Sunday, October 24, 2010

Sacrae Particulae Ex Nihilo: The Inspired Visions of Gromyko Semper

Going across a gallery full of Gromyko Semper ink/watercolor paintings and drawings (with his few oils) can be likened to listening to early Uriah Heep or some such old progressive rock music with all that typical fantastic abandon and iconoclastic humor. But, for now, we can’t be sure if Semper is merely an intelligent humorist, a happy/hermetic fantasist or a serious iconoclast.
    In his first major solo show after so many group shows, Semper falls for the title The Minotaur’s Recompense (opening October 23, 6pm, at the Kulay-Diwa Gallery of Philippine Contemporary Art, Parañaque City). Sure, the show title is a tribute to The Soothsayer’s Recompense by Giorgio de Chirico, one of the stalwarts of proto-Surrealism. But the title betrays a Semperian love/hate relationship with mythology which is precisely what the anatomy of iconoclasm consists of. For iconoclasm, whether in imagery or the literary field, is actually a mission to supplant an existing religious hegemony for the facility of presenting alternative cosmic attachments. And so iconoclasm, while being a war effort, is also a display of that love/hate relationship with mythology. So, bearing that in mind, Semper—as a young Filipino exemplar in neosurrealism or visionary art—cannot be simplified as a mere parody artist with an abominable patience for imagery details but is in fact a religious mythologist himself. For, never forget, visionary art is its own mythology already. Like the old dada art and original surrealism, the new surrealism is an old/new drugs that worships a Zen koan-like heaven, really a simple absinthe-afternoon heaven of complex juxtapositions.

The Minotaur's Recompense

Semper As Per Iconoclasm
We’re not talking about the iconoclasm of destruction, of course, but the one more suited to our time and the artist’s profession—and that’s the type that appropriates, twists, and finally destroys the icon by emulating the snake that eats another snake to make that eaten snake this living renewed snake outside.
    Semper’s pieces aren’t lovely as someone’s hare’s portrait, that’s obvious, but are snake-like in their charm. They actually appropriate religious and other humanist mythologies via their iconographic imagery and instantly parody (or generously twist) these. And the way Semper parodies ‘em all! He actually enters the art of iconography, goes through the religiosity of ceremonious patience in creating details, as if he were one of those craftsmen called by the mughal to decorate the Taj tiles or by the Jesuits to Mexicanize Santa Maria Tonantzintla Church’s ceiling.
    And this is precisely where a Semper can go beyond being merely charming and become quite a delight. Because you religiously go through the details with the artist, examine with him each Breughelian serpentization of a scepter, each demonization of an immaculate virgin to expose her false demigoddess-ness in a gallery collective of false demigod-ness. And here is our signal to ask: Is Semper’s imagery a product of some heavy metal pseudo-Satanism or of a serious Hieronymus Bosch-ness (were Bosch a Reformationist)?
    The answer to this question will vary, of course, from gallery visitor to another, from critic to critic. For each Semper piece is a potential conversation piece, provoking conversations which can snake their way into historical alluding, quoting, complicit denigrating as well as faithful defending. And that can only be so because in all their Albrecht Durer-like complexity, Semper’s detailed ink composites are in effect war sermons of disgust with the human history of religious iconographic lies and semi-lies.

Baroque Sempernoza
But forget for the moment that Semper was the first Filipino to be invited to participate in Keith Wigdor’s (and the International Surrealist Movement in the 21st Century’s) international Surrealism Now exhibit in Coimbra, Portugal. Or that before he went there in May of this year he co-edited with Héctor Pineda the book Imagine the Imagination: New Visions of Surrealism, published in Poland in 2009 by nEgoist Sp.z.o.o., with him writing the Introduction to the book. And of course he was one of the artists included in that anthology, joining a select 100 international surrealist/visionary artists, famous and unknown, working in the genre today.
    Now the question might be asked: why would anyone in this religious country given to baroque Marian art be attracted to invest in a Semper of a seemingly new Filipino Enlightenment? Why would local galleries even be enthused to have him? Well, perhaps that’s the point. If Jose Saramago wasn’t Portuguese, his literary iconoclasm wouldn’t mean anything, would it? Yet, in the Catholic city of Lisboa, Saramago’s “anti-Christian” books had been commercial successes, the earlier one helped perhaps by his exile, the latter helped by the media focus on the Nobel Laureate’s newfound notoriety.
    A Catholic country is the perfect, nay the logical, market/audience for new anti-religious or anti-humanist iconoclasm. Sempers can actually decorate a restaurant’s corners, emitting both decorative values as well as intelligent informed symbologies among dining historians, semioticians, and some such group of Filipino intellectuals.
    So,…I mentioned heavy metal sensibilities (sans the airbrush) as well as intellectual freethinking ones. But beyond those circles and the esthetic formalist, is there another audience for Semper’s Voltairean titles? Oh yes, of course—there’s the J.R.R. Tolkien fan, the literary fan of archaic myths, as well as the ardent admirer of craftsmen’s patience. And, lastly, the investor in difficult craft who may care little for the fact that not all complex craftsmanship is intelligent art.

