Over Rizal at Vargas, Rizal at UP at Bulwagan

Rizal Cigarettes
Rizal Cigarettes

He wasn’t. Nor did he claim to be deity in any of his writings. But the photographs of his monuments for a show entitled Over Rizal at the Vargas Museum would make you believe otherwise. Employing the lighter tone and the touristy production, the exhibition retells history from the people who read about it, reflecting how the iconic representation of a hero affected the collective unconscious of an entire people. From the Latin word “monere,” which means ‘to remind’ or ‘to warn,’ a monument is a type of structure either explicitly created to commemorate a person or important event or which has become important to a social group as a part of their remembrance of past events. Here Rizal monuments are shown to be treated also as shrines and temples—a place for public adoration not different from Buddha or the Virgin Mary.

The ambiguities inherent in this reevaluation of Rizal Monuments all over the country point to the question how the icon of Rizal—the legend behind it and not necessarily the person—affects us in a culture that has become so obsessed with heroes and monuments in a time and place so consumed by so many other images and multimedia. On top of this, the exhibition mends many instances of understanding and veneration of Jose Rizal. It is interesting to note that in contrast to predictable modes of presentation, this exhibition shows why it seems naïve to ask merely about Rizal’s relevance. The better question perhaps is why like a few other exceptional cases is Rizal an enduring image that we can connect to just about anything, from cigarettes to terrorist bombings.
A stone’s throw away at the Atelyer of the Bulwagan ng Dangal, An exhibition focuses on the connection between our national hero and the University of the Philippines. Like the one in Vargas, this exhibition employs the rather ambiguous and ambivalent relationship of UP and Rizal mostly manifested “between the texts” written over the past century. In this exhibit Rizal is seen and used as a standard role model to stress and advance the concept of an Iskolar ng Bayan as an idealized agent of rational nationhood. This is evident in Rizal’s “textual presence” within UP either as academic structure on campus, heroic image in art, and national genius in course curricula, from the early period of UP in Padre Faura, until its transfer and growth in Diliman.

Rizal Monument in Dumaguete City
Rizal Monument in Dumaguete City

While the exhibition appeared too wordy in my opinion, the treatment of Rizal as a text complements the exhibition at Vargas which deals mostly with images. Looking at Rizal through this academic treatment likely stresses the impact and also the uselessness of these texts and images, especially when they are examined in such a way and in such terms. For example, the photograph of the Rizal monument in Dumaguete failed to show that behind the monument to Rizal is a monument to his fictional character Maria Clara, depicted bound and forlorn by its sculptor. Most monuments do not idealize and more so in photos; aren’t they supposed to appear larger than life? And in Bulwagan ng Dangal books—Nick Joaquin’s, A question of heroes and Flor Quibuyen’s A nation aborted: Rizal, American hegemony, and Philippine nationalism—are displayed like museum pieces! Aren’t these books better perused than displayed in a glass box? Oh well!

Celebrating Rizal through exhibitions like these is also a nostalgic . Our generation, deprived of the equally heroic concept of heroes and monuments, tends to blend Rizal into the realms of communication and entertainment—of questions of archetypes and semantics. But then again, even if passé, what more fitting way to reconcile Rizal—the life and the legend—than to produce and study new meanings for a new generation?

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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 vargasmuseum@gmail.com www.vargasmuseum.org.


[i] Vargas Museum press release for Bulaklak ng Dila, accessed through http://vargasmuseum.wordpress.com

[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 http://www.rodeltapaya.com

Photos : Vargas Museum

Renato Orara, Drawer.

I was searching through the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) collection last night, out of curiosity, for a Filipino artist and found only two names. The first one is Lino Brocka. The original film of the movie “Bona” is currently kept –luckily–in the MOMA Film Archive of the world’s best movies. I think there is no existing copy of the film here in the Philippines except at the UP Film Institute, which could also be a copy of the one from MOMA.

The second and only Filipino visual artist is Renato Orara.

Renato Orara who?

Before this search, I didn’t know much about Renato Orara save for the fact that he works in Drawings and was born here in the Philippines in 1961. He is now an American Citizen so technically, we only have one Filipino artist inthe MOMA collection but in a seeming homage to his country of origin, Renato Orara came to the Philippines last January 2009 and did a very special series of works. He also gave an artist talk although done via video conference from New York.

