Propaganda at Lopez

On Trauma, Postmemory, and Modernity in Propaganda at the Lopez Museum

Imelda Marcos in a regime publication
Imelda Marcos in a regime publication

The beginning half of 2015 for the Manila art scene has marked itself with an endless parade of the second-rate, the trying hard, and the copycat such that when attending one art fair or a gallery exhibition– you’re always confronted by the fact that, despite the quantity of ingenuity out there, our taste makers are always scrambling for quality deprived in favor of mere fad and patronage.

Our city’s top ten listings of anything about the art scene are bullshit. You tend to see, if not the same artists, then the same sort of work time and again. No exception.

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This realization informs my view of “Propaganda,” a show I visited at the Lopez Museum a few weeks ago. The Lopez, even its present location (they are moving to the Proscenium soon), is a clearing for art beside the jungle of the Philippine Stock Exchange, hideous flyovers and parking lots of Ortigas. It is a place I treasure, more for their books than their exhibitions and I’ve long admired The Lopez’s collection of documents anachronistic in being colonially referred to as Filipiniana. While their Lunas and Hidalgos have become a staple display, the historical materials and documents are seldom integrated into the exhibition.

Propaganda is promising. It stems from the need to integrate shows to the museum and library collection. Hence J. Elizalde Navarro’s A Flying Machine for Icarus has been in every exhibition at the Lopez for more than a decade. No sign of new acquisitions though. A shame, really.

Propaganda, sometimes a derogatory, is a force that surrounds us our whole lives, unless one chooses to live isolated among other incredible hermits. Ford Maddox Ford once conveyed in his writings the sense in which modernism and propaganda are two sides of the same coin of modernity. In other words, all art of the so called modern are one or all of the three: borne, influenced, and informed by propaganda.

An interesting combination puts together conservative painters like Amorsolo with artists coming out from social realism. Which makes sense if you see the SRs as the conservatives in contrast to Chabet-era conceptualism. Two sides of the same coin indeed.

But this delicate choice implies that whatever social commentary you can wrench out of the work of Amorsolo is more important than other virtues found in his paintings. I sometimes felt that the show did not need to apologize for Amorsolo being the way he is. All the more if placed beside Pinoy Socialist Realism. Critic Franz Arcellana wrote in 1948 that Amorsolo’s paintings “have nothing to say” and that they were not hard to understand because “there is nothing to understand.”

Sounds like something one would now say to a painting by (Insert name of your favorite young artist today). But lets not go there.

Throughout the history of modernism in this country, the creation and reception of art in Manila is inseparably linked to disparate political realities. Artists often in autonomous capacities reworked the traditions of abstraction and realism in emerging national and international contexts, creating a range of artworks that seem to have no rythm, responding to popular culture and technologies of reproduction.

Thus Amorsolo’s rare oil on canvas, said to be done while the Intendencia (the customs house) burned during the first aerial bomb raids of the last World War deserves a reexamination more for the benefit of the present generation than his.

Don Salubayba, a nimble artist who crossed the other side too soon, has in the middle of the exhibition, a representative work of two shadow puppets. The guide said that the inclusion was intended as a tribute. But I hardly see that fitting, as it literally, does not fit neatly in the tight rounded exhibition space. Salubayba worked best in the box medium ala Joseph Cornell.

Joey Cobcobo, a good artist unfortunately destined to become one of our forgettable Thirteen Artists Awardees at least got his installation half-right by collecting ladders of houses by informal settlers and lodging them up to the exposed ceiling of the museum. On the platform is a big stamp pad where one inevitably steps on before walking on the canvas laid out on the platform. While the idea is strong, the work is visually weak. A more daring artist would have taken more ladders and barricaded the entire room with it and done away with anything else. I asked the guide how he got them and she told me, to my relief, that he replaced the ladders in the informal settler communities with better-constructed ones.