Semper Fidelis
That’s our signal. Now let’s examine Semper’s intelligence beyond the craft.
    In his fidelity to details as well as to the exactitude of his titles, all in the hope perhaps of arriving at Umberto Eco’s “closed text” level for a more universal reading, Semper’s pieces are not simple book-illustration material however. While Our Lady of Perpetual Abandon is classic transparent parody, for instance, Eulogy to Melancholy (Whose Tormentors Appear Before Pleroma) is a semiotic field that could allude to as many significances as one can muster—one of which could allude to Napoleonic self-crownings sanctioned by divine authority. Paracelsus Preparing the Sacrae Particulae Ex Nihilo, meanwhile, could be an homage to the Renaissance alchemist’s magic, as if Paracelsus is one of surrealist/visionary art’s inspirers. And while Hecate, Anubis, Consus may be deemed a subtle bow to Hieronymus Bosch panel paintings qua literary narrative-cum-satire, only this time using Roman gods instead of Christian ones, The Hermetic Fool might be read as both a sneer and a tribute portrait. And while The Vessel of Balaam goes beyond parody to wax loud mockery, Circe’s Ventriloquy skips loud parody to subtly portray a heroine/villain as a good/evil motherly lady with leprous hands.
    So, there you are. It’s not as though the sacrae particulae of Semper-headedness came ex nihilo. And that intentionality is precisely what separates this new surrealism from good ol’ automatist surrealism. [V]

Our Lady of Perpetual Abandon

A Eulogy to Melancholy (Whose Tormentors Appear Before the Presence of Pleroma)

Paracelsus Preparing the Sacrae Particulae Ex Nihilo

Hecate, Anubis, Consus (Novus Ordo Mundi: Bestiality)

The Hermetic Fool

The Vessel of Balaam

Circe’s Ventriloquy

All seven drawing-paintings are 12 x 18 in., in watercolor on paper board


My personal take on Gromyko Semper’s The Minotaur’s Recompense:

It is easy to dismiss Gromyko Semper's The Minotaur's Recompense as just another craftsman's artisanal ink rendering of an archaic literary or political myth. A second look, however, would remind one of Picasso's variations on the Minotaur as symbol of the pampered figure of a civilization (in his earlier etchings) as well as the expressionless witness of civilizations' carnages (as in his Guernica mural).

    For his own Minotaur painting, Semper uses a title that would allude more to Giorgio de Chirico's The Soothsayer's Recompense, which was essentially a painting about Ariadne left by Theseus in the Minotaur's Labyrinth.
    Consider the possibility that de Chirico's painting is as political as Guernica and was probably an allusion (prophetic, too, having been painted in 1913) to men's wars (World War I started in 1914) where women's sacrifices get the recompense of the loot. After being left by Theseus on the island of Naxos in the slain Minotaur’s Labyrinth, Ariadne marries the god of feasts and luxury, Dionysus. Dionysus and the new lair were therefore Ariadne’s recompense for aiding Theseus in the latter's quest to murder the Minotaur. In de Chirico's painting, it would seem that Theseus boarded a train (in the background) for, say, Germany and left Ariadne for Dionysus to pick up.
    In Semper's version, however, it's the Minotaur who is compensated. But here the puzzle begins. Visually the ink painting is already quite a puzzle, literally puzzling as well as referentially. Referentially, is the figure above the lying Minotaur the figure of Theseus, or is it the Minotaur's own double? Are Theseus and the Minotaur one? Did Theseus, in this painting, end up as the Minotaur's lover? Is the figure above holding a weapon or a lollipop? If that's not Theseus, is it Dionysus? Is it Ariadne, who in this gay-baiting suspicious question may be deemed as "really a man"?
    Contextually, a symbolic question would be: if in Semper's mythology it's the Minotaur who won, and his recompense becomes Theseus or Dionysus or Ariadne, what political allusion—if any—is Semper pushing? If the Minotaur is as much a symbol of an evil ruler luxuriant in his Labyrinth as of religiosity (as in Guernica, worshipped by the figure of a genuflecting woman), who is Semper referencing? Your guess is as good as mine, but one thing for sure: this is no baroque interpretation of religious figures but a rococo playfulness which could be a product of either a savage artistic irreverence or serious iconoclastic anger. Take a hint from the Sun in the background, who either has his tongue or a whistle dangling from his mouth.
    This is no simple illustration. For it would seem that Semper is open to a further twisting of this, his own twisting upon Picasso’s and de Chirico’s twisting of a perpetually twistable theme. [END]

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

In The Age of Hotel Minstrels

For inspiration
I open windows
Like magazines
I must construct
The ballad
Of the Esplanade
And end up
Being the minstrel
Of my hotel

But there’s no
Poetry in hotels
Even though
They’re Grand Hotels
Or Esplanades

There’s poetry
In hibiscus
In the hummingbird
In the traitor
In the elevator

Who knows what
If some day
The elevator
Would bring
Your love
Up here

—from the “Balada do Hotel Esplanada” segment (translated from the
Portuguese by Thomas Colchie) of
Mémorias sentimentais do João Miramar
by Oswald de Andrade

╬ ╬ ╬

EMIR RODRIGUEZ MONEGAL called Manuel Bandeira the John the Baptist of Brazilian modernism and Oswald de Andrade its Messiah. One could also say Mario de Andrade and Oswald were its Peter and Paul; but no relation to Mario, it was Oswald who spurred Brazilian modernism on into the forefront, to form a wave that also brought to shore such icons of Brazilian literature as Cassiano Ricardo, Jorge de Lima, Carlos Drummond de Andrade and João Guimarães Rosa. But, soon, Oswald felt something inside him, deep in his soul, hurting from the changes in his country’s government. So, while Bandeira, Mario de Andrade and Drummond de Andrade stormed forward into the limits of modernist aggression and consequent chest-beating like Pope Damasuses during a burgeoning religious enterprise with the aristocracy, Oswald took a different turn of his head towards the plight of the masses. He felt the sublime there instead of in the modernist here, producing as a consequence the landmark “modernist but anti-modernist” novel Serafim Ponte Grande. Sadly, he later forgot about the necessities of transferring the sublime in his heart onto his Marxist lectures, so that he became boring with social-realist novels and essays stale as entries on library index cards.