This special series called “Library bookworks” is for me, his most interesting oeuvre of drawings.  In this series, Orara creates his signature intricate and laborious ballpoint sketches on pages of books taken from the Library. The drawings he made are of human ears.

And if you’re just about to ask how he pulled it off,  let me stop you right there. No, I don’t think the librarian would allow that so I guess he did it without permission from the library.

Orara then returns the book with the drawings on an inconspicuous page. Since the book must be returned, the only evidence of his work are photographs (which were exhibited in SLAB last year) and a list of call numbers in Dewey Decimal marking the existence of these books. The Dewey Decimal numbers also serve as the titles of the drawings and also serve as hints of the location of the book. He says  that these drawings are his “most public exhibition and (yet) also the most hidden”.

The works he says are now all over the Philippines. It is fun to think that unsuspecting library users might have already encountered Orara’s precious piece of contemporary art and yet not know of their significance.

Perhaps, this is part of his intention– to hide this drawings in books bound to be rarely leafed through in their lifetime in order to show how “presences” are embedded or submerged and then subsequently resurfaced through the attention given to them by the artist and the viewer (in this case, the reader). The ear drawings can easily be interpreted as a multi-faceted visual metaphor, mainly of a relationship between the text and image and the hidden book and the  library user who has found and salvaged it from disuse in the bookshelf.

Orara has said that his works are all about “smuggling presence”.

His works are figurative but he points to a more abstract comprehension of his works. The language is very refined in the way he made ballpoint sketches mean so much more than just markings on paper. He fondly calls his sketches “ten thousand things,” alluding to his approximation of the number of layers of ink on the paper before he makes things like drawings of hats or shirts or blood appear or call them to have “appeared”.  He is said to have worked on a single drawing for months.

Renato Orara’s other series of drawings are “Drawer Drawings,” “The Iraq Memorial,” “Bookworks,” “Marked Bills,” and “Bloodworks,” another interesting series. Why interesting? View the video above or search for it via google.

Orara’s ideas may come out simple as the look of his drawings may impress someone but what he conveys in his art and his mode of presentation makes this simplicity a very powerful thing. His technique is subtle but engaging in the manner that they won’t be as predictable or closed in meaning. The interpretation is endless and always profound for Orara.


The sound gestures of Olivier Ochanine


Frenchman Olivier Ochanine is the new musical director of the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra. Superb.

Last night at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, as the torrential weather coated the entire city with an unlikely charm, a warm and wonderful treat took place.  The French conductor Olivier Ochanine, who became the musical director of the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra in March this year, had decided to present a superb selection consisting of the following: Colas Breugnon Overture by Dmitri Kabalevsky, Pastorale d’été, H. 31 by Arthur Honneger and Symphony No. 40 in G minor by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart for this year’s opener of the National Orchestra Festival.

Also under his baton, the Festival Orchestra performed the Symphony No. 5, Op. 64 in E minor by Pyotr Ilyich  Tchaikovsky on the same night.

The fountain turned-up today much to the delight of people around. The night was destined to be filled with the magic only an orchestra music can bring but it’s kind of depressing that people don’t bother to dress-up for the occasion of going to the CCP anymore. I mean, you don’t have to wear a suit and all (I did) but at least no slippers and jeans, please.  The hubbub and the elegant poster of the festival drew me and other curious passerby. Caroline decided to seat us in the middle so that the sound “is balanced”. I never understood why though.  A couple walked to the ticket window and asked, “What kind of show you got tonight?” The cashier answered,  “We’ve got Mozart and Tchaikovsky.” The couple blanched. “But the new conductor, (she pointed to a photo of Ochanine on the program) is here,” she added. That closed the deal.

Ochanine is young and good-looking.  This concert showed why he is being followed even if mostly by a few dedicated fans of women over 40. First came a richly rendered “Lupang Hinirang” that made us all stand up. I have never heard our own national anthem in such beauty. Nicanor Abelardo, for whom the perfomance hall is named, must be clapping his hands in heaven. Colas Breugnon Overture by Dmitri Kabalevsky is like a musical score from a Disney movie set in a swiss countryside. Its a mind massage to hear the orchestra playing, I tell you.

I can tell you also that I was almost moved to tears by the Pastorale d’été, H. 31 by Arthur Honneger, with its subtle heartfelt flute.

And then there was, Tchaikovsky! (need I say more?)

As Audrey Hepburn sung in My Fair Lady, its one of those nights when “I could have danced, danced, danced all night” but  you can’t possibly dance inside the performance hall. Nevertheless, inside my head was all dancing and prancing.

