POLYVALENT MELANGE : The Syncretism of Roy Veneracion
by REUBEN RAMAS CANETE
Roy Veneracion has always thought out of the box. The UP Diliman Fine Arts alumnus has, since the Seventies, forged a path of aesthetic difference by combining motifs and concepts together from far-flung sources: Western Modernist Abstraction and Asian philosophical concepts, begun in the early Seventies; segueing to Postmodern montage and neo-Expressionism in the Eighties; and settling down since the Nineties into a fusion of disparate forms, primarily drawn and painted human figures embedded within gestural strokes and fields of color wash flowing in rainbow chromatics. The combination of color brightness and multidisciplinary explorations in artmaking is also a fundamental character of Roy's oeuvre, one that is put into service of an open - indeed, neoliberized - philosophical acceptance of disparity and difference. Advocating a particular philosophical mantra, Roy subscribes to the aesthetic idea of syncretism as a guiding thread to his artistic production and outlook. He describes syncretisms as "the merging of two or more opposing art principles. i.e. Abstraction/representation, found objects/created objects, post modernism/baroque, etc. it is a strategy for making art in the 21st Century that does not propose to replace the old order for a new order but picks up what is useful from art's history merged with the new."
This cobbling and suturing together of different or opposing elements, both old and new, conventional and radical, and positive and negative, into a resulting artwork which advocates an expanding and expansive goal has a fourfold aim, according to "The Syncretism Manifesto" also written by Roy, and subscribed to online by over a hundred artists, including Marcel Antonio, Mario de Rivera and David Cortez Medalla. These aims include: the rejection of dogmatism, fundamentalism, traditionalism, and exclusivity; the dununciation of charlatans posing as artists and art lovers who twist public opinion into believing that marketability equals artistic excellence; debunking the singular, signature style as a means of mass production and easy product recall; and the cultivation of multiple styles, multiple techniques, multi-media, multiple personalities and guises, in order not to be pigeon-holed and trapped in little boxes to be rarefied, classified, commodified." For this to be achieved, the movement subscribes to the "embrace of all denominations, factions, cliques, trans-genders and breeders, the establishment, the heretics, the marginalized, the ostracized, the fat, the thin, Capitalists and Communists," and " the assimilation of Americanism, Europeanism, Chinafication, Japanization, Latinification, Filipinization, Art Brut, Naif, Dada, Fluxus, subliminal-automatism-abstract, Pop, Anti-Art, Baroque and grandma Art."
This combination of a catholicity of taste as well as a pan-inclusivity of viewpoints and perspectives - except those which reject outright the Syncretist values of intellectual openness and freedom, as well as the very explicit prohibition against artistic falsehood and the surrender to the commodity market- originates from very distinct historical roots: the liberal atmosphere of the late Sixties era Diliman, with its contradictions of bureaucratic orthodoxy intermingled with faculty and student radicalism and the cornucopia of disparate aesthetic thoughts percolating within the Fine Arts studios. This included Bobby Chabet's anti-commercialist Conceptualism ; Jose Joya's embrace of both Abstract painting and Figurative Drawing; Virginia Flor-Agbayani's romantic Modernism; Rod Paras-Perez's formalism and the great western tradition; and Billy Abueva's native figuration circumscibed either in Modrnist brutalism or a curvaceous sensuality. Of these mentors, Joya was the closest to Roy's felt advocacies, and crystallized for him the fluid possibilities of fusing and rejoining what the western mind has sundered apart in the name of a hegenomic imperialism and homogenous modernity. This was expanded by Roy's journeys in Japan, Europe and the U.S. to witness the works firsthand of the major innovators of the period from the Seventies to the Eighties: Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Sigmar Polke, Eric Fischl, and David Salle. This outward journey also expanded his horizons by not simply limiting the visual experience to the great museums (the Louvre, the Tate, MoMA, the Met, the Guggenheim, Fukuoka) but also to the peripherialized areas of modern (read ethnic) artistic production, such as studios of American-Indians, Asian-Americans, Canadians and graffiti artists in Los Angeles and New York. Reflecting on his work, and applying it to his own historical and cultural context in the Philippines since the mid-Eighties, Roy laid the foundations of his Syncretism principle through this globalized synthesis and cobbling together of various artistic principles, introducing as his own suturing strategy the local context of lived experience, historical trauma, and contemporary portents of future catastrophe. Flash forward to 2010. With the success of his 2008 Syncretism exhibition at LA Art Core in Los Angeles behind him, Roy once more revisits the territory of opposing ideas that has led him down a twenty-year path of differential art making, this time into twin forms of multi-panelled paintings which he calls "Cluster paintings"; and scroll-type "tapestry paintings", both of which subvert the traditional dichotomies of western and eastern painting approaches in distinct ways. The cluster paintings expands the visual scope beyond the strict boundaries of a single frame, allowing multiple paintings to cohere visually by "accretion", or the assemblage of differently-sized quadrilateral canvases beyond a central core, exploding the monolithic nature of "square framing". The tapestry paintings do away with the restrictive box frame itself, floating over the wall with its asian-style scroll hanger, becoming one with the elements of wind and earth. Thus both formats transgress accepted boundaries or restrictions to art: the first being rooted in the tradition of singular masterpieces; the second as a silent commentary on the domination of one culture over another.
