An Abstract Peerage

The Sunday Times Magazine

May 6, 2007

The Filipino Champion



Artwork by Roy Veneracion


                Of late, abstract paintings have become the watchword among interior decorators and architects doing modern housing and high-rise condominium units. Its noncomplicated subjects and simple compositions allow an ideal design parameter in which color patterns are the primary consideration for their inclusion into a predesigned interior.

                At the same time, though, a dedicated corps of abstract drawn from the professional and executive ranks has also emerged since the millennium, invigorating the art scene with a more critical eye for quality, uniqueness and the original expression of Filipino artists. These abstractionists, growing up in the sixties and seventies, learned their cue from Western Abstraction, true, but have strongly adapted them to suit local realities.

                Such can be found in an exhibition of five major Filipino artists now continuing at the Pinto Gallery in the Silangan Gardens, Antipolo City (until May 12). Titled Peers Ensemble, it showcases the : new works of Roy Veneracion, Gus Albor, Junyee, Nestor Vinluan and Virgilio Aviado. As an exhibition among recognized peers – and now seniors in Manila’s art scene – it is indeed remarkable that such a wide variety of abstraction is possible.

                This may be due to the very different personalities and educational backgrounds of each of the participants: Albor is from UE, and was mentored by the late abstractionist Florencio Concepcion; Veneracion, Junyee and Vinluan were graduated of UP Diliman, and were tutored by Jose Joya, Constancio Bernardo, and Napoleon Abueva; which Aviado was from Ateneo, then under the sway of Eric Torres and Araceli Dans.

                These different backgrounds also explain the diversity of their art-making principles. Albor utilizes a highly minimalist approach by covering the surface of his darkly-primed canvas with delicate layers of acrylic textured medium and then staining it with infinitesimal shades of white, grey, sepia, and raw ochres and siennas. “Impurities” is one such work that alludes to Albor’s forte of subliminal shading on top of a vigorously-textured, concrete-like surface, looking like delicate photographs of Saharan sand storms mixed with London fog.

                Aviado’s work alludes to a highly mechanistic grid of black-and-white squares and lines that reflect his training as a printmaker. Vinluan’s stain-colored paper pieces, which continue a visual counterpoint from his densely-stippled oil paintings, glow like absorption lines on an spectrograph – a better metaphor would be ghostly stacks of gaseous pancakes floating on an ice field.

                Junyee, who is more known for his organic installations of found wood objects and functional wooden sculptures that connects itself with environmental issues (well before many a Johnny-come-lately would profess the same), presented the show with a deliberate contrast between “painting” and “sculpture.” His two paintings are a deliberate monochromatic contrast to each other. One piece consisting mostly of a black ground with thin white lines on top; and the other of a white background with delicate tendrils of black smudged on top. The technique of achieving both is vintage Junyee: he used an oil lamp to “smoke” the black patterns on both panels, using a mosquito screen as a stencil. His sculptures are composed of hardwood benches that had rockers for legs, and hence were called “rocking benches” – a democratic twist on the traditional household rocking chair that now seats up to six people.

                The previous four abstractionists rely on an interpretation of Abstraction that relies on the Modernist concept of removing the perceived image (known as Representation), and in its place, retains simplified elements like lines, planes, colors and textures to produce an absolute, implacable whole, a work rather than an image, whose purpose is to force viewers into considering the power of art to suggest an idea or an image, rather than to spoon-feed them with empty platitudes of natural observation. It is Roy Veneracion’s courageous intermingling of abstract ideas and appropriated imagery, however, that sets him apart from this Peerage as among its more radical.

                This is based on Veneracion’s aesthetic concept of “syncretism,” of the mixing of both abstraction and imagery, and of high art and pop culture. He avers to this concept in the following: “(Syncretism) is the blending of opposites that carries implications going beyond art and leads all the way, at least  in concept, to understanding, harmony and peace.” As a young man, Veneracion, Along with Vinluan and other UP fine arts students during the late sixties and early seventies, was profoundly influenced by the Hari Krishna and Hippie movements, and this melange of Asian mystical holism and Western youth radicalism worked its way into their works, most notably, in their use of brilliant, acidic color.

                Moreover, this radicalism had also begun to question the absolutism of the Philippine Abstraction movement that was born in the fifties, an ascetic intolerance for other aesthetic concepts that Veneracion felt suppressed his artistic urge to be free. Thus, in his works from the early eighties onward, his painted jostling of abstract washes and carefully redone human figures, arranged into grids or center-versus-margin combinations, amounted to a significant diversification of Philippine Abstraction, an art form that influenced not by Moderism, but by Postmodernism.