Ochanine’s conducting is so absorbing!

Other performances in the Festival

On Sept. 22, the PREDIS Chamber Orchestra under conductor Jeffrey Solares executes Wolfgang A. Mozart’s “Divertimiento in D Major, K 136,” Antonio Vivaldi’s “Concerto Grosso in A Minor,” Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor,” Edvard Grieg’s “Suite from Holberg’s Time,” and Bela Bartok’s “Rumanian Dances.”

The Manila Symphony Orchestra under conductor Arturo Molina will perform Angel Peña’s “Philippine Festival Overture,” Tchaikovsky’s “Tempest,” and Igor Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite.”

On Sept. 23, the UST Symphony Orchestra led by Herminigildo Ranera, plays the “Rienzi Overture” by Richard Wagner, the “Piano Concerto No. 6 in B flat Major K 238″ by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, with Najib Ismail on the piano, and “Finlandia” by Jean Sibelius.

Meanwhile, Salonga’s FILharmonika performs “Terry’s Theme” from “Limelight” by Charlie Chaplin, with arrangements by Salonga himself, “Night on a Bald Mountain” by Modest Mussorgsky, “Yerma” by Francisco Feliciano and “Symphonic Dances” from “West Side Story” by Leonard Bernstein.

On Sept. 24, the UP Orchestra under Martinez plays “Overture to the Impressario” by Mozart, “Serenade for Strings” by Tchaikovsky, and “Mindanao Sketches” by Antonino Buenaventura.

The Angono Chamber Orchestra under Agripino Diestro stages Francisco Buencamino’s “Pizzicato Caprice,” Antonio Vivaldi’s “Violin Concerto in A minor, KV356, Op. 3 No. 6,” with violinist Mikhail Ivan Ramos, and Lucio San Pedro’s “Katutubong Awitin” and “Jubilate” arranged by Diestro.

The Orchestra Festival’s grand finale on Sept. 25 features Bernstein’s “Three Dance Episodes from On the Town,” Richard Wagner’s “Elsa’s Procession to the Cathedral from Lohengrin,” Johannes Brahms’ “Academic Festival Overture,” Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet Overture,” Ralph Vaughan William’s “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis” and selected movements from the “Gayane Ballet Suite” by Aram Khachaturian

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.

The Architecture of Experience

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Caroline Ongpin, 2010, Den and Bedroom, graphite on blueprint, 120 x 300 in. Installation View: UP College of Fine Arts thesis exhibition

Every art exhibition should arise out of a debt of love. In a manner that is easily apprehended and yet mystifying, a painting seizes upon our imagination by the space it gives us to feel and think. When we see a good painting, we hold on to an image of it long after we left the gallery mainly because we are compelled or attracted by something we have seen or thought about while viewing it. In the same sense, we are not the same when we leave a building, as we were when we entered it mostly because of its peculiar way of demarcating our movement and constricting or framing our view.

This proposed exhibition explores the connection between the similar experiences between paintings (also installations) 2 and architecture in the way it defines space and how we live. This exhibition is a result of the powerful transformative experience of art.

The concept for ‘Architecture of Experience’ dawned upon me while walking the side streets of Binondo—Manila’s Chinatown. After having lunch at President’s Palace (a building converted from an old cinema), I decided to look for some souvenirs and thereupon noticed the architecture of the houses and the buildings. Not that it is physically any different or special aside from being perpetually crowded and Chinese-looking but mainly because we were walking and in walking the streets we were pressed to experience the place. From walking, we noticed that in Binondo, rapid demolition to replace antique houses with high-rise offices and condominiums is common.

Old houses are now being phased out and those that are still standing, although fairly ordinary without special attention given, are remarkable in the way they have been adjusted.

1 Appropriated from George Steiner in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Monograph (Phaidon, 2003) edited by Robert McCarter

2 The term ‘painting’ here will mean all gallery works including sculpture and installation. reconfigured to muddle through the ravages of time. Chinatown is remarkable precisely because decay, demolition and replacement has always been treated ordinarily. With the history behind the place, Chinatown is an interesting case in local urban development. Merely walking in its streets is an educational experience. This quality of a place and the quality of the experience I had is the thing I seek to communicate with others. Great works of architecture, like all great works of art, take hold of and shake us.