Be that as it may, Cobcobo’s charity work does not lessen his being a stalwart of printmaking. In fact, his practice is a testament. The exhibition in some way reveals the possibilities and contribution of print media to the development of contemporary art in Manila. It just seemed too contrived that he had to incorporate aspects of printmaking even in this piece.

I cannot find justification on how the numerous drawings of Nunelucio Alvarado can be considered museum-worthy. When hung together with the drawing of Manansala and a striking medium-sized painting by Legaspi, Alvarado’s work trembles. He should be challenged.

Legaspi, what can I say? He is still the most meaningful painter to become National Artist. In going with the show’s theme, a footnote to his works should’ve stated that he was a propagandist before he became an artist, as a commercial illustrator and copywriter working for the advertising department of Elizalde & Co. (The same man who made up the Tasaday hoax?) While Manansala’s rendering of Rizal’s character, Simoun, perhaps the greatest propagandist in Philippine fiction, for a textbook, can give any of today’s hotshot artists a run for his money.

Alvin Yapan’s video work on the rice cartel, however, is right on the money. I have heard of these rice cartels funding candidates in the elections and I admire his timely artistic response to this.

As we exit the first room, Propaganda returns to where the Amorsolo painting begins by devoting its attention to the leitmotif of our nation’s traumatic history: An installation work on the Philippine Revolution of 1896 through the installation of Santiago Bose reconstructed by his fellow Baguio boy Kawayan de Guia. The Japanese Occupation’s propaganda was mainly coursed through the radio and by the now vintage posters and flyers. One of which describes the virtues of Jose Laurel as a puppet President. Special attention should be given to Imelda Marcos’s menacing game face as depicted in one of the Marcos regime’s publication.

Hidalgo study for his magnum opus "The Assasination of Governor General Bustamante and his son"
Hidalgo study for his magnum opus “The Assasination of Governor General Bustamante and his son”

Editorial cartoons during the Martial Law era serve as figures of memory in the course of a repressive time. Philippine artistic sensibilities may have been conceived in conflict and hardship. In both literature and the visual arts, one can frame the history of Philippines as one inextricably tied to the dark side of modernity. Stemmed out of tradition and grafted from developments in Western art, our contemporariness is marred by instabilities and ruptures, destruction and unacknowledged trauma.

The Lopez exhibition gives us a slight view of memory and modernism in postwar Philippines- even if, over and over again, these memories are subtly suppressed. Modernity and memory cannot do without each other. The exhibition shows that Philippine painting after the war rarely acknowledged the violence of the Japanese in general, much less the Battle of Manila probably out of ignorance. To the instinctive mind, the artifacts make up for it as they provide a window to the horrors.

An installation piece by Santiago Bose reconstructed by Kawayan De Guia

One can perceive the art patronized by the Marcos regime in conjunction with result of its overwhelming aestheticization of politics that left the Philippines visual imagination destitute. The end of the Marcos regime’s effect was an orphaned post-EDSA art scene, one that is without institutional support or connection to the “fathers” of art movements gone before. This is partially reacted to by the works of Santiago Bose upon his return to Baguio in 1986.

The horrors of World War II did not emerge as themes in subsequent decades despite Manila being one of the most devastated city. Contrasts the work of Anselm Kiefer and the fluxus movement of Berlin, which ran concurrent with the generational revolt, and the rediscovery of an earlier early avant-garde. Contrast this to the leanings of our American modernist titans: Lee Aguinaldo, Fernando Zobel, Jose Joya, and Napoleon Abueva who all but forgot about the shame and tortures of war. Last but not the least, the celebration of the modernist avant-garde in the imagination of Roberto Chabet who conceived of reviving it through an institutional award. This sensibility stretched on until the 90s, thereafter, it became a blur. Ours is a violent modernism. In the Baudelarian sense, we simply forgot who we were.