╬ ╬ ╬

YESTERDAY ON FACEBOOK I saw the painter Marcel Antonio, an expressionist rebel favoring the restraint and melancholic introspection of Raphael, joking around with the budding new artist he—Antonio—is pushing, Gromyko Semper. They were partying over a 2007 Semper montage and parrying semiotic non-significances.

For significance seems to be a non-joke to Semper. On several Facebook discussions, he comes on like an Oswald de Andrade who has dismissed the emptiness of modernist (and even postmodernist) jargon in favor of a more heartfelt theater of intended visual critiques with his art. Like Oswald, Semper seems often to insist on the primacy of his intentions over and above the mirror-gazing habits of modernist and postmodernist classifiers and self-classifiers more interested in their High Art than in a higher Mission.

Antonio, meanwhile, regards the modernist field as an open seedbed for never-ending semiosis, where all levels of meaning can be hunted to please the Mick Jagger-inspired wealthy pop culture that can’t get no satisfaction, aware though he is of Semper’s Derridean hunger for primitive “sublimation”.

I felt I had to crash this party.

╬ ╬ ╬

GROMYKO SEMPER: circa 2007

Marcel Antonio: “Society is dead,” says Sartre. An abundance of desituationisms concerning Lacanian otherness may be discovered. Thus, if sub-capitalist transitivity holds, the works of Gromyko are modernistic. A number of materialisms concerning a mythopoetical totality exist.

Therefore, the characteristic theme of the works of Gromyko is the role of the artist as reader. Parry states that we have to choose between socialist realism and cultural narrative. But Derrida promotes the use of pre-semanticist sublimation to deconstruct privilege. :D

GS: i dont deny the “modernistic flesh of my works”. however, just as a wolf can dress in lambs’ clothes so can i “deconstruct” imagery, albeit only to symbolically infuse it from its detachments to its purpose, thereby metaphysically reconstructing it to serve its purpose … and i do not like derrida's obscurantism; in fact, the semi-dadaist contextualities of his works are opposite the alternative “modernism” i choose to offer. . . .

MA: Lighten up, dude. Why so serious?

You actually believed there was something sensible in that gibberish nonsense I wrote above? That came from my Ipad, an application called Pomo, a random postmodern ek-ek generator, hahaha! :D

GS: gotcha, i was also using a new program called the anti-postmodern generator generator to be able to respond … hahahahahaha

MA: Hey, Jo! Come out, come out, wherever you are, let's have a funny discussion on this one … :D

Myko, not really kidding; I thought that was a good rebuttal on your part. :D

GS: oh, i forgot that the anti-ek-ek postmodern generator generator is actually implanted in me, so i guess i have to accept the compliments. :-)

MA: Hahaha! :D

GS: there you go, a lively laugh from mr. antonio … i will be uploading the drawing I was telling you about later this noon, by the way. :-)

MA: Dapat lang. Now go play with yourself, I mean, your thoughts. Wala pa si pareng Jo to humor us with Art's gratuitous complexities! :D

(At this point, I was already sharpening my keyboard, ready to crash the virtual terrazzo)

Me: Hey there, you two.

All right, here's my take on it. But first, my prosaic attitude that favors verbosity says: it is possible to take meanings from academic jargon and bring ‘em out into the world and the streets and such blogs as mine that pretends to talk to the nouveau riche, even if only through the not-so-popular language of Harper's or Tik-Tik's horoscope page in English. So, here goes my verbose celebration of modernist jargon:

Despite your claims, I think that work above is mere Pop art, even though by “mere” I mean “wow”. That’s Jim Morrison leaning on the models of DKNY, CK or Penshoppe, right? Heaving towards Peter Saul’s belief in the failure of expressionism to shock but laughing about it, and towards Catholic iconography taunting Greek Orthodoxy for more Byzantine iconoclasm. And that last via a Gutenbergian woodcut or lithograph.

So, Pop art! Especially since it’s a montage.

But wait! Pop art was actually anti-modernist, a vision to ride the most modernist imagery and use it for poetry, kinda like Tarantino using a pre-murder and murder genre sequence to write an ode to both the hamburger and God.

In short, wow.

GS: with classification schema informed on me by talking books out of a not-so-harry-potterish second-hand library of mine, pop/popular art is a gratuitous glorification of societal commercialism/the modern way of idealized life/the american life/mercantile pro-capitalist artisans’ artifacts elevated into a status of art by its warholian assholes. . . . so deriving from this academic jargon one could easily conclude that the piece above by gromyko, which is myself, . . . I wonder, for it does not even tend to glorify any cultural modernism … with irony as weapon for sarcastic conglomeration, the above work attacks societal conditions, relating both sexual perversion and religion into the sphere of human folly via a metaphysical theatre … and pop art is pro modernist, my friend, since it just reconfigures photorealistic imagery into a fatalistic sterile end, in contrast with the symbolic/visionary art spheres of the past generations … but I’ll take the wow first and also the hamburger, to feed my ego and stomach. :-)

MA: Jo: ‘Pop art was actually anti-modernist, a vision to ride the most modernist imagery and use it for poetry’.

Myko: ‘… pop art is pro-modernist … since it just reconfigures photorealistic imagery into a fatalistic sterile end, in contrast to the symbolic/visionary art spheres of the past generations’.

You know what the wise fool said ‘bout jokes being said in half jest?


Me: Well, classification is not exclusive to students of modernism and art historiography, everyone’s a slave of classification. In fact the use of words is the taking advantage of the magic of classification.

It is not so much the words that are to blame for any misunderstanding or under-understanding of their referencing, it is very much the reader of the words that would be at fault. For instance, the word “poverty” would be nothing more than a stale representation of a human condition, that one who has experienced it would have an emotional (one could say full) understanding of the reference, an understanding which would fall short on one who has merely learned the concept from stories told to him by his Dad over cappuccino in the Riviera. And so, a description of artistic activities and intents as either modernist or anti-modernist would have to be approached the same way the word “poverty” is approached.