                By this we refer to the idea that a consciously historical and social process of art making results in works that do not set themselves apart from alienated audience, who must approach art like a mystical, dimly-understood icon. Rather, Veneracion’s aesthetic argues for a reintegration between concepts of beauty and irony, order and chaos, and a basic questioning of what constitutes the conditions by which we understand and accept art as a consequence of our lives – but not apart from them. This turn to the social in Veneracion gathered plaudits from such socially-minded critics as Alice Guillermo, while still managing to address himself to the audience who, in the end, decides which art to acquire – a balancing act made possible by his syncretic action.

    We see this in works like “El Tango Final Antes del Diluvio,” an installation that comments on the dire consequences of global warming, with its imagery of flooded cities and technology combined with a dancing couple, a shocking but real attitude among people recalling the devil-may-care attitude of Nero as he played while Rome burned (he played a hapr; the violin won’t be invented until the 16th century). In “Crimson Silk,” we see a deliberate contrast between high and pop art, when red and white abstract gestures that pour from above are transformed into black curved ethnic-like patterns, finally resolving into a monochrome image of Rita Hayworth.

The tongue-in-cheek aesthetic commentary regarding art and sex continues with “Antonio’s Mondrian,” in which a black lace panty hangs in a clothesline over a parody of Piet Mondrian’s red grid paintings, which seem to point toward the parodic clichés concerning Spanish (and Filipino) machismo, and their obvious weakness for the opposite sex. “Arabian Dancer,” seemingly rounding off the set, contrasts a painted depiction of a belly dancer on the top, wriggling in a blue field, while the blue eventually drips into what looks like acid rain, falling on a Mickey Mouse cartoon strip underneath.

 These dense historical and social allusions (they can also be read as commentary against Western culture, or a sex games in which women seem to be the animator) found in Veneracion’swork continue in dozens of smaller works that are hung at various parts of the gallery, in effect creating a miniature solo exhibition within a grouped show. Indeed, taken as a whole, Veneracion’s work dominates this assembly of peers, and shows the diversity, and the possibilities of change, that is still possible in this group (averaging in their late fifties) of senior “abstract” practitioners.


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The National Museum Visual Arts Collection


“…Some of the most striking paintings reflecting the temper of the times came from a former abstractionist, Roy Veneracion. In unusual and visually arresting works, such as ‘Panaginip and Pangarap (Ika-12 Pangitain ni Juan),” the artist deals with the end of the Marcos rule and reveals an accomplished figurative style. Deviating from the traditional illustrative approach to history painting, the works are surrealist, combining recognizable public figures with symbols such as monster robot signifying militarism and a beautiful nude woman symbolizing Filipinas who is sometimes shown contemplating her identity in a mirror and who is ever in danger of being ravaged by malignant forces. Within the visual field, the artist brings together the ‘amatis personae’ of that historical conjuncture: Marcos and Imelda, Cardianl Sin, the Generals, the widow Corazon, and the Filipino family, as well as references to the United States in the Stars and Stripes alongside the Filipino flag. The figures in themselves are not realistic but are recognized by their salient features, some of them, too, are disguised in symbolic form. The superb handling of values creates a dreamlike, mesmerizing atmosphere, and the figures appear as though they were acting out their parts on a stage. This work brings out hidden potentials in the category of historical painting.

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One of the most striking paintings in “Piglas” is that of Roy Veneracion entitled "Paulit-ulit ang mga pangyayari noong Pebrero sa gunita ni Ferdinand samantalang siya’y hele-hele sa awiting Dahil sa Iyo", in oil on acrylic in enamel. The colors, while vivid and in unusual combinations, do not have a decorative effect, but instead have the intensity of a dream or a lingering after-image that haunts the mind. The scarlet and golden hues mold the figures and lend them an unusual expressiveness. Its surrealism lies in its theatrical quality – the scene of Imelda singing to the crowd below with Marcos seated and watching – is like a stage for a lurid melodrama. But this time, Filipinas, the beautiful muse draped in the flag, is held captive by a familiar heavy square-jawed figure in the military attire. In Ferdinand’s dream, there are historical resonances: the Imelda form is sleekly dressed in a costume of the Thirties, while the work itself simulates a gilded antique frame broken in parts, It is not only Ferdinand and Imelda, it is also Peron and Eva, and the other conjugal dictatorship and fascist regimes of this century.