Victor Hugo once wrote about this experience saying that a piece of good architecture “is like a storm-wind, flinging open the doors of perception, pressing upon the architecture of our beliefs with their transforming powers.” (1) Though I do not intend to make Chinatown an integral part of this exhibition, as curator I sought to record the similar impact of other places that my selected artists have considered special. “To put their shaken houses in its previous order” in these chosen paintings and installations so that we can put in order the shaken houses of our minds. Through some primary instinct of communion, I seek to convey to others the quality and force of my experience which can also be found in the quality of good architecture. The goal is to persuade the viewer to see them released into space and the existences that occupy it. In this attempt at persuasion originate the insights that we would like to share with the community. There is no better way to present this other than through the intense and captive walls of a museum or gallery. To defamiliarize, to make the presentation as, Viktor Shlovsky would put it, ‘distinguished from practical language on the basis of the former’s perceptibility’ (2). I see it as a timely and even necessary reaction because of the present dominance of ‘information’ over personal perception in the understanding of architecture.(3) In our exhibit, we return to living with rather than examining the structure, striving to essay what makes architecture an art form in the first place.

According Jacques Rancière, after the recent ‘ethical turn of aesthetics’, art must now be either communally bonding or must partake of the sublime, and ‘bear witness to the unrepresentable’.

(4) Architecture is no exemption; we must see its function and significance amidst the context of a community that inhabits it. Art in general has been redefined more like architecture with Ranciere’s notion of its “communitarian function”—that of constructing a specific world space and with this also ‘a new form of dividing the common world’. (5) Ranciere’s view of the sublime prompts us to see through and not merely look at the artwork. By seeing through, I meant experience living with and placing importance on the immediacy of the ‘response’ that the artwork is making to its community. In other words, the encounter of painting with architecture is also the encounter of the painting and architecture with its community.

George Steiner wrote in his introductory essay for Frank Lloyd Wright’s monograph that “Today our ‘knowledge’ of the spaces and forms of architecture most often comes from media representations and verbal explanations—we need to be told what to remember about the space in which we are standing and how to ‘interpret’ the forms that shape our experience. It is rarely suggested in contemporary writings that our own actual experience of space has any value or should be the primary focus of study.” (6)

This has led, inevitably, to our general lack of capacity for visual and spatial memory, noted by Josef Albers; while most people can recall a musical tune, the visual memory is so poorly trained in standard education that few can accurately remember a ‘shape or form, the size of things, the extension of space and volume’.(7) That is Albers talking about a painting with regards to form. How much more if we take his insight combined with seeing what cannot be seen and presenting something that is deemed “unpresentable”—such as the discerning or perhaps contemptible scheme of painters painting in the manner of architects?

I eventually dispelled my anxieties about the feasibility of this exhibition as I underwent a kind of transformation along with my concept for the exhibition. This transformation is the thing that I would like to express visually (assuming that the curator and his artists’ visual memory is better trained than most) through the works I have chosen for this exhibition. The works here are heavily invested on the ‘experience’ of architecture and with regards to Alber’s comparison of painting to music; it will be like singing an old song to someone who has never heard it before. The fact is while we walk amongst buildings, live within houses and accumulate things, we rarely remember them structurally or recall its significance with the larger idea of place-making.

Experience of Architecture

Included in this exhibition are two works from the senior thesis exhibition at the UP Fine Arts. One is by Francis Commeyne, entitled “Cinematek: You can see real life in 3D”. This work evolved from his usual themes of forgetting processes and meanings attached with objects. Cinematek, essays his personal experience in connection with an old art-deco cinema in Belgium that shows 3D movies. The installation itself is made of a shipping crate he bought in North Harbor, Manila used as a video projection room that looks back at events in his life and objects and artifacts gathered from different destinations that evoke his personal nostalgia and his own reconfiguration of history in the context of his objects.

Also from this senior thesis exhibition are huge drawings on blueprints by Caroline Ongpin. Her works have often dwelt on the topic of impermanence of plans and erosion of purpose and intention represented by blueprints which present the ideal in contrast to hand drawings over these blueprints that depict the actual use of space. Her drawings are observations of the deviations of the occupants in an architect-designed house as well as the great separation between the dictation of plans and the escape of experience. I also wanted to include Mark Bradford’s installation entitled ‘Market>Place’ originally shown at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The work’s message rings similar to that of Commeyne and Ongpin in the way it tackles our understanding of public spaces. In ‘Market>Place,’ Bradford “wanted to create an environment that had something to do with trade, with public space, and the way people use it for pleasure, for business, for meetings, for secrets.” (8)

