Mark Lester Espina: Birth Paints


The aha moment for an artist not only comes when he has finally found his distinct visual style, it could also be the creative fruition of that long and arduous process of studying his artistic purpose and various experiments; of being exposed to his contemporaries and imbibing the contemporary in interpreting the sheer realities he evolves himself in.

For Mark Lester Espina (b.1985) it was in a hasty preparation for a group exhibition one fine morning in December, 2014. After bringing his visiting father to the bus station on his way home, it was almost lunchtime with only a few hours to his deadline. Using a dried academy grumbacher what was supposed to be a detailed dress of a woman in Screenshot he spontaneously painted it in textured white acrylic. A dedicated realist Espina prefers raw, rough, and raucous brushstrokes. He weighs heavily his paint brushes distorting white textures in clothes rather than directly representing natural figures.

In these auction-dictated times, when much of the prevalence of virtual is considered real, the demand to devise a new pictorial language seems expected upon serious and sometimes snotty artists. In his first solo exhibition at the SM Art Center, The Birth of Gemini, Espina has step up to the plate and raised his stakes in the art scene.

Placing highly on his artistic processes, Espina commences work by skillfully sketching the lone image of the woman with her elegant face and mandatory poise. Often coming from various sources depending on his mood, he paints them for their beauty and movement. The more demanding parts are the more meticulous strokes of the second coating focusing on the women’s dresses which involves the palette textures in white acrylic done by dry brushing using stencils. Following the curves of women in motion, he finishes by filling the open spaces with vintage clothing pattern to counter the coarseness of the white to the monotony of his grays. Evident in A Ring of Endless Beauty nothing can replace the direct involvement and sensitivity he brings intoan artwork by sensually connecting through this work ethic.

I Have No Eyes, I Must See

When You Are Engulfed in the Lights
With a background in advertising, it comes natural for Espina to alter fixed views or prescribed notions of contrived even cliché interpretations. He dabbles and takes the life out of the experience and rehashes them intuitively. Arresting whatever emotion it depicts, I Have No Eyes, I Must See Perfectly uses perspectives demarked by a fragmentation of a familiar point of view. Espina ensures how an appearance is intently perceived, as it reveals his inner thoughts, such as in When You Are Engulfed in the Lights. Using photography as reference Espina’s women is caught up in the spontaneity of the moment and off-the-cuff captured narrative--nothing formal or staged for him. In The Unbearable Darkness strikes a similar pose as Espina proves that man’s basic need is to be seduced by beauty. In Better is the Night the viewer (most likely the male gaze) becomes uncomfortable observing a reflective woman with her thinking pencil yet she does not want to be bothered or disturbed.

The Sunflowers are Mine
Despite what Espina considers his minimal approach to his pieces, multiple dialogues converge in every canvas. The smooth gray skin tones of his main subjects are amiably violated by the textured white allocation of their clothing. This coursed void of color, whose luminous version in lead was banned for over a centuries, provides a casting of light that only a versed painter like Espina can effectively execute. The ephemeral vintage pattern on the background provides a semblance of decorative order vis-à-vis the imaginative occurrence that concurs upfront.

The evidence of sunflowers on Sunflowers Are Mine and Pull the White Out of Meare Espina’s tribute to Vincent Van Gogh, his main influence. Sunflowers are representations of devotion and loyalty, even as medieval representation of turning to the sun for guidance. Van Gogh made seven versions of Sunflowers to praise his mentor Paul Gauguin who was to join him in Arles to compliment the yellow house they were about to share. A spiritual longing, an emblem of the faithfulness in following God, Espina seeks blessedness by sharing his ministry of painting. He views an art that moves and heals as it has been his passion.

Ballerina Series IX
When American art critic Thomas McEvilley welcomed the rebirth of painting in early '90s from being an exile for more than two decades he cited the death of the grand narrative brought about the futility of history and a more personal feature in this visual art form would emerge. The lack of art movement enables painters like Espina to command their unique individual expressions only they can represent. Espina’s paintings have complicated illustrative categories yet their brilliance is that we clearly see something of ourselves in its eventual depiction. He devises his own forms and formats and puts painting into a new realm while also acknowledging its long history, practice and inherent revisions and innovations. For Espina, the deeper you dwell within yourself the more sluggish your art will be. And he has just been born.


