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.