Now, my understanding of the Warholian intent was one of mimicry or parody of the “commercial glorification” of industrial objects, an intent I can relate to emotionally, being a child of the age of consumerism and the star system, or, as Oswald de Andrade would put it—the age of hotels. It is the age as well of mass-produced irony. In the books Pop Art: A Continuing History (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1990) and Gardner’s Art Through the Ages (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1980), the authors intimate how Pop confiscates materials from their mass context and isolates them Duchamp-like, combining these imagery furthermore with other objects (say, in Jasper Johns fashion, a Catholic lithograph from the 19th century), all for the purpose of gallery contemplation. Richard Hamilton’s and Roy Lichtenstein's Pop art were another thing altogether, appropriating the stale imprint for poetic or theatrical ends, like yours. Their works, too, by themselves, were acts that peddled irony, sarcasm, and social criticality. And so Pop art, at least by Lichtenstein and Hamilton (and I'd include Peter Saul), was both modernist (for veering away from traditional representation) and anti-modernist (for making sure the art didn't celebrate itself). Warhol’s case was more complex, it was ultra-modernist for making itself as much the subject (bigger than Art itself) as the subjecter; but we might remember that Warhol, too, wanted this I’m-newer-than-you modernist chest-beating to be likewise a corollary subject of his ironies, which would then make him anti-modernist. In fact, that claim—to being a king of parody—makes him a post-modernist, which is just another way of saying “a modernist who parodies his own modernism”. And, so, even Warhol’s classification-crazy and art history-quoting ego was anti-modernist.

Still and all, whatever we say here and no matter what the intentions are, the emotions of the artist and the art are either present or absent according to how the reader approaches the words describing those emotions, classified like the words “hatred”, “anger”, “ennui” and so on, which we can either relate to or not.

So my conclusion is this: all works of art are therefore anti-modernist when they are felt, simply bibliotically classified as mere chest-beaters when they're not. The structuralists and post-structuralists were right, it is always up to the reader of the text more than to the text itself, for the text-maker produceth nothing without the text-reader/feeler, in the same way that a knife does not really wound when it drives into a dead corpse.

Thankfully, your work above, Mr. Semper, under whatever category an encyclopedia would place it, wounds. And that is what I meant by waking up to it with the wound-rhyming word wow.

GS: (retreating somewhat from his Oswald de Andrade-like disgust, tired perhaps) my dear poet de veyra, marcel opened my fourth eye to this interpretative passivity, and i like to say thank you for clarifying it ever more … i enjoyed the slapping of words. . . .

MA: ‎Elegant, Jo, and—as always—things are in their proper logical place.

(He pauses, then poses, pretending to be a teacher with a monocle, Dali-fashion, propping up a backboard and some colored chalks)

Oh yes, I think Myko gets your drift, sir. For instance, Myko paints an apple and perhaps intended to himself that the image shall symbolize something, say the universal idea of Temptation; but Jojo reads the image otherwise, being the viewer and the final arbiter of the image (he writes the word “final” on the board, so hard that the chalk breaks), and so he comes to the conclusion that the globby marks of marvelous reddish pigment playing on the surface of the canvas(text) and not Myko’s intented meaning(author), is making an impression of looking like a nourishing fruit, but isn't really. So Jojo begins to question the choice of red, and the manner of the strokes, and the exclusion/inclusion of “other” pictorial elements in relation to the flatness of the canvas. He does not entirely dismiss Myko’s self-serving title “Temptation”, but begins to question even the title’s significance to what is already present, or absent, in the work and in the genealogy of painting in general.

In other words, a misreading on Jojo’s part, but certainly not a false one (he writes the word “not” on the board, making a chalk-screech sound and a chalk-breaking one). Once Myko’s apple painting, which he originally intended to symbolize a central or universal idea of Temptation, leaves the safety of his studio, the painter’s intent dies (Barthes’ famous “death of the author” adage) and the painting ceases to be his idea alone; it is now in fact at the mercy of and opening itself to differing interpretations from both his clamoring fans and disdainful critics. :D

Magritte has already demonstrated this ages-old structuralist idea with his Ceci n’est pas une pipe painting. ‘Nuff said. :D

╬ ╬ ╬

BUT IN FACT MA digresses to a truism---one that we suspect Myko already knows---and is likely just shy about it, refusing thus to go back to his Pomo opener: “Thus, if sub-capitalist transitivity holds, the works of Gromyko are modernistic.”

MA is shy about it and allows me to finish for him, thusly:

“Derrida promotes the use of pre-semanticist sublimation to deconstruct privilege”: Marxist for questioning privilege, but not so for promoting the sublime. Well, that’s interesting because Oswald could have used the Derridean lesson. For in promoting everything Marxist and anti-bourgeois while throwing everything materialistically modern and anti-bourgeois, Oswald lost the bourgeois necessity of art, the sublime luxury of visions operating like absinthe. Thus he became boring.

GS is wary of that state. Even while knowing his works will be peddled by his sponsor MA for display at Valle Verde parties, banks’ foyers, and hotel promenades, he insists that he shall parry the Warholian image easily classifiable as an index card entry.