BenCab: The Man and His Museum


BenCab Museum as seen from the forest viewpoint where Ecotrail ends
Nestled in between two mountains with a stream that runs through them lies the BenCab Museum, a transparent piece of architecture made of massive glass curtains that house the personal collection of art, antiques and artifacts of National Artist for Visual Arts Benedicto Reyes Cabrera (b.1942) or BenCab (conferred the Order of National Artist in 2006). The museum located on Km 6 Asin Road, Tuba, Benguet is really a quick 15 minute drive from Baguio City proper. It is a tribute to the spirit of excellence of the Filipino artist and artisan, and honors the unique culture of the indigenous tribes of northern Philippines. It is more than just a cathedral of sorts meant to showcase the best of Philippine art and heritage. It is the only place on earth where one can witness a traditional hagabi sharing equal limelight with an Arturo Luz sculpture.

BenCab relates how his museum started:  “I had been slowly buying some farmland property on Asin Road just outside Baguio and I would visit every afternoon until I decided one day that I would build my studio on the farm so I could move here.”  

Sayaw Sabel as performed by Agnes Locsin
BenCab is a true selfless man whose passion was not only visual art but the search for our common struggles for identity as a people. His wide collection of art from the north is considered the finest in the country. “I have been collecting primitive art from the Cordilleras, as well as Philippine contemporary art for 40 years and have always dreamed of putting up a permanent home for them, to be enjoyed by generations to come.”

The BenCab Museum immediately changes every perspective one has of museums. It has evolved to be more than just repositories of old things. It is an educational center, and is considered a commune for the soul where one can get in touch with art, nature and one’s origins. Bencab explains further: “The vision to build the museum on the same property came at about the same time. I realized how much I had accumulated and that the collection was taking over my home and studio. I was also aware that some of the pieces in my possession were of "museum quality" and it would be best to share them to be enjoyed by others rather than having them end up in museums abroad.

The BenCab Museum is one of BenCab Art Foundation’s main projects. He personally curates and administers the day-to-day operations of the museum, assisted by the museum’s staff. Aside from the master, BenCab Art Foundation is composed of his partner, Annie Sarthou and have as its members some of his closest friends who share his vision. He adds: “We formed the BenCab Art Foundation before the museum was built, with the intention for the foundation to run the museum and ensure that it continue, along with our projects, after I am gone.” 

Of course, a highlight for the visitor is his own art, BenCab Gallery where his famous muse, Sabel, is the main feature. Sabel is the filthy scavenger in Bambang who was Bencab’s inspiration, when he first chanced upon her from the window of his home. Through the years, the image of Sabel eventually marked various phases of his artistic career. Sabel symbolizes the Filipino long abused and downtrodden by a society which represses its people at certain episodes of our history.

Students have been the regular visitors
It is also in this wing that one rekindles Bencab’s first major style called Larawan series in the early 70s. Having lived in London for more than a decade, he was drawn to antiquarian bookstores in search for old prints, maps and photographs of Spanish colonial Philippines. He used these images in his unique mixture of photorealism, linear drawing and broad colorful strokes that has become his trademark visual style.

Another room unique to the Bencab Museum is its Erotica Gallery which features personal sensual paintings and sculptural pieces of Julie Lluch, Macario Vitalis, Justin Nuyda and some of Bencab’s pieces of this genre.

The centerpiece which spans two floors is the Bulol Installation, Bencab’s collection of bul-ul, the rice god or guardian of the granary of the Ifugao. As Bencab has been collecting, the pieces are exquisite and the collection, extensive.  He says of his valuable tribal pieces:” I am touched especially when the compliments are from the ethnic minorities from the Cordillera region who are grateful that their rich heritage is being preserved and are proud that it is being given such importance. It is also heart-warming to get visits from large groups of students from schools nationwide and  find out that, very often, it is the very first time for many of them to visit a museum!”