Ultimately he also essays the political element of occupying space and defining ‘a place’. I also have the intention of selecting paintings by Maria Helena Vieira de Silva, especially, “Século: XX,” “Paisaje Invisible” and “Construction” and Fernando Zobel’s works during his last decade that Rod Paras-Perez describes as more “architectural than painterly” and works that make “positive use of empty spaces (with) the capacity to create suggestive spaces” (9). Both artists abstracted from something seen. I have always regarded de Silva and Zobel as artists with effective ways to illustrate the inflexibility and clutter of structures and how these push the person beneath it into either repulsion or invisibility. As an interaction with the community that gave me the inspiration for this exhibition, I would collect objects and photographs supplied by Binondo residents and establishments and present some of them in the gallery in order to complete the essay of architecture contained in the works of the artists, with a touch of ‘artifactual’ reality. Like other genres of art, architecture involves the translation of multidimensional events and concepts into readable two-dimensional matter. Because of this process of translation, I see it as partly art and partly science. In the case of architectural drawing, directions and instructions are turned into lines, volume into contours, movement into shapes, ornamentation into line, colors into words, and words into marks. Marks that depend on established conventions or from on-the-spot improvisations, or constructed from a combination of the two.

Architecture translates the function and conduct of how we live into marks and delineations of walls, ceilings, doors and floors and I find it amusing that this process can also work in reverse as the artists I have chosen have proven.

The paintings, drawings and installation work to be presented in this exhibition will focus on the gaps and lapses within this relationship of architecture to human life. What I would like to call a ‘microcosm of a living space’ where art functions similar to that of an architectural design and reflects or projects its essence on the viewer. My goal as curator is to pursue reality or essence.

While my chosen artists have created it individually in their works, what I want is to express the connections between them all.

References

1. Levine, Neil. The Book and the Building: Hugo’s Theory of Architecture and Labrouste’s Bibliothèque Ste-Geneviève. The Beaux-Arts in 19th Century French Architecture, edited by Robin Middleton (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1982).

2. McCarter, Robert. Frank Lloyd Wright, The definitive monograph on one of the masters of modern architecture. Phaidon, 2003 Most parts of this curatorial brief were patterned after George Steiner’s introductory essay in Rober Frank Lloyd Wrights’ monograph.

3. Crawford, Lawrence. Victor Shklovski: Différance in Defamiliarization. Comparative Literature 36 (1984): 209-19. JSTOR. 24 February 2008 <http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0010- 4124%28198422%2936%3a3%3c209%3avsdid%3e2.0.co%3b2-6>.

4. Rancière, Jacques, Aesthetics and its Discontents, Polity Books, 2009, p. 119.

5. Rancière, ibid., p. 22.

6. McCarter, Robert, op. cit., p. 3.

7. Albers, Joseph., Interaction of Color, Yale University Press, 1963.

8. Bradford, Mark. Interview for “Market Place” installation at the Los Angeles CountyMuseum of Art. Art:21 Season 4 (Paradox) by PBS. http://www.pbs.org/art21/artists/bradford/clip1.html#

9. Paras-Perez, Rod. Fernando Zobel, Eugenio Lopez Foundation, Inc, Manila, 1990, p. 57

Beacons burning down

The exhibition, will include four artists, two of them chosen from the crop of young artists and the other two, old masters. The four artists I chose for this exhibition are Poklong Anading, Rodel Tapaya, Fabian de la Rosa and the pioneer Filipino film-maker Jose Jimenez. These four artists were chosen because their works exemplify the influences and promise of recent contemporary art—works that were created during the last decade and the nascent modern art from 1896 up to 1920, which bring to mind the heralds and prophecies of the time. Upon that selection of works, the exhibition will create some storylines, although speculative, offer the very needed insight in interpreting and forming connections between works of art—actually of images—almost a century apart.

Out of these four artists, we can derive several separations and conjunctions. One such separation and perhaps the easiest one are the works that relied on the traditional method of painting, its latest motifs and formats and thus the episode of continuation of "the long tradition" through a
new decade. In this portion, a foreshadowing text is posted on the wall and it will be a quote from Rizal that says “Looking back into the past is knowing the present and seeing the future,” to serve as an easy framing and mood-setter for the viewer.