MA and I are here to comfort the guy. The reader’s problem is to know the richness within words such as “poverty”, I say, while the artist’s duty is merely to pursue becoming a minstrel of the hotels, bringing love up their elevators, regardless of what happens to his windows being peddled like magazines. [END]

Gromyko Semper
Paracyclopean Mother and child in an interior inspired by Metsu
Acrylic, oil, tempera and ink on canvas, 2010, 24"x30"

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Golf, a synecdoche of the land reform problematic

THAT tiny picture up there is a shot of the Hacienda Luisita Golf and Country Club, of course, but let's begin our story with a smaller symbol: Jun Lozada. Jun Lozada was hero of the year in 2008, hero qua symbol of penitence and reversed loyalty. He became the new Saint Paul the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines refused to champion during the Senate hearing on the NBN-ZTE scandal (which Gloria Arroyo's Department of Justice and appointed Ombudsman seemed to have wanted to turn into a hearing on Lozada's heresy in their turf instead). Luckily, the Jesuits of Ateneo de Manila University (or Ateneo de Manila, which is most likely its correct appellation) and the La Sallians of De La Salle University were there to protect Lozada's newfound saintliness.
     One thing we are forgetting, however, is the other Jun Lozada, the Jun Lozada who loved to play golf and live the high life. We saw in the bright camera lights Jun Lozada the truth-teller, the one who couldn't tell a lie, the dude who loved Jose Rizal. Today, we lay aside the fact that he was a penitent precisely because he used to be one of the privileged guys, raking in funds here and there for perks unbeknownst to you and me. He played golf and ate expensive "hamborjer" at that Wack Wack Golf and Country Club for the ones with wang-wanged SUVs. To dismiss this Lozadian facet is to dismiss Saint Paul's past and merely look at the saint as that brave expansionist for the Jesus club. To dismiss such facets is to forget to share Paul's and Lozada's repudiation of their respective pasts. To dismiss those is to dismiss that other significance.

NOW, I've seen great golfers and golf teachers talk on TV and I must say I have nothing but great admiration for their lot and the sport as a sport, especially for the men and women who've played those entertaining historic games on the sports cable channels. I've seen a Travel Channel take on the Scottish hills, on the origin of the sport, and can understand the game's relationship with the landscape (the Scottish landscape).
     However, there is something that Karl Marx taught everybody, and I mean everybody (in the same manner Che Guevara's One Latin-Am-ism or Guevarism taught everybody something, including the Interpol). I don't just mean the Marxist virtue of having a social security system or Government Service Insurance System or the Marxist entertainment to be derived from looking at the politics behind the production of an artwork. The Marxist lesson I'm talking about proclaims that in everything is politics, or, conversely stated, that there's politics in everything.
     And so, golf as a necessarily political presence in our pop culture must likewise be read as having a symbolic/semiotic value, and I mean a value within our polity (as against an intrinsic value independent of its surround which, in Marxist criticism, is a deny-er's cop-out). It is by this prompting that I must say golf as such, as a necessary semiotic signifier, deserves a second serious look beyond the analyses of ESPN. Never mind that Golf is often denigrated to mean "game off limits to females", since, apart from being untrue, there are today arguably more female golf athletes representing Asian women in the major circuit than there are men. Jennifer Rosales and Dorothy Delasin are familiar Filipina names in the LPGA, whereas a Filipino has yet to achieve a PGA championship.
     And never mind that in subcultural rock music society golf is frowned upon as a Republican game, nearly throwing eggs at Hootie and the Blowfish in the '90s and only forgiving the elderly Neil Young for being elderly.
     I'd like to encourage an independent assessment of the game's context today, in the Philippine setting, an assessment that is ideally non-partisan. And though I know there's been some opposition to golf in many countries including non-tropical ones like France and Japan and Scandinavia, I'd still be happy with having a look at how golf may represent a semiotic something, as it were, in the Philippine body politic worthy of our opposition to it as citizens living in the armpit regions.
     First, one of the basic complaints against the golfing sport derives from environmental activism, concerning water supply usage for the hectares of must-be-green-grass. And although this has always been promptly countered by many an articulate golf course owner by referring investigating reporters to a well or mini-reservoir built within the course for its own use, still the water table supply must be spread democratically, and so on and so forth, and that's not even mentioning yet---say the activists---the "organic" dye that goes into the already Strontium 80-laden grass that can't be meant for cows, with the elements in the mixture, too, going into the soil composition as well as the atmosphere, and so on and so forth, oh, I must stop.
     I must stop. I must stop, for I'd much rather have beef against the implication of land usage for golfing purposes per se. It is certainly an implication that completes itself vis a vis the contradictory policies of Philippine governance:

WE are a country rightly or wrongly running a land reform policy, for one, and a human settlements department in government, secondly, tasked to address the squatters and the migration-of-the-homeless problematique. And here we are, flaunting the idea that wide tracts of land, as long as their owners don't declare them as agricultural land, can either delay these properties' usefulness for some future industrial leasing, or otherwise use now for the golfing elite minority's pleasure under the guise of tourism or shoring up the real estate boom. Some will say that by this picture alone golf becomes a symbol of one side of a governance contradiction. For while land reform and the human settlement program are progressivist in intent, tourism and industrialization are a different set of priorities altogether. But I say, we must not stop there; we must move on, to conjecture upon the anatomy of that contradiction as a possible monster produce of sheer Hypocrisy.
     In the Marcos era, much government talk was disseminated against the presence of idle lands, a campaign of course which turned a blind eye to Marcos' fronts and Marcos' Kilusang Bagong Lipunan Party's members and their own teeming tracts of idle property. Hypocrisy in this country does not merely find symbolic amplification in sports, say, the golfing sport. No. For Hypocrisy is the sport.
     Farm estates in the United States are owned by private individuals or private companies instead of Hacienda Luisita-style "corporate" systems with former tenants for new incorporators, and maybe because hypocrisy is not a tradition in American agriculture. On the other hand, we've heard about the many problems posed against Philippine land reform, or Japanese land reform for that matter.
     For example, one claim has it that national agricultural objectives have not been achieved hand in hand with the Philippine land reform plan. The contending argument, on the other hand, goes that agricultural output was never the program's objective to begin with, the umbrella objective being political instead of economic. For surely, if the program is being moved by an economic thrust, then we'd have a problem with the alleged reality that many farmers are not necessarily guaranteed of a better life with land reform, which is a euphemistic way of expressing the dread of an opposite resultant. Unless perhaps the farmer converts his land to more profitable industrial leasing, in which case the land reform program qua agrarian reform would have to be deemed as having lost its purpose, success may yet prove to be elusive. Or would the program really lose its "redistributionary" objective this way? As long as one practices "charity" in his feudalistic heart, it shouldn't matter now what the recipient of one's goodness does with his new property.
     Others argue that land reform as a philosophical direction must be consistent and extend itself as a philosophy into factories and the services industry, for---after all---many families have had several of its generations serving under some same manufacturing dynasty, an ad agency's janitorial division for that matter under some same agency owner's family.
     Should the land reform philosophy extend stock options into this area of what could be a new labor-friendly national GDP?