The Cordillera Gallery which pays tribute to the culture of Cordillera which covers Abra, Benguet, Ifugao, Kalinga, Mountain Province, Apayao, and Baguio. Here more recent bul-ul (granary gods) can be found together with tabayag (lime containers made from bone and deer scrotum) as well as baskets, musical instruments, woodcarving, fabric, and tribal functional pieces like spoons, forks and wood containers.  

Highland 8 Cordillera artists performing during the opening
Like a true artist, BenCab gives important museum space to other artists in the Maestro Gallery which provides a venue for a reunion of fellow national artists like Victorio Edades, Cesar Legaspi, Arturo Luz, Ang Kiukok, and Jose Joya and masters like Fernando Zobel, Roberto Chabet, Lee Aguinaldo, Manuel Rodriguez, Sr., Juvenal Sanso and Salvador Cabrera, the master’s brother.

The Contemporary Philippine Art Galleries house Filipino artists most of whom are Bencab’s friends or those his master’s eye sees as an artist with promise. Aesthetically there seems to be no fixed formula, as Bencab personally chooses and hangs the pieces worthy of his own wall space. There is an interesting dialogue among chosen artists featured here which reads like a who’s who of soon-to-be masters of Philippine art. Consider Ronald Ventura, Elmer Borlongan, Charlie Co, Marina Cruz Garcia, and Emmanuel Garibay just to name a few.  Our very own former ArtPetron winners Joey Cobcobo and Raffy Napay are represented here.

The room is charged with meaning, direction, and the personality of the artists. There is a renewed confidence in the promise of the visual arts as seen in new expressionism, abstraction and mixed media. Bencab shares: “Museum visitors (both local and foreign) have gone out of their way to seek me out and to thank me personally for putting up the BenCab Museum. The words we have heard most often are that it is ‘a world-class museum.’ Many have compared it to the Getty Center in Los Angeles perhaps because of the modern architecture in a garden setting with great views of nature (although in a much smaller scale...)

There is something Asian in BenCab’s approach to museology: art is part of that bigger scheme of things. Spanning a lot that covers 1,700 square meters, the Farm and Garden Level reflects the holistic view of our national artist who loves to till the land as much as he loves to hold a brush. There are plantations of corn, sweet potatoes, ferns, vegetables and herbs. There are mini rice terraces that employ the natural biological engineering of the terraces all over the north. Traditional huts of Kalinga, Ifugao, and Bontoc naturally adorn the landscape.

BenCab with his museum staff

Upon spending an easy half day in this stunning lieu of Filipino creative pride, the BenCab Museum is a living and testimony of one man’s lifelong passion for the arts of his people. Every Filipino must make a pilgrimage to it and leave the place with head up high and his clenched hand on his chest. 


Pain and Paint: The Art of Arel D. Zambarrano


In Praise of All the Breadwinners

Arel D. Zambarrano (b.1985) unwittingly belongs to a growing amalgam of visual artists dwelling deeply into the personal and its inner struggles. Void of any social, historical or grand narratives his works nevertheless unleash the same artistic prowess displaying intrinsic acuity unraveling in multiple layering in perspectives that necessitates the contemporary in art. 

Rendered in deep macabre bordering in seriously surreal, Zambarrano’s first solo exhibition madly haunts. Timbu-ok retraces and scorches back his decade of struggle--as a long continuous visual diary. Every piece is part and parcel of the next piece forming the bigger picture that has marked his short-lived existence. As both an architect and an artist he creatively maximizes the available spaces at the Museo ng Iloilo to his advantage; how the pieces are maneuvered side by side making one appreciate every embedded emotion or the provocative thought captured through time. The gestalt effect is spellbinding: how adversity refreshes us and how we emerged from this painterly furnace defines (redefines) one’s built-in character. In Zambarrano’s case it is the constant rebirth of his artistry that make him a budding master. Every canvas was Zambarrano at his purest form as if the paints are still wet as the pain is still warm when he painted them. His brushstrokes are raw and moving, one can still hear the sound of brushstrokes brought to life.

