, at Paseo Gallery. The paintings invite us to settle with the gallery, each one a depiction of rooms and several household objects. They are reminiscent of Edward Hopper’s indoor paintings in effects, but whereas Hopper paintings depict scenes of people with gloomy intonations, Ongpin’s paintings focus on the personal objects of these people as a point of departure to uncover the identity of the person. She takes out the distance from these houses, her eye is everywhere.  She peeps through doors, and catches these things left as they are, lost inside this room or forgotten in neglect. She situates herself within but fills the painting with so much longing and anxiety. While Ongpin’s subjects were chosen arbitrarily from revisiting objects and rooms inside her house, her experience and story that backs up the meaning of the exhibition is deeply personal. In a more general outlook, the paintings may be considered as a reconciled response to the practices in modern living—the excesses and abounding wistfulness over lives which makes the exhibition its characteristic:  It is about the melancholy of objects.

This particular set of paintings confers to us the significance of objects to the lives of people. That these objects were given the focus rather than presenting portraits of their owners tell of making mute objects speak of their history. It is a sort of, if these-walls-could-talk insight into the lives of people.

“Bathroom Mirrors” for example is based from a picture of a bathroom counter. The mirror reflects the objects strewn across it- hand sanitizers, toothbrushes and breath fresheners, and consequently the life that own these things.

Also in this line is, “Melancholy of Objects”—a painting of a house library which is filled up with stuff— plastic bags, books, paper– rendered  in earth tone colors. A remarkable feature of these paintings are their reservation in using color, brown for this one and mostly shades of blue on the others. These make the paintings all the more riveting and emotionally charged because of the meaning commonly appended to color.

Her use of color, for example tell you about a man who has his room filled with medicine bags and pill containers and items of the same thing all on one table.

“They’re supposed to give the viewer a clue, sort of, about whoever owns those things.”

To paint a collection of baggage is the metaphor for Ongpin. “It’s like things that people can’t let go of and they end up just piling up and making everything messy.”  “Like emotional baggage,” she adds.

Aside from being the possession of someone, the objects in the paintings of Caroline Ongpin can be taken simply as objects whose meanings depend upon their function or their location. These objects are mostly shut in, unused and miserable, standing amidst their owner’s callousness or their insipid desolation. The paintings make both their stories exposed and their owners—the ultimate subject—vulnerable.

Comparable to the paintings of Caroline Ongpin are the poems of A.E. Houseman (1859-1936), a poet who also served as an inspiration to Edward Hopper.  In his Last Poems, A. E. Housman speaks of being “a stranger and afraid/In a world I never made.” That is probably what the artist feels in coming up with ideas for her paintings—and  what she conveys with so bitterly unadorned in this exhibit. –Geronimo  Cristobal, Jr.