- Alice Guillermo

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Worthy of Veneracion (Art Style Today)


Roy Veneracion …has taken a rather oblique approach, switching between pure abstraction and unabashed figuration or, as often, merging the two idioms, with results that invite polarizing opinions. Veneracion himself has been directly reproached for this duality of artmaking. The artist recalls being admonished – but gently, of course – by at least two influential critics, namely, the late Leonides Benesa and Alice Guillermo, both of whom preferred that the artist focus his energies on figuration.

Guillermo has been most impressed by Veneracion’s figurative works, writing, for instance: “The human figures have a vividness of form and color, striking in expressing qualities, and the work as a whole shows that Veneracion’s artistic talent in figurative art of sociopolitical meaning should not be lost but should rather be pursued and developed to the full, for it is here, and not so much in his textural abstracts, that he will make his lasting mark on the country’s art scene.”

Still another of Guillermo’s essays for the National Museum Visual Arts Collection brought more pressure on Veneracion to cast his lot on figuration: “Some of the most striking paintings reflecting the temper of the times came from a former abstractionist, Roy Veneracion.” Has Guillermo already decided that Veneracion will never do another abstraction?

As a cardinal rule, critics must never set directions for artists, though it is their human failing to point out passages that they perceive to be a dead-end. This failing, to my mind, throws the entire artmaking process out of whack. But as sometimes happens, this strategy of consultation may result in felicitous ends. Just to cite an example: Andy Warhol, desperate for a subject to paint, sought the advice of his dealer, who then asked the artist what it was that he desired most in the world. Warhol’s quick response was: Money! And that’s how Warhol painted his photo screen series of American dollar bills.

Actually, the problem does not reside in an artist’s ability to work in both figurative and abstract idioms. The problem occurs when one becomes merely an artifice and a conceit of the other. The resultant works endure the failure of a disharmonious whole. This makes one wonder: could there not be a happy juxtaposition – where the figure is not merely a truncated subject, and the abstract passages not to be dismissed as a superfluous brushwork.

In two successive shows at the Mag:net Gallery and the Galeria Duemila, Veneracion shows ample proof that he has successfully merged a human image and abstraction. In the sweet communion of a dreamy, enigmatic narrative, the artist constructed a harmonic blending of floating images, much like flashes of intuition, in the manner of, say, the great American artist Jasper Johns, whose works (in particular, the crosshatching paintings) incorporated such mystifying images as skulls and insects. Complex relations (which must be fathomed intuitively or analytically) occur in such works, and as in the works of Veneracion, the choice of iconography is always personal, its emotional signification sometimes known only to the artist.

Veneracion claims to harness dream images, thought reflections, philosophical puzzles, existential riddles, memory impressions, musical passage and weather changes – quite a battery of aesthetic stimuli. Many of his works validate these contemplative acts. ‘Mang Juan’ and ‘Vincent’, for instance, are dream portraits of two revered artists, surely inspiring lodestars for any aspiring Filipino artist. The great Luna is shown seated with a brush and palette in hand, frame in the background. A goat grazes in a pasture of thickly brushed acrylic pigment, any section of which could pass for an abstract painting. The Van Gogh portrait is a figuration from the tragic painter’s self-portrait, with subtle appropriations from the bowl shape of those famous sunflowers. What predominates, however, are the counterbalancing brushstrokes that flay the pictorial space with smears and dripping splatters of watery acrylics.

An easy give-and-take of figurative and abstract presence creates a heterogeneous resolution in the works ‘Sleeping Nude’ and ‘Logical Conclusion,’ where a womanly figure lies recumbent. The shapely figure is a free-floating image undefiled by a formidable display of abstract elements whirling about her.

I found the many abstract works of Veneracion, many on view at the Galeria Duemila, more dynamic in their unpredictability – in terms of conception, composition and execution.

Perhaps these are the works executed outdoors. The very titles and chromatic treatment betray the intensities of space, the sky and the seasons. Connotative of light, wind and weather are titles such as Red Zone, Yellow Over Gray, Under the Blue Sky in Bright Sunlight, Summer Solstice and Zazen at Noon.