The Need for Needles
Not for the faint hearted Zambarrano still revels the positive though veering on the somber and to the negative. Fixated with needles as an allegory to life itself, he often compares himself (us included) to the long threads passing through. Born in the coastal town of Banate, the fifth of six siblings, his family was dirt poor that even as he was being conceived in his mother’s womb she wanted to give her up. In fact he was even nourished from boiled rice water to alternate the scarcity of milk just to get by. Zambarrano took it all in without a tear or whine. What did not despair him only made him stronger as he yielded this mortality to his higher artistic purpose.

In The Black Rainbow

In slaying his demons Zambarrano uses these stark shiny pointed metals. By now you may inquire: how could someone so hopeless in life looks forward to living. After being a self-supporting student in college Zambarrano is now a licensed architect and an award winning artist. Using needles in ascending order to his ambitions Unlimited Optimism wants people to carry on whatever life impedes on them. As an artist he feels it is his responsibility to impart brightness in outlook and freshness in attitudes.

By nature people seek their potential, position and protection to survive as the fittest. In the Black Rainbow shows people cascading from this artificiality as we are defined by our titles, pay checks, flashy cars unmindful of that these are just ethereal things. Zambarrano has emptied himself in the form of a skeleton holding his now famous black shoes. The Advent of Stone Headed Wanderers solidifies his big bright vision even without material resources. When he shifted to architecture his eldest sister persuaded him not to pursue as he “does not have wings to fly.” However Zambarrano is as hard as he is committed to spread his imaginary wings to claim his dreams. One has to want their realization badly and be boldly determined in paving the way for them.

As a child he remembers drawing his heroes in the sand while other kids of his age carefree play. Unlike other artists who dabble in endless sketches, Zambarrano initially paints in his head. As raw and fertile as they are, he painstakingly tempers his ideas and concepts, translating them on canvas only when he is done thinking about it. The execution is fastest and the most gratifying process. Often done in glaringly red hues most of his paintings reflect his courage in predicaments and passion in fulfillment. They are captured in a moment of glorifying resolution some toned down but definitely nothing mushy in pastel colors. Such is the reprisal of the enigmatic Homecoming 2 reminiscent of his entry which was recognized in a national art competition four years ago. Zambarrano recalls a client who after 30 years has returned to their hometown for it is his belief that one must die to where one was born. Zambarrano’s brilliance is to situate you in a state where you feel both longing and equanimity diffused in one abstract momentum. Even without people one feels disturbed and usually the spell lasts longer than you left viewing it.

The five pieces in Unhindered Series collectively takes the fear out as life’s biggest illusion. He once was a commencement speaker in his college and he challenged his audience that one may be mortal yet he must take a risk or even jump off a cliff unhindered of the consequences to one’s body. To this day Zambarrano may be scarred but he has remained unscathed.

Shoe Biz

Typical of normal guy of style, these may be just ordinary black canvas shoes. The double a on the side is a giveaway–it was his sign (for art and architecture). The presence of beige straps crisscrossing gives you an inkling that they also stand for adventure. They might be even intended for car racing or cycling as the fit suggests. For Zambarrano practicality outweighs the design. For bargain 25 pesos the materiality costs even more than what the black shoes were intended for. For Zambarrano one has to brace one’s feet for the long haul whatever the ride maybe. As soon as the vendor took them out of the sack, he immediately wore them to the streets.

From an ukay-ukay in Jaro market the black shoes would eventually be immortalized in many of Zambarrano’s canvases. They are living evidence of travails of a typical striving artist. From the muddy alleys of Iloilo to the air-conditioned galleries in Hong Kong, how many artists are bold enough to repeatedly depict them various capacities readily defines Zambarrano’s significance. In fact even these black shoes physically gave up on him. The event was his telling sign that he was ripe enough to exhibit his stories around them.

From Banate he wanted to explore further and study college in the city. However those he thought would take care of him were the ones who even maltreated him. Prodigious Escape was that epiphany of seeing the light and regaining freedom from the cycle of oppression and lack of familial love. The symbolical use of the chain block in uplifting the heavy burden of his sorrow was effective in addressing his relief in being out of the troublesome pit he was wallowing into. 