BUT this is not a piece aiming to instigate a resurgence of debates on the land reform program and philosophy, lest I be mistaken for somebody sounding apologias for the landed. This is, rather (and I hope you'd believe me), a light examination of and/or rumination on the enveloping philosophy 1) of our republic itself and 2) around its regard for land ownership and that ownership's responsibilities, whether involving reformed land or not.
     An individual who owns a thousand hectares of farmland must subdivide it to tenants who have the option---helped by tax money---to buy the little pieces, so they can have their own little grape plantations. Well and good, at least for the utopia. But an individual who owns a thousand hectares of land not used for the production of pectin-rich vegetables can actually still exploit his area as he pleases before the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program catches up with him, and I am reminded of Lucio Tan's long-idle hectares in Quezon City beside homeless squatters.
     Agricultural farms up for land division/distribution. Golf courses. Agricultural production programs. Idle lands. Put two and two together and you have a picture of contradictions, perhaps deriving from a hypocritical lying elite culture, perhaps from a country's non-philosopher-kingship devoid of an integral wisdom that may serve as soul for the never-ending pornography of naked slogans. This non-philosophy has churned a religion of evasiveness, and its gods have been playing golf.

HOWEVER, I would like to say that perhaps the Filipino habit of throwing in the towel might someday swerve to more proactive attitudes of Davidian defiance, especially now that a purportedly social liberal government has been installed.

     Let me start with the "moderate" form of such a defiance. I could, for example, beyond wallowing in disgust, propose a sublimating potential for the golf sport in the tropical setting. I have in mind, for instance, a possible "progressivist" value for golf as a social item, one that will address instead of ignore its Philippine setting wherein a democracy is struggling to empower itself over a long-established plutocracy. I could start with the proposition, and perhaps a new millionaire can be created by my suggestion, that standards for golf course bunkers, roughs and other hazards can be upgraded to include forest trees, ponds containing edible fish, with the fairway areas occupying less acreage than the rocks and weeds, with even a fruit grove or corn area to be placed in, on, and around them. I'm talking about what modern parlance might dub as "extreme golf". Unacceptable, perhaps, to the traditionally conservative crowd that make up golf country club memberships, but then there are always industry companies like Virgin or Pixar or Apple willing to take up the slack of contentment and tried-and-tested business formulas. The new golf course of the future can now begin to look like this forest photo here.
     This new, one might say liberal or progressivist, type of golf might not mind venturing into earth-friendlier and necessarily people-friendlier redesigns of things we've come to accept, inclusive of pricing. Following the examples of Henry Sy, et al., and I don't mean their relationship-with-labor records, "extreme golf" investors can profit from membership volume instead of from a conservative neoliberal marketing of exclusivity. It's about time we cease to behave like fearful loyal subjects to a fearless royal class; let's liberate golf as though this were France in 1799!
     After all, the world has changed. And if we are to learn anything from this new phase---in the same manner that we've learned that centrist governments only tame, while fooling, a people, and that rightist governments that play conservative golf actually merely promote contesting communist and Muslim insurgencies---, it is that the latest world order demands a rehash of our concepts of a Promiseland, one less inspired by trickle-down economics perhaps, lest we wake up one day to find all our neighbors acting like terrorists with clubs, shouting defiance towards our golf clubs.
     But here's the disclaimer. Given our tame general populace's outlook which has long learned courage to fight only the little neighborly fights among themselves, the above grim down-with-Marie-Antoinette's-head picture is pretty unlikely. Golf courses will continue to blossom, agricultural tracts converted under our noses to industrial estates or resorts and subdivisions, and the hypocrisy will give way to a new comfortable utopia of Imeldific investing by the nouveau Imeldas. Fine utopia. Or should I say outbreak of rampant myopia?
     And the masses that will suffer will never know what hurt them, and they'll continue to murder themselves with petty bickerings, unable to protest against those beyond their education's comprehension. Even as many say we've always had a socialist tendency as a people, always expecting government to take care of us and blaming government for our ills, yet our magnificent elite shall continue, yet again, to flaunt a self-centeredness that recognizes the reality of the tamed "socialism" of our people that has been amply uneducated by our educational policies, unable therefore to find the art of war. But this is risky. How long will our children be safe from the surprises of sudden terrorist or criminal recruitment? Might we already have sown the seeds of such a subculture? Are we continuing to farm such a field of seeds? When wealthy Chinese-Filipinos and Spanish mestizos and new Malay-brown billionaires display their privileged delight in a golf course, dismissing Jun Lozada's example of repudiation, will a small-minded waiter who has had the all-too-common racist impression that Chinoys are an anti-labor Kuomintang lot, all millionaires myopic as East India Company, . . . will he plant the ire of a neo-Nazi in his spirit? Would his racism be checked by Chinoys' and mestizos' better presence in Rotary Club medical missions, say, for free breast cancer checkups on municipal grounds?
     Golf. It's going to be a game off limits to Filipinos. And by Filipinos I mean to include the homeless and the squatters and the communists. As well as the political opportunists/climbers. As well as the ordinary men and women of the village or town or city who drink the communal water, slosh in the global-rain puddles, try to understand the word "freedom" in an ever-decreasing ground space for their fenced-out habitation.