Their inscribed aesthetic patterns (their 'painted-ness and its "content", so to speak) is a by-now distnct blend of abstract washes and gestural strokes, and figurative re-renderings in paint of stock images from photography and pop culture. On the one hand, they coexist on the picture plane formally, either as "ground-figure relationships" (such as can be found in "Three Graces" and "Independence Day-SoWhat Have We Done") or as key blocked elements that subdivide the composition into zones of abstract-figure contrasts (as can be found in "What Abour Our Children" or "Antique Store Cards Create Nostalgia"). At another level, they also play at the subtle social and cultural differences between depicted subjects within a general figure-ground compositition. "Maria Clara and the Natives", "The Musicians" or "Perseus and the Igorots" explore this more nuanced narration of social and cultural disjuncture, where the oppressive impact of western colonization and imperialism in the Philippine experience is both felt and resisted both by the colonized as well as the colonial, resulting into parodies of conflicting images immersed in acid baths of Modernist color-fields. At still another level, the evocation of lost nature and an imperilling globality makes itself felt in works like "Holy Macaque" or "Heir to the Ages", with its air of environmental catastrophe looming over the horizon, a disaster traceable to the unsustainable industrial consumerism that global capitalism has unleased upon late modern life and material relations.
The last motif, which Roy also focused on his 2008 "Syncretism" series, is also joined by "abstract works" (abstract in the sense that they utilize Non-Objectivist visualities in painting) that combine both fluid color-washes (of the style associated with Louis Morris) with thick, nervously-drawn gestural strokes with thick textures (like Sam Frances as loosened up by graffiti art), but combined in a visual montage of bright colors and sensual forms verging on an erotic descriptive intermingled with the materiality of daily life. This is then re-read into the artist's vision of nature and human experience, becoming palimpsests wherein we (as him) occupy surrealist-like dreams of wonder and regret ("Catching Clouds in Polychrome", "Seen and Unseen", and "Dawn Dispersed the Night"), narrate ironic metacommentaries of elitist consumerism ("Corporate Chic" or "Subliminal Abstract"), or a poetic return from civilizational (because patriarchal) hypocrisy towards a non-judgmental Nature that is motherly and nurturing ("Fragile Blue Sky"). The key to understanding these double-coded works is Roy's invocation of "pareidolia", or the human psyche's ability to recognize patterns from otherwise random forms. Also, the Latin 'alucinari' is flagged, as in the hallucinatory effect of dreams, mirages, and coded symbols that may mean nothing and everything at the same time.
The role of the artist as conceptualizer of ideas coupled with revolutionary nature of the avant-garde practitioner who sees the virtues of both the ideal and the unified, thus indentures the forms that Roy Veneracion deploys in the reiteration of aesthetic integration - a melange of sorts - produced through this polyvalence of approaches and perspectives. Analyzing his own position in the painting titled The Painter, Roy summarizes Syncretism as an omnivore's passion for the textural integrity of disparate elements in (philosophical) diets and (kinaesthetic) desires, one that simultaneously expands away from the limitations of rote traditionalism to encompass a world of gestures and ideas, summoning in their unitary resurturing another world that is ideal, whole, and free.