Uncanny in depiction all is not lost for Zambarrano. Evident In the Garden of Hope ardent chess pieces, pawns may be of the lowest value however they are meant to be sacrificed for one to proceed further in the game. A nocturnal being Zambarrano always waited for dawn as the sunrises before he sleeps. And like the ants seen here brave and hardworking enough to face another day.

Even in the not-so-sunny there is beauty in tragedy. In the Beautiful Rain even the poor should remain dignified and live in excellence as encircled letter shows. Notice how needles morphed as the rain subsides. Zambarrano can be romantic as he was brutal in the most of his works.
Detail of Two Steps Behind
In the installation Two Steps Behind Zambarrano honors the famous black shoes for the last time. Resting on the famous black shoes are both his college diploma from Iloilo Science and Technology University (ISAT-U) and his certificate as a licensed architect from the Professional Regulatory Commission attached to it. Providing the main altar in the exhibition is this testament to his hardship as he stuck more than 5000 needles around these elements. There are as many needles in one’s life; in fact they even come back as cycles. Using resin as his base Zambarrano wanted to pause and freeze this moment of elation. As an artist the defiant act was the most liberating this to do, a gentle reminder to stay grounded and humble and move on with his head up high. Providing a fitting backdrop to this tributes sculpture is The Evidence some 60 portraits of these black shoes on paper mounted on two sets of plywood.
Having practiced both as an architect and as a painter Zambarrano has developed a multi-disciplinary perspective to his art pieces in imparting cutting his messages across. In fact he even uses it to debunk its very essence.
Contemporary artist Alain Hablo specially did Zambarrano’s portrait for On the Ground (Highest Level). One of Iloilo’s proudest son in the visual arts, Hablo has been looked up to by Zambarrano and his generation of artists. He is much of an inspiration as an influence for Zambarrano. Overcoming his destitution epitomized by life-size pawns impressed upon his image like a reminder the successful you become the more humble one must be. 
Two Steps Behind and The Evidence
Meanwhile Timbu-ok tackles the same humility but in reverse: soar up high towards a higher ground but not the sky. Thirty kites denoting his existence are attached to red nylon strings which are firmly planted on the ground. Ilonggo word meaning soaring high, timbu-ok values humility above all; that despite life’s unexpected twists and bumpy turns one who eschews pride and keeps his feet on the ground is always exalted.

Choosing to stay in Iloilo Zambarrano’s art practice goes beyond the usual norm and against the tide situated in the imperial art centers. His art may not be festive as Dinagyang or commercial enough to be the celebrated in art fairs and bids in local auctions but being an Ilonggo artist has already contented him in his bigger canvas--art of his life. He is just warming up.


Jan Calleja Strikes Back


The first thing one would notice in a Jan Calleja piece is how he brilliantly does it. Functioning more like a mechanic Calleja is your postmodern craftsman. One that is grounded in the everyday using unique visual language versed in contemporary meaning. He appropriates model cars, airplanes, guns and even other toys by deconstructing them out of context and renewing their shelf lives or what is termed as scratched-built.

In Jan Solo II Calleja resumes further this promising yet uncharted terrain of toy-themed sculptures. Part of that bigger canopy in urban street art and culture, each piece has a story to tell. Ostentatious yet naïve, their peculiarities draw out connections to geographical displacements, historical recurrences and larger psychological social systems.

With a degree in visual communications at the University of the Philippines Calleja acquired a distinct aesthetic taste that would be his prowess to execute his big bright bold ideas. To thoroughly comprehend his brilliance one must take a mental journey with him, travelling to places so distant we may not initially see a way back. When we do return to the gallery however we can marvel at the fact that he has somehow succeeded in distilling the whole experience into the physical object. Fathoming deep as mindscapes he brings us back to the materiality we began looking long and hard at.

His pieces somehow present us with problem and a solution. Harnessing time and space in challenging our understanding of the various layers of his process, Calleja strikes back and often emerges triumphant and unscathed.

Inspired by Star Wars he watched as kid two Walkers are simulated into his signature use of the Volkswagen 1964 kombi. For Calleja it is that classic back-of-the head recall of its rear that he favors and could not be replicated by any metal conduit. Often significant to Calleja is how the viewer draws the thin line of duality in perception that as he is reminded of that classic 60s family van yet now converted into All Terrain All Scout Walkers. The AT-AS has legs as primary method of locomotion in a military operation. Designs for such walkers were utilized by the Galactic Empire some say were inspired by the use of animal cavalry from ancient civilizations.