The exhibit will highlight approaches, and techniques at odds with tradition. Special emphasis is put on characteristics of the work that have embraced a new spirit, even though the spirit may differ from the common notions of what we call “contemporary”. This will bring about the contrast between the persistence of the artist going back to folk tradition and unearthing the old as a means of recalling or exotic local history; the life of the folk and in the exploration of and resignation from the urban subject. Vis-à- vis these works of art are piles of television screens showing an imprimatur of events prior to and during the past decade, just to put the artworks in context. For what is contemporariness without the TV?

Two sides of the coin

Take for example these two exhibitions: Poklong Anading’s “Between Intersections” and Rodel Tapaya’s “Diorama,” both considered the hippest of young contemporary art, but taking two seemingly different directions while coming from the same batch of UP Fine Arts graduates. These works though different in style are ultimately bound by the same themes—the concept of
loss, forgetting and the obsession with the “image” taking its root from the revival of iconography in recent artistic practice. Later on, we will argue that these themes in their art are actually the product of the same origin as purported by Ranciere’s Politics of Aesthetics.

Tapaya and Anading’s works have the undeniable virtue, of being at odds against each other, but to see them in the same lineage, one realizes that they are actually the fruit of the same tree. “Politically,” to quote the term from the philosopher, Jacques Ranciere, both bodies of works have struggled to enlighten us with the concept of equality as part of a social-historical context. The art world is caught up in the struggle of unrecognized kinds of art for equal recognition in the established order. In Jacques Ranciere’s “Politics of Asthetics,” he explains that art is bound up in this political battle, Rancière argues, because the battle takes place over the image of society—what it is permissible to say or to show (Ranciere, 2006). The two artists with further
discussion will unravel before us the contemporary motif of struggling over that image of society, as anchored in the image produced by contemporary art and this actually begins with the choice of medium. For Poklong, video or the moving image in “Between Intersections” and photography or still image in “Anonymity” both first shown at Finale Art File. Tapaya on the other hand has always favored painting, most notably in his “Bayan ng Ginhaw” and “Looban” both at Boston Gallery. In “Diorama” though he has turned to create “story houses” (Hilario,
2009). The story houses in the general recalls the altar or a traditional retablo or urna.

Leaps

The second part of the exhibit (displayed in conjunction) will take us back in time, during the first decade of the 20th century, centering on the works of artists, Fabian De La Rosa and Jose Jimenez, heralds of the Tolentino and Edades rift. The purpose of this is to illustrate the parallelism of both generations both in their history and aspirations and also the paths they have taken from fame to obscurity. Even if we cannot really distinguish a direct line between social history and art history, we will use the latter to situate the conditions where art was produced. Both generations, coming out from a revolution, bloody and the other one peaceful, both successes and failures depending on the way we look at it. The other one is colonial and the other neo-colonial. We would like to see this “transition phenomenon”—how one art generation leads to another, from both sides of the coin. And maybe, just maybe, predict what the future holds for us in the aftermath of so many art movements and generations.

Art historians have noted that the time after the 1896 Revolution was the “Leap to Modernism” (Roa). This leap, however far it has taken us, is only from the demolition of a tradition to the creation of another. During this time, the attempts of breaking away from the illustrado generation of artists by the new pensionado artists were still budding but they were also polarized with so much energy, it was shaking! And this atmosphere is no more obviously

replicated than in the present with the artistic obsession of creating something new or in the resignation of the “nothing is new” motto. Unfortunately though, the same art history book that that claimed that it was a leap has little record of art done from the 1900 to 1920, a crucial time to document, as transitions in art churn out more meaning than the result.

Prophetic Theme

More than just an exhibition, Beacons burning down, to ride with the Da Vinci Code popularity, is indeed a coded prophecy for Filipino Art. The “prophecy” will be the major motif of the exhibition, as predicting the future through the divine is always a jump ahead, the past as beacon from the distance, that diminishes in time but resurrects in a cycle. With Prophecy comes the interpretation of the subject, as a sort of reverse of the usual art-historical research that begins with the problem rather than the answers. Assumptions are laid out and are then debunked or exalted.

As far as we know, art history is a cycle of going back and forth, of retelling and recalling and most definitely, of forgetting and emerging. What the exhibition will tell us are yet to be uncovered. An exhibition of local young contemporary artists in one place and time that feature contrasting but related themes is always good to see. We have to catch up with the running gap within our art institutions since there has been almost no art-world conversation between the two streams that contemporary artists have taken during the past decade with specific concept or intention. Aside from working with existing museum collections, the works will be acquired through artists and private collections and through commissioned works or new works.The exhibition will be accompanied by a gallery catalogue that presents the research findings of the curator and excerpts from his interviews about the perspectives of the two young artists, including the methods, insights and personal stories, patterned after interviews from the Paris Review. All will be available through a website.