     Game off limits to Filipinos. That's what we're playing. And there are still 18 holes to play before trophy day, in case we reach it in this Philippine open.

SO, . . . yeah, well, one could say all the above simply amounts to inciting to rebellion instead of some simple semiotics and free political-cum-social-cum-cultural analysis, but I believe we all must address such issues as this regarding an exclusive sport one day, the same way we are addressing the exclusive private wangwang today, for it also somehow represents the latest glaring conflict of philosophies between today's two contending parties: the ruling Liberal with its supposed new Aquino social liberalism and the rest being one with their supposed conservatism or pseudo-liberalism or pseudo-progressivism. The new liberals' philosophy, it seems, is aimed at calling for a defeat of the things that sow the seeds of terrorism and rebellion and that plant such trees as Jose Maria Sison and Nur Misuari, and is aimed further at the thought that toppling rebellious trees is not enough (not enough, for given the rich soil for seeds, many similar trees will always be ready to replace toppled ones). Given our elite that has learned---from the time of our Spaniard conquerors on to the time of our turn-of-the-century American invaders, our Tojo masters, as well as the eras of the Aguinaldo and Marcos and Erap and Gloria movements---to test the limits of the average Filipino's patience, the new liberalism's order would be easier said than done in our "local geopolitical" reality.
     It behooves us, then, to play on with this game of g-o-l-f, which will eventually gloriously bring us to wherever it will when it does. Gloriously, I say, because it would be beyond the lip service of doomsayers like me.
     So, okay, then. Let's go back to business. What's your handicap? ♦


Author's note: This essay is adapted from a 2004 column I wrote for the now-defunct provincial e-zine Bananacue Republic.

Readings related to golf and the Philippines I'd recommend:


Photos borrowed from:

Monday, July 26, 2010

Blue Funk'd Silent Stories: The Expanding Art of Marcel Antonio

Face Value
I FIRST saw it in a Marcel Antonio work in 1999, a Chagallian red painting titled Garden of Desire portraying a female figure in the center being subtly surprised by a kiss from a vague other female figure. Chagallian composition would stay with Antonio to the present, either as a means of liquefying a color composition when things become so Picassoesque-ly rigid or to confuse gravity when gravity gets in the way of proper visual “storytelling”. Early Picasso, who in turn was influenced by the colors of Velazquez, seems likewise a major influence. Antonio employs all his influences’ devices for his recurrently and often horizontal rectangular stage or silver screen dramas.

Garden of Desire, 1999. Oil on canvas, 24 x 30

    These face-derived figurative dramas do quote hand gestures from classical painting, even while they may still be deemed contemporary expressionist oeuvres. And Antonio decorates his scenes with all the props and accoutrement of scenography, quoting—in the 1980s fashion of appropriation—sources ranging from de Chirico to Carravaggio for this, his theater of subtle “expressionism”.
    But how expressionist is Antonio? He had, indeed, been lumped with the young Filipino expressionist wave of the 1990s which included the likes of Elmer Borlongan. But while some in this bunch went in the direction of Picasso’s Guernica or Munch’s Scream or expressionist social realism, Antonio chose (consciously or unconsciously) the restrained trance eroticism of his unsmiling “expressionist” faces as carriers of his compositional puzzles-cum-evocations.
    By eroticism I do not mean the kind that evokes but the kind that seems (and only seems) to threaten to evoke. Meaning, an erotica that’s interactive: not so much author-induced as communally agreed on, like private jokes. Recurrently, classicist nude figures with reading-inviting faces also do not so much narrate a literal going-on as suggest a narrative, in spite of literature-inspired titles that challenge his compositions’ independence from rigid allusions. Thankfully, always the compositions win over the titles, with the works daily gaining independence from the painter’s guidance-by-titling.

Protest Against Indulgence
There have been paintings like 1999’s The Chinese Chamber that allows a Rembrandtian drama to unfold in more expressive ways, but even there Antonio avoids throwing caution to the wind, coming up instead with something like quiet J-horror.

The Chinese Chamber, 1999. Oil on canvas, 24 x 36

    Also in 1999, Antonio experimented with portrait figures with abstracted or vague bodies and relatively-distinct faces, as in a work called Scissors. With the drama here turning Japanese, my reading on Antonio’s dramaturgy as concerned more with his models’ facial portraits (as actors acting out the painter’s play) than with their gestures was underlined and confirmed. Even his nudes, being nudes that should be calling attention to the body, were more evocative of sleep, pushing thus the eye/face to take the lead role, at least in effect. Think “mood” acknowledged as eroticism’s prime carrier without which the literal body is mere meat. And as a way of paraphrasing this primacy of the figure’s face, Antonio transferred this early facial focus to a cat in Cultured Cat.

Scissors, 1999

Sleep, 1999. Oil on canvas

Cultured Cat, early 2000. Conte crayon, charcoal, pastel

Expansive Ennui
But by July of 2000, an Antonio show called “Langue et Parole” was already incorporating his father’s cubism into his actors. Now supported by a growing following, the figures on his now-larger canvases multiplied, manufacturing a drama of selves and canvases as synchronous collectives, introducing in turn an Antonio-esque kind of populism within a trance that departed from the folk happiness of his mother’s (Norma Belleza’s) marketplace colorist treatments.