What distinguishing characteristics unify these works into a cohesive vision for the artist? The works grow by an accretion of spatial and surface attacks. Veneracion has a predilection for dividing space into geometric areas. Some of the works are done in diptychs and triptychs. There are freely deployed squares and rectangles that turn into color-bearing vessels. But the real ballast of Veneracion’s art would be the imaginative methods by which the artist enlivens the canvas surface: the dripping of water-thin pigment against an atmospheric ground, the evocative scratches, slashes and emblematic markings, the assertive overlayering and erasures. Veneracion keeps his paintings always in a state of upheaval.

The manner of composition and design is eccentric and idiosyncratic and, in some works, deliberately provocative in their seeming disjointedness and dislocation. Nothing validates this observation more than a comment made by another artist (something shared with us by Veneracion himself) that the works look as if they had been assembled from different parts of various paintings.

Indeed, this conundrum, or puzzle, lies at the very heart of Veneracion’s art. Herein, most likely, is the source of his strength. To wonder whether Veneracion should give up abstraction for figuration seems, to me, surprisingly irrelevant.

- Cid Reyes

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Exorcising the Demons of Art

One of the undisputed doyens of modern abstract art in the country, Roy Veneracion literally goes to town with the most disarming use of color in a show of his latest works at the newest gallery in town (mag:net +, until Oct. 12).

While other abstractionists of his generation have predictably gone minimalist or unabashedly expressionist, Veneracion, the ever-fervid colorist par excellence, has chosen to let loose a torrent of tones and colors that, by their very essence, are of the neutral or neutralizing variety. It is most presumably the artist’s way of expressing his current preoccupation with the intuitive power of memory and the subconscious state where dreams lurk and chaos spells order.

But that is barely scratching the surface of Veneracion’s oeuvre, which explores his continuing fascination with dreams and lifelong practice of dream analysis. The process of introspective has allowed him to delve deeper into the multiple levels of meaning and the dissonance of imagery in the postmodern world. Thus, his canvases are indeed far richer and more resonant than what they initially and randomly signify, and the viewer is correspondingly admonished to spend equal quality time ruminating on his creations, which teem with anecdotes and impressions, not to mention dreams and nightmares.

Veneracion has himself led an equally colorful life in the arts, having witnessed the evolution of abstract expressionism from the ‘60s, when as a gifted prodigy of the late Dean Jose Joya of UP, he initially ventured into the spontaneous and highly gestural approaches characteristic of the New York School. Later, in the turbulent decade of the ‘70s, he likewise trod the path of social realism, through not of the hardcore variety like Pablo Baens Santos, Renato Habulan, and Antipas Delotavo, as his works explored the spiritual realm in yoga and Zen Buddhism.

His art-making took an unpredictably new turn at the fall of the conjugal dictatorship and the ascendancy of a new political order, infusing a newfound sense of artistic freedom that found fruition in increasingly surreal and markedly apocalyptic works. Thus, we can see in his current exhibit a merging of two opposing elements – the formal and the casual, the conscious and the subconscious, the classical merging with pop imagery – even the strictly personal attempting to cast light on the formidable shadows of art and history.

Take the work “Mang Juan,” for example, where he cleverly transposed Hollywood Hills in Los Angeles in his wild imagining as being a place of the entertainment capital, which he visited last year in the course of his visit to California. Here, we see in the center the image of Juan Luna with brush and palette in hand, as if gazing from the hills to the viewer. Curiously, Veneracion added the image of a goat, which he claims is a fixture in his new home in the Antipolo hills, both the artist and the beast as itinerant characters plucked from his personal history.

In the other piece “Vincent,” we see the famous face of Van Gogh, amid a sea of wildly scrawling patches of line and color. It is presumably his own tribute to a master whom he deeply admires and whose own madness must have been the primal source of his legendary genius.

The reclining nude – that of the female, of course – is another recurring image of the artists in his show. In “Logical Conclusion,” this image is the only clearly figurative as all else is clearly abstract in form and spirit. It signifies the one muse that artists ultimately seek and desperately desire, an image that must be rendered in a representational manner, perhaps the logical end he refers to the title.

Veneracion’s other works become more uncompromisingly abstract in “None Entirely Definable” and “Issue of Black and White Internalized,” as well as in “Summer Solstice 2.” In the first, a diptych of sorts, he simply mesmerizes the viewer with his palette, the overlapping hues that evoke a peculiar mood. In the latter, he show us what dreams can be like in a totally seductive interplay of media, colors and imagery.

Veneracion has, in his show, embarked on a voyage through time and space that has made him reexamine his artistic roots, indeed the artist’s own way of exorcising the demons of art and artmaking that have continued to haunt him.

- Gino Dormiendo

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