Ricky Ambagan: Pulling the String to a Full Stop


I'm Coming Home

The increasing pressure to phase out our beloved jeepneys from the main thoroughfares of Manila (and Baguio) where they once ruled is surmounting by the day. The government says they don’t even physically fit any more—an unpleasant sight--a stumbling block to progress; that their sheer volume has become a liability even as commuters cramp them up every early morning filling up their maximum sitting capacity.

This is where visual artist Ricky Ambagan pulls the string to a full stop. Paying homage to the Patok, a parlance for the last of the rogue jeepneys, Ambagan has kept the faith for these most enduring Pinoy icons. Patok is a sub-species of jeepneys plying from Montalban or Cogeo via Marcos Hi-way. Bigger than the usual 16-seater capacity, they have been built for one sole reason for being--speed; most are candy-colored and heavily decorated using airbrush. 

Basang Basa sa Ulan

With young and restless drivers at the helm, Patok travels you in hasty, topsy-turvy-style, often arriving at your destination in record time. They take you to Montalban—like in a drag race--in the shortest time possible–even that claim is an understatement. They too are notoriously loud for their music.

Patok:Ang Pagbabalik ng Langgam is an ode--a narration of the travesties and intricacies of the last days of the jeepney. A roving telenovela--as Ambagan likes to call it--because we are a reflection of the kind of transportation we get into.

Other jeepneys today are barer for its practicality but the Patok are praised both for their functionality and aesthetics. What was once a war surplus and replacement for jitneys (thus the name) became a rolling showcase of our folk artistry. The jeepney became an extension of a driver’s humble abode: how he extends an altar in his dashboard complete with vigil bulbs; how he adorns its ceiling with copied paintings from masters, alongside names of his loved ones; how he uses curtains to ward of dust and keep ventilation for a smooth and safe trip.

Ambagan does not capture all their dirt and grime but seats in front as a hopeless sentimentalist, tempering that in-your-face rap music with jingly-jangly chords, even acoustics of the heart. In I’m Coming Home he sets the mood how the ever-dependable jeepney will always be there by remaining available 24/7. No matter how late —the graveyard shifters, the overworking employees, clandestine lovers unaware of their stolen moments, the sordid drunk coming from revelry—all depend on the jeepney to get safely home. Composing the picture Ambagan shows how lonely the crusade and uphill battle they now face. Yet the stars are out in full support for their cause.    

Basang basa sa Ulan implies in you an uncomfortable situation and captures another practicality of the Patok--how it is to survive without being drenched in the rain. Ambagan’s brilliance gears up when he juxtaposes his subjects along with the title of the most popular Aegis song. He resembles it how it is being soaked—both in our bodies and feelings—from the July showers evokes discomfort yet nostalgia; how art and music blend well in a painting. Ambagan has been there, done that.

Come Together
Come Together reprises that inviting Beatles song with the pedestrian as trigger word linking the famous fab four crossing through Abbey Road. Notice Ambagan suits his images with whatever his idea he had in mind. No photos as reference but imagination and how emotions play when that song was first played. Reminds one of the good times, as we flash back reminding the soundtrack of our lives.

The Jeep of Medusa
They may not be as comfortable as it was then but a Patok experience is on the extreme in riding dangerously, so to speak. Ambagan observes how these accents and accessorizes daily living. Each Patok jeepney is a wandering statement, its character emits from the graffiti’s they espouse, as well as the sentimentality of the music it pipes in. Ambagan laments that the day would come they will just end up in glass cases enclosed in a cold museum for viewing purposes only.

The Jeep of Medusa is an astoundingly haunting sepia, pencil, and charcoal on canvas. Against the colorful palette is this centerpiece discussing the plight of the jeepney. Opposed to the desperate survivors of the shipwreck as Louis Andre Theodore Gericault depicted his masterpiece, Ambagan took off with liberation and breaking free from human frailty and futility.

Folk religiosity has been a recurring subject for Amabagan. Lord Patawad remains a subliminal in its message. He has committed to his creative passion but more faithful to his God. Finding Pepe reflects Ambagan’s nationalist fervor. Here he situates Jose Rizal as a lowly passenger among the throng, busily absorbed in reading today’s news. Affected by the goings on with our current state of affairs. Ambagan hints we may be giving up our values for less mundane and superficial things.    

Finding Pepe
The subtitle Ang Pagbabalik ng Langgam reminisces Ambagan’s previous exhibitions which featured multiple of people en mass be it in Manila, downtown Baguio or flooded Malabon. His style of distortion, marked up by raw and coarse brushstrokes, endeared in humor and memory are the hallmark of his visual style. How he angles his canvases, twisting and twirling his subjects convoluting the kind of complex quagmire they are into. Not veering desperation rather he counters perspectives that would find meaning to whatever longing that may come along their way. His colors burst with bravura often engaging even provoking the viewer as a call to action and not passively observe.

Filipino artist worth his salt had a take on the jeepney. Vicente Manansala focused on its aesthetics as a folk art; Cesar Legaspi probed on its definite lines and earth-toned hues; Mauro Malang’s jeepneys appealed like general postcards to the tourists; Manny Garibay focused on their interior jeepneys being a socialist stage, the happenings inside while in transit. Ambagan is anecdotal highlighting the stories behind his paintings that make you stare long and hard, whether you empathize, amused or baffled at the drama behind it. How scenes elicit a smirk is what inspired him to feature this. Ambagan nonchalantly contributes to the contending dynamics of our culture and a deeper encouragement that the Pinoy will survive whatever that comes his way. 
Lord Patawad

With the clock ticking, though jeepneys may still be the preferred informal mode of transportation of the general publics, however like terminally-ill cancer patients, they are now living on borrowed time.

In Patok Ambagan honors the jeepney one last time while it is still breathing, fighting for its life. He parallels the existence of the jeep with the timeline of our country—too crowded, rowdy--with every passenger has a preferred direction to take. Everything that is happening in us—be it political, entertaining or poverty reflected--revolves around the goings-on of the jeepney, as one takes a collective ride. In the end, Ambagan is just an artist who commutes.

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