    I was, however, more interested in the evolution provided by an earlier-by-a-month show at the Drawing Room, which featured a painting that graced the invite card to the show. A line drawing of a woman drenched in white, foregrounding a blue wall, not only highlighted a signature Antonio blue-funked face but introduced method acting into his portraiture. In this painting, the woman looks to be in the process of undressing, specifically of removing her right boot. Antonio’s blue-funked camera obsessed with the mysteries of the face was now focusing on the entire body’s stage show.

    And so props entered the acting process, not merely as decors beside the figures as in the previous year but, this time, as the figures’ fetish instruments either held or faced: candles, knives, mirrors, flower vases, paper, etc. The facial drama had conscripted not just the body but objects as well.

Maiden with Flowers, early 2000. Oil on canvas.

Girl with Cards, early 2000. Oil on canvas.

    Years later, circa 2004-05, Antonio was still churning out the same dramas, this time via fetish paintings with de Chirico-inspired imagery. His figures became more contoured, further reminiscent of either early Picasso or 1940s commercial art. But in some of these works, the figures looked distant, more aware of events in their minds than of objects around them. In one painting that featured none of this pensiveness but a male-female couple happily playing cards, the issue of viewer-and-actor non-mutual engrossment was introduced, with the viewer engrossed in the contours of the central female’s body as well as her red hair's ribbon while she, in her turn, was engrossed in her cards. A three-of-hearts card faced the painting viewer falling in love with this woman-figure, but she for her part was more interested in her ongoing venture to win at cards, unhindered even by the lady passing by the couple’s window in the background.
    In 2008, Antonio’s show—which the poet Alfred Yuson wrote about under the heading “Painter As Narrator”—went back to cubism, more colorful this time, as if to place his rectangular dramatic theater within the restraining confines of cubistic rigor. Call this his narrative art paying homage to his father’s (Angelito Antonio’s), as well as Cesar Legaspi’s, type of Picabia-looking Filipino cubism.

The Final Trimmings
Then came that 2009 exhibit called “Sturm und Drang.”
    Still the same old blue-funked trance painting that Antonio fans expected, you might say, but the figures in the horizontal or vertical collectives suddenly possessed enhanced characters as individuals (that is to say, each figure or figure-compound seemed to want to audition for the painting composition’s star role).

    The painter, talking to this party-crasher, did admit that these “stage plays” were still culled from his wont to quote classical as well as contemporary literature, but admitting further that his mannerist interpretations seemed to also tickle his fans, to which the gallery kowtowed. But I was not to be taken in by conventional appreciation and had to admit in my turn that here was Antonio stunning me with a slow emergence from a restraining chrysalis. Not towards Munch or the violence of de Kooning, of course, but to a narrative painting field where narration merely becomes a further excuse, this time with the excuse proposing an earthquake-shattered stage through a confusedly multi-leveled floor space, and that confusion echoed as well by indistinct wall spaces. Confused, I say, not in a cubist way of fragmenting cognition but in a neo-surreal manner intent on suggesting the storm of inner minds.
    So the blue funk had expanded its wings from melancholia into that other meaning of blue funk: confusion. It had found beauty in confusion, as did Chagall, not so much to tell a story, as we said (again, despite the titles and some of his fans’ clamor for further book illustration), as to distribute the influence of his blue-funkism. This influence had traveled from the face to the body to the trimmings of characterization and to spatial management, on to the expansion of moods.
    Sure, not all of Antonio’s pieces would fit into this category of ennui and melancholia, and those other pieces would be hailed by some collectors (those hailing this review and perspective) as anomalies to possess. But in what to me are his best works from the recent collection at the “Sturm und Drang” as well as the July 2010 Glorietta ArtSpace show, pieces like Café Ennui, All That Matters, Centuries and I’m The Mad Man’s Mire Drug, likewise the three excursions into Pop art—Soda Pop, Shadows and Steam—, are vehicles enough for me to herald the increasing influence on many a wall of Antonio’s expanding trance erotica. This erotica should stay around and keep us entranced, being not so much one that tickles the groin as a kind that promotes the understanding that every face, gesture, object, color, and shape is a secret sex object and clandestine true story waiting to be told, regardless of whether that erotic telling even includes death (as would a Nobuyoshi Araki).

Cafe Ennui, 2009. Oil on canvas.

Shadows, 2009. Oil on canvas.

The Famously Narrative Artist As Anti-Narrative

But to reduce Antonio’s art as pure content narrative serviced by a formal acumen is to deny the strength of formal inspirations that lead artists to their content management. Thus my refusal to box him with narrative art; and campaigning, instead, for boxing him in with those who’ve moved towards anti-narration. In Antonio’s case, his blue funkism's “de-expression”, or “dis-expression” and narrative confusion through the mannerisms of illogical narrative imagery and titling, seems to be a produce of a Russian Formalist narrative bent of “defamiliarizing” images and shapes towards a higher enigma. Thus his refusal to “express”.
    To paraphrase, if the formal part of Antonio is looking for ways to defamiliarize, that is to say, to make mysterious the familiar and mundane by mathematically arranging images to thus achieve their respective interesting positions on the plane, the facial-content part of his imagery meanwhile achieves that defamiliarization of the known literary or everyday or celebrity image by opening the faces up to a variety of narrative possibilities via an “expressionist absence”, as it were. That seems to be Antonio’s way of deconstructing narrative art to arrive at his own sort of narrative or pseudo-narrative, delivered by way of silences instead of via the noise of his titles’ text. ###

An untitled 2010 painting featuring this author, blogger-friend Lila Shahani, author and activist Sylvia Mayuga, preacher and freelance editor Mac McCarty, London-based art legend David Medalla and two other friends.