The All Terrain series are some of the best examples of walkers. Such that AT-AT Walker (All Terrain Armored Transport) that four-legged vehicle used by the imperial forces would emanate from a Land Rover by adding four long legs reminiscent of their function in the film series.

Another Volkswagen foray is constructed into Tie Fighter. The elegance of the Volkswagen is favorably reprised and impresses him all over again. The car company should hire him for his long exemplary promotions.

Meanwhile Calleja’s Tie interceptor would emanate from the mini cooper. Sourcing from the Tie Fighter this dagger shaped airborne machine was the symbol of the imperial fleet. They carried aboard Star Destroyers and battle stations. They were single pilot vehicles made for fast paced dog fights with Rebel X-wings and other star fighters.

Fascinated by the survival tales of World War 1, Calleja paid tribute to these recurring memories with the two rebel x-wing fighters. Born from FokerDR1 Triplane and Scout SE5 that were used as weapons of destruction, Calleja adapted them into less violent yet simulated mode.

Calleja’s first foray in cars was with Formula 1 series back in where he upgrade by installing both the driver with the speeding machines. In a previous essay, the word toy as play was exercised. The element of play offers a deeper meaning when referred to how Calleja maneuvers his mechanical antics into physical fruition. The Land Speeder from Mercedes 300 SL series comes to mind.

To appreciate Calleja as an aesthete one should reflect the thwarting of his design as it stretches beyond one’s retinal pleasure. With his bare hands it is both science and art. His belief that all shapes have been made because industrial use, if one can imagine then one can build. It is only a matter of finding the perfect combination for the situation at hand. 

The possibilities are infinite in a galaxy not far away.  

Jan Solo II is ongoing at the Art Portal 2/F Eastwest Bank BGP Complex 2, Mc Arthur Hi-way, Matina, Davao City.


MADE Proudly: The Ballad of Teves, Bunag and Tan


Consider it like a socio-civic duty, one should not miss the annual painting exhibition of the Metrobank Art and Design Excellence (MADE) every September. Not out of curiosity but with a dedication that comes with responsible citizenship. With sign of the times as its anchor theme, MADE serves as a crash course not only of the emerging styles of Philippine contemporary art but of the current affairs of our country or after viewing the recent winning paintings, rather my sad republic.

True to its commitment of recognizing the best among artists 35 years and below MADE has kept this promise in acknowledging the relevant art of the young for more than 30 years now. Inviting myself on every occasion in the last five offing I noticed more students winning the coveted prizes than amateur artists who do not have a solo show, as its rules apply. Some winners are even in their late teens while they are still in college. And gauging from the winning paintings of recent years the more the Philippine situation gets worse the more beautiful art is being churned out. Is it that bad for our own good?
In the Land of Forsaken Promises by Don Bryan Bunag

In the water-based category Don Bryan Bunag is all of 22 years but already has the sensibilities of an old battered soul. Every thing one would want in a pretty picture is perfectly present in Bunag’s wining piece Into the Land of Forsaken Promises, only its gloomier bordering on starkness. For Bunag, hope is a young girl freely playing in the expanse of a field. However prettiness may yet be the last long look this winning piece evokes. With moving white clouds, the melancholic child whose hair is being blown away does not even look at you in the eyes. Is it shyness from the truth? Is it surrendering from desolation? Her constant replication annoys us even more. Bunag has brought a fresh perspective of our tired longing for change. 

Yet Bunag does not end there. He goes further by splicing up the canvas. What he has painstakingly done so so many days he distorts it in minutes. Talk about masochist tendencies. What seems to be like grass are actually fine thin slits coming from his slashing of blades. Sometimes the more concealed or decoded one’s images are the more its message implicitly impresses upon what the artist explicitly intended to the viewer. 

