MADS BAJARIAS | Melvin Culaba's "Keychain" doesn't reveal its secrets easily. One has to think long and hard before the subtle symbols that Culaba has planted throughout the canvas begin to reveal themselves.
Luckily for us, when Culaba exhibited "Keychain" in Singapore's Forth Art Gallery, Utterly Art's Keng Hock got to meet and talk with the artist and gained valuable insight into this artwork.
Keng Hock on "Keychain":
Maybe her outsider status among children has forced her to toughen up and hold the world at bay with a gaze that is both fearless and mistrustful?
Melvin Culaba's "Keychain" is replete with symbology and meaning.
For instance, the child is Japanese-Filipino. Circles, which bring to mind the Rising Sun, are scattered throughout the painting. The girl sits on a garden chair with a circular backrest. Near her feet is one of those newfangled tops that emit a laser light when spinning. On the upper left of the painting is another round object (I've forgotten what it's supposed to be!). Her slippers are decorated with cherries, another oblique reference to cherry blossoms, a symbol of Japan.
A Doraemon keychain dangles from her left hand—an object that mirrors her own strangeness—as she sits awkwardly in her seat. The keychain is a throwaway and disposable object, a demeaning description that children of mixed race often have to struggle against.
Her mixed race tags her as an outsider—a strange alien—wherever she is, a view reinforced by the strange and weird Pokemon pair perched precariously on the ledge on the upper left corner of the painting.
Even if one doesn't get into the symbology, "Keychain" still commands the viewer's attention due to the sheer intensity of its execution. While Culaba plants his symbols in subtle ways, his composition, brushwork and colors show a directness and boldness of purpose. A fierce intelligence permeates the work. It doesn't just hang there, it sort of confronts you in an aggressive way. It's forceful nature demands attention.