Partial Bibliography

  1. Roa, Lourdes Ruth. Leap to Modernism. Juan Gatbonton, Jeannie E. Javelosa. Art Philippines. Manila: The Crucible Workshop, 1992. 65.
  2. Ranciere, J. (2006). Politics of Aesthetics. Paris: Continuum.
  3. De Vera, Ruel, S. The importance of being Poklong. Philippine Daily Inquirer accessed
  4. 10/06/2006 through inq7.net
  5. Devilles, Gary. C. The cult value of Rodel Tapaya’s works. Philippine Daily Inquirer accessed
  6. 10/30/2006, published on page C2 of the October 30, 2006 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer
  7. Hilario, Riel. The Story Houses of Rodel Tapaya, Exhibit Catalogue: Drawing Room Gallery. 2009

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.

‘Lost Dragonfly’: Tradition and translation

By Oscar Campomanes
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 18:39:00 07/12/2009
Filed Under: Arts and Culture and Entertainment, Poetry

MANILA, Philippines – “The process of cultural translation,” says eminent anthropologist Talal Asad, “is inevitably enmeshed in conditions of power.”

Cultural critic Rey Chow chimes in that one form of power involved in the translation of anything—from culture through all its expressive forms and texts/objects—is locatable in the etymological link of translation with tradition.

“How,” Chow asks, “is tradition to be transmitted, to be passed on, if not through translation?”

“Las Rimas,” a group exhibition of 10 emergent artists (nine from UP, one from Ateneo), which opened at Asia Art Gallery Megamall on June 24 and is now nearly sold out, generally “wishes,” according to its youthful curator Geronimo Cristobal Jr., “for the interested viewer to appreciate heritage and culture in their many forms and faces.”

Cristobal says the exhibition is designed to help transmit a certain tradition, “along with its historical baggage,” to a new generation.

Forgotten work

Serving as inspiration for the “Las Rimas” project is a little-known lyric poem, “Las Rimas,” by the Filipino-Hispanic poet Flavio Zaragoza Cano.

“Las Rimas” (the poem) is one part that signifies the whole of Cano’s forgotten oeuvre, just as Cano himself is understood, in Cristobal’s context, as one part that is made to stand for the whole of the Filipino-Hispanic literary tradition.

The tragic fortunes of this part of Philippine literary heritage, under the relentless onslaught of the Yankees’ culture following American colonization, we know only so well, thanks to the late Nick Joaquin who wrote what were probably the most elegiac critiques of this tectonic cultural displacement and its most poignant obituaries.

Cano’s work came to the attention of Cristobal while conducting independent research on Filipino Hispanismo and the Ilustrado legacy in their ephemeral flowering and extended obsolescence during the American colonial period.

He stumbled upon an English-language translation of “Las Rimas” from the Spanish original by L.C. Brilliantes and reportedly commissioned by the Ayalas (Zaragoza Cano won the Premio Zobel for Spanish poetry in 1929).

Thus began Cristobal’s quest to think hard about translation and what he found out later, on more research, as its etymological and powerful relationship to the transmission of tradition.

More specifically, given his Malikhaing Panulat (Creative Writing) major, his art-curatorial studies and his art practice at UP, he started to explore the possibility, with fellow Artists’ Circle members at the UP College of Fine Arts and using Cano’s poem as inspiration and pretext, of a collaborative project in “formal and cultural translation.”

What he wanted to happen was a process and a project by which visual art practice could be recruited to the service of a dramatic reenactment of his own original experience of rediscovering forgotten tradition (such as what Cano stood for) via the agency of translation/s, along with meditations on the creative and critical dimensions of artmaking and art appreciation that such a process would entail.

As he put it in one of several concept papers he drafted for interested collaborators: “How do we translate literature into paintings? And, second, how do we translate literature in Spanish into paintings?”

‘Multiform’

In actual output, Las Rimas turned out to be, in Cristobal’s resonant word from his curatorial notes, “multiform.”