Simoun by Vicente Manansala, an ink on paper piece used in textbooks of Philippine Literature
Simoun by Vicente Manansala, an ink on paper piece used in textbooks of Philippine Literature

Aside from Demetrio Diego who painted the Capas Prison camp and the Bataan Death March, it is rare to see a Filipino artist who confronted the Philippine’s difficult history of occupation. Yet as one points out, the trauma itself remained untouched. Amorsolo’s other famous painting of man saving a woman from rape of a Jap soldier does not lack the idealism of his landscapes. Yet, not even with the rise of pork barell funded memorials in the 1990s did the horrors of World War II enter the Philippine public sphere. As with the trauma of Martial Law, none of those who attempted to make art out of it were significant enough. Even the Lopez patronized National Artist BenCab seems to have skipped this one out.

As I figured, Propaganda the exhibition was never intended to commemorate historical events but rather to call attention to the underlying principles in contemporary art and media, the persistence of conspiratorial images in the present.

One cannot discount the resistance and co-optation of artists and filmmakers in the Marcos propaganda machine and it would have been a good addition to an exhibition like this one.

The trauma of occupation in Philippines Postwar Art argues that the psychological disorder caused by violent experiences and the consequential inability to work through these memories are evinced in postwar Manila by repetition and endless fragmentation that are fundamentally tied to our colonial past.
An installation piece by Santiago Bose reconstructed by Kawayan De Guia
In Manila, I rarely see an artist explore the critical issue of how to render violence without beautifying it. Propaganda in some way succeeds in illustrating the misrepresentation of the experience, the horror. For this reason, the artistic engagement with the Marcos regime, a delusional and fascist regime, served as a surrogate for engaging directly with the human rights abuse, the ill-gotten wealth, and the folly of the Imeldific. Hence, the treatment today of art that flourished both under and against the Martial Law regime as a skeleton in the closet. Again, another rupture in art history.

The documents and printed materials of the Lopez would have connected the void of images capable of visualizing the unimaginable to the crisis of representation today within the SR tradition. But they chose the wrong documents and images and did not pick the right Santiago Bose works to do this.

Real things and real happenings, which occupied the aesthetic practice of the so called avant-garde in the 1970s-1990s, are much better suited to memorize violence, an insight that brings to mind the question; where in this exhibition are the good conceptual social realists?

The Propaganda of the Japanese Occupation and the Martial Law are similar in the sense that both are now regarded as distant ghosts, observing that even artists who lived during this time tended to rework media images rather than representing the violent events themselves. And I’m not talking about the Joven Mansit kind of nostalgia.

Cesar Legaspi
Cesar Legaspi

Certainly Martial law was one of the occasions that shaped postwar Manila as a culture of mass media spectacles. Memories of the Martial Law, one can argue are for the most part metonymical with mediated images and are thus from the very outset coupled to its visualization. In conclusion, one can assert a new form of trauma, one linked to media images rather than the actual events. The development of Philippine art languishes in this trauma and phantom as it is only available through already mediated images that evoke notions of postmemory (the subsequent generation’s memory of something that happened before their time) from the very beginning.

Through close readings of these artworks, weak or forceful, the exhibition reveals various aesthetic responses that inscribe violence and oppression into the history of art through the exposure of mass media technologies and images. Importantly these artists didn’t criticize the violence of the dictatorship or failed land reform per se but rather its portrayal as filtered through media images.

Though a staple of the Lopez experience and not a special inclusion to the curated exhibition, Hidalgo’s portrait of friars as a study to his magnum opus, The Assasination of Governor General Bustamante and his son jibes well in this exhibit by highlighting painting’s role during Hidalgo’s time in documenting historical figures and sentiments (the painting was done many years after the Governor was killed and was said to be influenced by black propaganda by the Freemasons). Not discounting that his Per Pacem et Libertatem is his greatest work of art or of propaganda. I can’t really tell.

Through these examinations, the exhibition shows how representations connect to myth-making rather than direct experience. The aesthetic repetition of mass media images can also form traumatic memory. This leads us to forget other competing experiences that interfere with recalling the event behind the propaganda. The very act of remembering the lies may be one of the major reasons why we have forgotten in the first place. #

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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.#