Max Balatbat a.k.a. MaxBal and his Action Star Paintings

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Photo grabbed from the facebook page of Silverlens. Not mine.

Artists represented by Silverlens are some of the most successful names in Philippine art today. By virtue perhaps of good business practices or critical choices made by its proprietors or the fact that the gallery takes hold of their artists like no mama bear can. In spite of this, I never gave anyone who exhibited there enough attention because I find anyone who ever exhibited in a gallery in Pasong Tamo, a sterile case that no longer excites me. But today, I’ve taken an exemption to Max Balatbat also known by his kontrabida screen name MaxBal (see Silverlens profile), whose decorative abstract creations have not quietly surpassed being awkwardly brusque and jejemonic. Max Balatbat’s attempt at being an artist is more interesting than his paintings but let me just run through it a bit: He creates layers of patterns culled from urban and architectural structures and turns it rote and optically ornate with a quasi-assemblage, Rauschenbergian-like approach to painting. He could actually gather around something quite witty but something that would always seem crass or lacks the irreverent imagination one would expect of any artist.  As said earlier, his attempts at being artistic have become burdened and farcical. He has in the process of painting, made something of a formula to abstract painting that always run short of being called fine art.

The tandem of Balatbat with the tastefully dyslexic paintings of Bernardo Pacquing who was the darling du jour of abstract painting in the 90s to early millenium reveals the attempt of Isa Lorenzo at fashioning the likes of Balatbat into art world superstars whose appeal is largely potent to the unwashed kabaduyan of art collectors looking for a safe middle ground in collecting contemporary art. Something that is absolutely dead in formaldehyde they can rightly fit in their living rooms. Unlike Pacquing who did that kind of painting before the era of smartphones and wikipedia, one cannot quite pinpoint the anomaly of Balatbat as his abstract works actually do a disservice to rebelliousness and push-it-to-the-limit dictum of anyone who has ever practiced abstract art. Nor does he channel the flipside of this, a tradition extended by the likes of Richard Diebenkorn, arguably one of the best in American art.

Balatbat’s world is narrowed not by the poverty of his place but the poverty of his mind. His utterly stupid profile in the gallery website of Silverlens lifted from Utterly Art captures the diarrhea in his creative process, one that stinks of empty pattern making, diminutive aesthetic that has plagued most Filipino artists of recent years.

There was a time when gallerists over and above being managers, or PROs  for the artists saw themselves as gatekeepers for the kind of art that deserved to be publicly visible. When Isa Lorenzo pulled off something like Luis Lorenzana whose seriously over priced creations which at best look like bootlegged Mark Rydens in fanciful frames, I gave her the benefit of the doubt. Different strokes for different folks. With excellent artists like Cos Zicarelli and Maria Taniguchi exclusively exhibiting in her gallery though, one would think there’s obviously something fishy about it all. The career of Lorenzana despite commercial success is largely seen as a fluke. No one has actually treated him with critical seriousness much like the careers of other artists like Lynyrd Paras who remain to be an anomaly in the art scene that crudely mistakes market value for artistic value. Gallerists continue to be the most powerful personalities in Philippine art because the space and the machinery to mount and promote exhibitions still determines which artists get elevated from their humble studios to stellar recognition. In this system, the galleries are like small fiefdoms and so much more potent in Manila where feudal and parochial consciousness have not dissipated from colonial sensibilities.

Although I have seldom attended exhibitions at Silverlens or SLAB, even when they showed artists I truly admire, I’ve always thought that even their best artists have never grown from the kind of art one can simply hack, a bunch of imitators whose practices never graduated from art schools.

Balatbat has so constructed himself as an artist, perhaps too much like one that it appears fabricated to being familiar; one can deduce that this is kind of art that actually pleases the likes of Isa Lorenzo: bland and catering to the less-informed collector. I would never-ever dare think that something like that can fit any living room of any self-respecting art lover. That thing is plain shit.

In my heavily disapprove of MaxBal, I have been ridiculed as an elitist jerk, negative energy dude who can be accused of the same faults I just hurled over the fence of Silverlens. But then again, what more can I expect from a gallery who exhibited the likes of BenCab.

Both BenCab and MaxBal have not only contracted their names for more artistic affectation, they also create works I absolutely abhor but the difference between the two is that BenCab, at least, has a great unpretentious personality that it almost redeems the kind of art he does or the giant signature over his museum in Baguio.

Decades of insufficient dialogue within the Philippine art community have caused gallerists like IsLor to traffic more anomalous names than an illegal recruiter into the imaginary and disputed territory of Philippine Art. I have always tried to see exhibitions with a fresh eye and you know what, MaxBal actually reminds me of works by artists I geek over. That goes to show his art historical adeptness: Robert Rauschenberg, Joseph Cornell, Gerry Tan, and Roberto Chabet but he is not in the class of those people I mentioned. With titles like ‘Balwarte,’ ‘Bahay tagpi-tagpi,’ and ‘Bahay Colorete,’ I don’t think I can ever, not in my most jologs of dreams, consider those things seriously to represent contemporary abstract painting even with the imprimatur of a gallery like Silverlens. Fools, if they think that we easily follow the tune of the Pied Piper.

There is an insecurity tucked so deeply in pairing Balatbat with Pacquing. While previously artists in that gallery are celebrated with a one-man show, they felt like they needed to connect the careers of both artists in order to contextualize Balatbat’s abstraction. I feel sorry for MaxBal. He was obviously chosen via the business instincts of IsLor and her cohorts.

In all fairness, the works by MaxBal in SLAB are some of his best. He has improved his processes of using mixed media, making his painting a bit more unpredictable in layering it with a sputtering of earth colors; his compositions and knowledge of material have more piquant and convergence. In the absence of any interesting name in abstract art, these canvasses at least feel honest and less premeditated but we are praying for a miracle if we can expect a Lee Aguinaldo out of MaxBal. Whenever I’m intoxicated, I feel like saying sorry for my hateful thoughts about the paintings. A painting called ‘Bahay Tagpi-tagpi’ shows the sort of materials one would find in an informal settlement but I feel insulted, having lived in one myself, that these scenes are rendered without the stench or the sense of the ghetto and in a damned place like SLAB. There is something wonderful about the patches of olive and the Polkadots, perhaps something of a cross between action painting and Pop-art because the starkness is powerful. Though the subject is obvious enough it speaks because it shows us a timeless form in Philippine Art: that of the barong-barong. His decision to dedicate himself to Abstract art is also admirable, but one that does not ease my frustration. That there are actually better alternatives evokes a pervasive, almost epic malaise and desperation.

In short and simple words, I was looking for the go-beyond in his abstract paintings said to be inspired by shanties in his neighborhood. Had he offered one, the paintings would’ve been worth looking at but this is yet again, one of those exhibitions where in abstract painting was done wrongly because it was reduced to design. It fell back on monotonous techniques; his work turned dull and clichéd like a Pinoy action movie where personalities like Balatbat might have rightly fitted.

I get it. With all the false hopes invested in this guy, I know he is only being naive if not honest. If only he questioned his own modus operandi and views more deeply, his paintings might have actually worked to revive abstract painting to the position it enjoyed in the art scene of Manila during the 20th Century.#

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