POLYVALENT MELANGE : The Syncretism of Roy Veneracion


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.

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A stylish rebelliousness and voracious capacity to coopt - and then transcend - aesthetic barriers has often characterized the work of Manila-based artist Roy Veneracion (b. 1947).

Starting from a decidedly abstract expression background in the mid-Seventies, Veneracion  has succeeded in welding graffiti and pop figuration as painterly accoutrements since the Eighties to arrive at his artistic philosophy of "Syncretism", which he avers to as: "... (a) stylistic tendency of combining opposing principles in a single artwork. I developed my theories around the eastern "yin-yang" idea of finding "wholeness" through the acceptance of the dualities in all experience. My attempt to resolve the contradictions inherent in the exchange of influences between east and west and the impact of the information age upon cultures, as well as the need to find the visual equivalents to contemporary thought and experience, led to this synthesis."

The Daoist core of Veneracion's credo can be judiciously plotted from his earlier works to the present: the opposing blocks of textured, woody paint and broad, thin washes of his improvisational series of 1975, for example, that speak of this constant need for formal balance finds its restless reincarnation in his 1978 series of color-field paintings divided into broad and thin bands of  alternating monochromatic hues; his pointed departure from complete abstraction in the early 1980s, when he focuses on the female nude in expressionistic and sometimes social realist-like stances, interpellating with abstract color planes, contrasting linear gestures, and naif-painted maids and children; and his art-brut-like collages intermingling with post-painterly gestures and neo-ethnic motifs, assembled into irregularly-shaped canvases in the mid-1980s that appropriate the Postmodern architectural "ziggurat" motif, the tropicality of its pastel hues mingling with a darker backdrop that forces the viewer to realize its semiotic connection not to sunny Miami, but to darkened Manila.

This chic Modernist angst lightened through Postmodern pastiche also draw attention to Veneracion's alterity as a meditative commentarist to the artworld fortunes and aesthetic reversals of the international "transavantgarde" movement, graffiti art and the simultaneous return of both the human figure in painting, as well as the baroque age of Neo-Expressionism and Minimalist art. His works, extending into the lete Eighties series of surreal-like montages inhabiting abtracted rooms and tackboards; his Nineties series of brilliantly-colored abstractions with sinous gestural lines; and his current series of human-figure-and-abstract-ground palimpsests should be taken as the Other's productive response to the gesticulating self of the fractured international consotium - a narrational and artworld space that Veneracion appropriates and then transgresses as a vital project in restoring balance to aesthetic chaos.

Veneracion's aesthetic position should also alert audiences to the difference betweeen his avant-garde artistic production to that of others, say, in the West and East Coasts of the United States, or even to that of Europe (where the not-so-young YBAs and the not- so-new New German Painters jostle for aesthetic and market dominance), which is the first temptation to make, Neither should his work be mistaken for the East Asian contemporary aesthetic rush for "Occidentalism" (the East's exoticizing response to the West's othering), particularly from Japan and China, which has gathered steam since the Niineties. Rather than playing to an established orthodoxy, Roy Veneracion has consistently traveled against the grain, resulting in a harmonic fusion of both dominant and resistant.

This refusal to play a fixed, constant role in the act of cultural enunciation, doubling against itself in an act of determined oftentimes ellipsistic, interjection, re-sutures Veneracion's work as the double-but-never-fixed, a process of always-becoming for those who feel that categories like East-West/Black-White binaries are the fossilized remnants of an autocratic age. The democratic turn that reinvigorates this narration also translocates Veneracion's aesthetic hybridity from an ethic-less exercise into a pointed critique of the auto-destructive techniques of runaway consumerism: Hollywood pop industrialism is immersed in the cauldrons of the Seven Sisters, emerging not quite pristine from its carbonate bath; canonical bodies lounge in acid bars, the pictorial skin peeling and piss-stained like so many layered posters in an abandoned city street; abstract color fields interacting with thick textural planes and gestural lines; and an always-sentient premonition of oncoming disaster, or an archeological assemblage of its occuring effects. One can measure this in Veneracion's critique of Western aesthetic dominance among Pacific Rim artists by reseeding it with organic growth from their subjugated traditions:        

