BY CID REYES
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