What may be sordidly fantasy to Bunag is blatant realism to Bryan Teves. In fact it is of the hyper-kind that his main image almost emerges out of the canvas.
The distance from where he is based in Sta. Catalina in Ilocos Sur provides Teves with a clearer perspective of composing an image worthy of emulation. Simplicity over-laden with values won for this one. How Teves warmly wraps that blanket of emotion around a dual image of a reversal of role is astoundingly executed. The blanket properly enveloped all the emotions that come with being happy at birth and being desperate in desolation in reverse.

Sakbibi ng Galak at Tagumpay by Bryan Teves
In Sakbibi ng Galak at Tagumpay, Teves portrays in an Asian way of composing things, a yin-and-yang approach to living. In previous works he likes to double his subjects or in this case, in reverse as seamless as can be. Against a freshly-green background Teves does well by this exacting love of family and the cycle of life we unavoidably exposed to.

Once in a while abstraction finds its sordid place in the representational laden art competition like MADE. “I” by Andrew Tan is replete with characters one is familiar with in the metropolis. Breathing the carbon air of the city one gets numbed like Tan while surviving in the daily urban mosh pit we are constantly rolling into. In taking the Clement Greenberg challenge as mentioned the catalogue essay by Cid Reyes, at a glance I see a lot of flesh undertones of the bigger overview. Much like a whole being is consumed by the cosmopolitan disease we have been informally and contagiously exposed to.
I by Andrew tan

Given its relevance to the art community, MADE still is the rites of passage for most of artists practicing in the Philippines. The names of its products alone could double the word count of this blog entry. Without even words, its roster of winning artworks can tell the true story of our people. It is hope that one day all these will be displayed in a proper venue for everyone to marvel at and be appreciated. What many lack in material things we make up in talent in fine bold artistry. For it is only through imagination that we can envision and build a country. MADE was made for that as we collectively continue our stories of survival one day at a time.


Orley Ypon: When Realism Still Matters


Flesh was the reason why oil paint was invented.
                                               Willem de Kooning

Bidlisiw (sun rays in Visayan) may yet be an appropriate title for a first solo exhibition of a painter whose artistic sunlight has highly basked us for more than 15 years now. Realists like Cebu-based Ypon have often been taken down for being too literal in expressing their paints on canvases that they are often been relegated to the just confines of a commodified art. In Bidlisiw, Ypon escapes from this strangle laying claim as probably the last heir to this great tradition in Philippine figurative painting.     

It was from a water buffalo plowing in the mud in the ricefields of Toledo that Ypon first conceptualized Ahon. In fact his first Ahon painting won for him 2nd place at GSIS National Painting Competition. Another Ahon-inspired piece The Searchers would eventually win for Ypon the Art Renewal Residency in New York a few years after.

Compared to the first ones this current Ahon series has matured further and aesthetically expanded creating more movement and depth. Maybe in a less formal manner (some are even laughing at the satire they are into) but more forceful in his rendition, Ypon’s images show more vulnerability in prowess representing our collective struggle for that so-called genuine emancipation. Although they outwit, outdo and outscore one another as the fittest survive, certain individuals corrupt the community spirit for personal greed and selfish interests.

Ypon laments: Tayo yung nasa putikan, gusto natin makaahon. Dapat malampasan ang krisis. Tumitibay tayo sa bawat  trahedyang napagdadaanan. As a painter di ka pwedeng hindi masaktan. Di ka dapat matakot. Dapat harapin mo dahil yun din magpapatibay sa’yo. Yung wisdom mo dito papasok.

The nature of Ypon’s brushstrokes almost reaches fever pitch that the people throw mud at each other including the viewer looking in. Enclosed in a gallery enclave the viewer may even take a step back as splashes of mud come off the canvas and might just stain him. They are ethereal in actuality, ephemeral in posterity. The way an Ypon piece makes you feel in being part of the Philippine quagmire that as you squint in his toiling figures one witnesses a realism that is seldom replete these days. This comes at a time when much of art being produced is emotion-ridden feng shui-enthused or arguably auction bound. As the in-your-face-bodies have often been celebrated in nudes, portraits, and anatomical fixtures the validity of Ypon’s figures does not hark on the usual celebration of the physical skin and bountiful muscles but how the prowess of collective bodies can portray a people wallowing too long and too deep in a marsh, a political entanglement of their own making. A lieu of how brute and superficial we can almost be. How Ypon combined them in sequential and consequential movement with an enduring and endearing light that warmly embraces them are indices of that long arduous practice of his true craftsmanship.