The project became much more than a translation from poem (“Las Rimas”) into painting, as the completed and exhibited works now include—apart from unusual and singular mixed-media and experimental “paintings” by Cristobal himself and participating artists Francis Commeyne, Francis Bejar, Lex Marcos, Clarence Alvear, Paul Acena and Caroline Ongpin (the lone female contributor)—Ryan Tizon’s haunting black-and-white photographs in glass encasements; glossy sculptures in cast marble by Kylo Chua (of Ateneo); and rough-edged moldings, in stained polyresin on epoxied wooden base, by Manolo Sicat (recently hired faculty member of UP Baguio’s Diploma in Fine Arts Program).

Painting here is framed by quote marks, given Cristobal’s guidelines, which include the injunction, according to Caroline Ongpin, that “the body of works should look somewhat unfinished and more sketchy.”

Strikingly, painter Francis Commeyne, who is fluent in Spanish, says his participation accorded well with his own aesthetic creed: “As an artist, I combine different media, and in my work I use unorthodox grounds (rice sacks, metal sheet, a chair, a mirror) as I feel that it is necessary to deviate from the traditional oil paint on canvas, or in this case, solely one medium, like watercolor on paper.”

As he recognized from the beginning, “the goal of the show was to capture the process—the raw, sketch-like effects, trial-and-error experiments, associated with the translation of words into images, Spanish text into visual.”

Dark florals

Ongpin’s account of her decision to be mock-literal with one contribution, only to be literary in a visual (or what French philosopher of art Jacques Rancière would call “mediumistic”) way with the finished product, is quite telling.

Noting the preponderance of floral figures in the verbal imagery of Cano’s poem, Ongpin says that for the piece “Fragrant Memories” she “chose to use flowers, specifically violets…. but instead of making them colorful or vivid,” as would be stereotypically expected of a female artist, “reduced the colors so that the piece would not look too romantic.”

She based the piece on stanza 2: “[Rhymes] are aromas enclosed in a poet’s soul/in the dreaming soul/that fly after sweet dreams in the air/that perfume the hair of a seductive virgin/with the fragrance of violets…”

But Ongpin felt that while the speaker seemed “so in love with this woman that he felt and saw her presence in everything around him, even in his dreams,” a darker side to all that romance emerges on several rereadings: obsession. Hence her decision to make the piece look darker.

Loneliness, agony

Similarly, Commeyne chose, for his piece “Lost Dragonfly,” to focus on stanza 3, where the persona’s soul now chases, in an orchard of roses, “a bewitching idea (una imagen hechicera)” which is that of a “lost dragonfly (libélula perdida)” escaping into “vague and misty horizons (las vargas y brumosas lontananzas).”

The contrast in poetry between verbal structure and “a sense of movement through word-choice and imagery,” which this stanza exemplifies for him with its dynamic mise en scène, was what made him juxtapose “structured, straight and rigid lines/brushstrokes” with the “wild washes, stains, and biomorphic forms” in the strategically vivisected spaces of his composition.

While the poem teems with “beauty, overwhelming splendor and positive imagery,” Commeyne says he “still felt a sense of loneliness, agony, and feeling lost—much like the image of a lost dragonfly in the orchard.”

Sculptor Kylo Chua, meanwhile, says: “I believe man is most beautiful when he is lost.” Asked what he would like viewers to come away with from inspecting his smoothly marbled images for “Las Rimas,” Chua declares: “I want them to enjoy getting lost!”

Perfect metaphor

Lost dragonfly (“getting lost”) is a perfect metaphor for the evanescent legacy of Cano to which these artists now pay creative and critical tribute with such rigorously conceived and deeply engaged artmaking.

As all the “Las Rimas” artists eloquently suggest with their works, Cano can even begin to be restored to Philippine tradition as pretext and predecessor.

“Finding meaning is like unlocking or digging; you get confused and distracted; you get your hands dirty,” says Cristobal. “While doing ‘Libélula Perdida,’ I was attracted to the dirt produced by pencil shavings and the oil on my hands. I noticed that words give out meaning in the same way: They are constructed, and that surprises concerning, and new ways of seeing and hearing and understanding, such meaning emerge all the time.”

A longer version of this essay examining the theory of cultural politics, signification, and art informing the “Las Rimas” project, with specific illustrations from the completed works and in the context of Jacques Rancière’s philosophy, will appear in a forthcoming anthology of Philippine art criticism.

E-mail the author at ocampomanes@ateneo.edu or the curator Geronimo Cristobal Jr. at juncristobal@gmail.com.