"Western Centrality is situated only in the mind of the outclassed and the colonized. What is essentially Eastern and native in my art was my search for the colors and rhythms of the Tropics whiuch I called 'Stilo Tropical' and found affinities with the complex intricacies of Indonesian and Indian art rather than the black and white of Japanese calligraphy. Even my colors which are almost always complementaries found inspiration from the painted Indian temples statues and wall paintings, the weaves and banigs of the Badjaos and other Philippine tribes. As objet trouves I used the colorful banig of Southern Philippines in place of canvas in my polypthic paintings. These colors are still with me now even if I use more global or world images instead of the regional in my present work."

In this ambivalent space of the speaking subject's culturally polymorphous possibilities, Roy Veneracion's re-assertion of what Homi Bhaba calls "the third space of enunciation" should guide us to this project of of his resistance to the either-or of pure abstraction and re-emergent figuration dilemma of his colleagues in the early-Seventies. Rather, he posits the strategy of Syncretism as "...my attempt to put this unresolved theoretical contradiction, irresoluteness, and impasse to the rest-to flatten and obliterate art historical issues...I take eclectism and ambivalence as a linguistic tool to challenge the orthodoxy and ethnocentricity of both Western and Eastern art traditions that now collide as an aftermath of the expansionist scramble for empire building and today's cyber-info age and globalization, that is, to hasten the inevetable in art. After all, art has been emerging and merging in all cultures throughout its history."

As metanarratives, Veneracion's abstracts-plus-figures play in the tertiary spaces lurking between the conjunctive utterances of various cultural selves, thus revoking and contesting the simple, linear discourse that makes one so certain of one's identity, and yet so blind to its fallacies. These "as-yet-selves" occupy ambivalent spaces that, despite  the appeal to simulacra that postmodernity advocates, projects very real effects to its viewers, and hence may be said to constitute post-modernism's critique, post-post-modernism. This willingness to take on what had often been thought of as static aesthetic viewpoint is deconstructed in his position regarding the historically integrative nature of Syncretism.   - 2008


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"La Condition Postmoderne" 1979, Jean Francoise Lyotard - "Where the expert knows what he knows and what he doesn't know, the philosopher knows neither, but poses questions." In the light of this ambiguity, Lyotard states that his portrayal of the state of knowledge "makes no claims to being original or even true" and that his hypothesis  "should not be accorded predictive value in relation to reality, but strategic value in relation to the question raised (Lyotard 1984, 7)

In Jean Baudrillards "Hyperreality and Simulation", "The real and the imaginary heve been absorbed into the Symbolic." It is pure simulacrum where simulation simulates itself.

Perniola's concept of transit into the space of difference is one in "Art" in the sense of artifice or technique, and is not arrived at synthesis or unification of opposing elements- (Perniola 2001, 81).

It is not as a doctrinaire subscription to the Postmodern Movement in Philosophy, Architecture, Literature, and Art, That drove this artist to start employing "fragmentation", (deconstruction?), in his works during the 70's and 80's, but because of what he termed "logical conclusion" arrived at independently of "Postmodernism". Following the course of Modenism's dualistic tendencies in Abstraction: namely, the geometric (Constructivist) and  the organic ( Expressionist), on one hand, and the Conceptualist ( Duchampian Aesthetics) on the other, all rejecting art historical styles other than those in pursuit of novel and pioneering practices to where no man has ever gone before - like a walk on the Moon - all in the name of Modernism. Syncretism's non-linear progressions, fragmentary compositions, Post-Colonial-Socio-Political content, inter-diciplinarary methods, multiple techniques and polystyles are all part of the alternatively divergent path this artist took which may be contemporaneously linked with the Postmodern Movement.

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Jose Rizal was a19th Century Syncretist. Juan Luna was a Romantic. Rizal was a Romantico-Realis ta.

Velasquez mated with the anonymous primitive that produced Picasso, the 20th Century Syncretist. 


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