Tall Toledo Tales

If one were are to paint the life of Orley Ypon it will be an impressionist painting he is now known for. He was always trying to capture the movement, the drama of the moment that came his way.

The second in a brood of eight, Ypon has always dreamed of being an artist. He would envy illustrations from the sari sari store komiks or characters on wall calendars of his hometown Toledo in Cebu.

He says: I have to credit also my parents who unlike other parents did have faith and courage in their children to have a career in the arts. Some parents will not have their sons to be artists. Ako, walo kami but they trusted me.

Toledo, however, will be too small for Ypon’s eagerness to learn art. At 17, he took his chance to go to Manila responding to a newspaper ad for production artists in a crafts shop for export.

The experience will prove to have a double purpose. As he was coloring baskets, he was learning the process of mixing colors and drawing in detail. With much fire in his belly, he rose from being an apprentice to be the head of production staff. Perfectionist as he is, he relied on his doing sample works that would be sent to investors abroad interested in his company’s products.

After a few years of working however the call to be an artist heeded more intensely. What little amount he saved in working he invested in his dream of becoming a painter. He quit work and went back to Cebu. Taking up Architecture at the Cebu Institute of Technology, he heeded upon the advice of some artist-friends as having a fall back for an artist if he was an architect. Ypon, however, found the subjects too technical for his fancy. He was just too eager to paint he took up fine arts at UP Cebu to have the proper academic training in art. Here he mastered the rudiments that would guide him where is today.

Ypon had always been a realist in life as well as in art. He emphasizes: Gusto ko kasi realism para madaling maintindihan ng lahat. Parang may sense ka sa tao. Hindi biro ang realism kasi you have to consider many things like technique, depth, color, and most importantly composition. You have to be an observer, kaya mahalaga lahat ng experience ko dahil I have to feel my work when I’m painting.

The cost of being a fine arts student was too much to carry. Upon the invitation from a relative he went to Davao and immerses himself with the rich and diverse culture the province had to offer. It was here that he tasted his first win, in a mural contest. A social realist by nature, Ypon painted what was around him like the many refugees that were prevalent there.

He later joined an on-the-spot painting in Carcar when he came back to Cebu. Earning him confidence from this, he learned there was a new contest for students in ArtPetron, he enrolled in Casa Gorordo Museum and in a week’s time painted what would be his masterpiece, Ober-Ober.

Ober-Ober, 2001
The story of Ober-ober is a tale worth re-telling. The popular slipper game, the topic of his painting, was played everyday by young boys just outside his tiny studio in Toledo where he painted daily.

What makes this painting so special is how Ypon instead of rolling up his canvas, he chose to hand carry it and endure a 21-hour boat ride from Toledo to Manila.

In the book Brushstrokes from the Heart: The First Five Years of ArtPetron, author and art critic Alice Guillermo commented that Ober-Ober for its “strong sense of humanity and fellow-feeling for the masa or children of common people. Ypon seems to intimately know them well. Even the light that underlines their contours is not harsh but is kind and insightful.”

It is this same bright rays of the sun that National Artist Napoleon Abueva, chair of the board of judges, to “he has Fernando Amorsolo’s light.”

Light on Water, Later on Mud

Ypon mentions that his happiest moments is when he is with water. He has lots of fond childhood memories at sea. He remembers he would tag along with his grandfather who was a fisherman in the morning and be enthralled by the colors of the sky and the sea. It was in this that he wanted his paintings to have movement. It is no surprise that most of Ypon’s works have water as background or revolves around it.

Ypon dreams that “someday to paint masterpieces like Juan Luna and Felix Resurrecion Hidalgo those large works like Spoliarium with themes dealing with history. I want to make a statement about the Philippines.”

Truly the light in Ypon’s paintings continues to shine in the high noon of his life. 

Bidlisiw by Orley Ypon is ongoing at Altro Mondo in Greenbelt 5.