Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Artist as Genetic Engineer

"Spectres of Mnemosyne"
June 4 - 24, 2012
Blanc Gallery
Unit 2-E Crown Tower, 107 HV dela Costa St., Salcedo Village, Makati City

In his first exhibition in 2010 (read my review of that show here), Gromyko Semper was both iconoclast and aniconist in his parodying and mocking icons of religion (especially Roman Catholic) and (especially religious) history. But perhaps cognizant of the fact that a parody of any sort of iconography qua a socio-political act necessarily manufactures an alternative system of iconography (iconoclasm/aniconism as its own iconography), opening thus itself to a counter-visual criticism of its visual criticism, Semper now turns to explore iconoclasm’s other option—postmodernism’s self-questioning and self-flagellating embrace of semiotics’ Marxist denouncement of both icon- and iconoclastic-touting.
     In his new works, Semper—in his usual woodcut-looking large drawings—takes off inspired by the art of Ukiyo-e and Albín Brunovský. (The drawings are teamed with responses in poetry by American poet William Nace, Jr. Nace’s postmodern poems likewise have a strongly Blakean flavour, heavily peppered with surrealism, Dada, contemporary music, and ironic mythologies urging a more eclectic Christianity—Nace is a former pastor. These literary poesies decidedly add extra layers of nuance to Semper’s drawings.)

Armed with new visual takeoff points for composition, Semper came up with what he calls “spectres.” In turn, Semper is also now wont to quote Carl Jung (“Dreams are symbolic in order that they cannot be understood, in order that the wish, which is the source of the dream, may remain unknown.” – Psychology of the Unconscious), . . . when previously he would tend to deny Roland Barthes a chance, choosing instead to go for later Terry Eagleton, with a taste for what Umberto Eco calls the “closed text.” Semper’s more senior friend, the painter Marcel Antonio, had been a sounding board for the certainty/uncertainty of that early proclivity, and the art world now knows that Antonio’s art has always been an appropriation of narrative art’s habits (“manners”) for both their narrative (“closed”) and anti-narrative (“open”) values. Having said all of the above, then, one would find the title of Semper’s present show—in referencing ghosts of memory—as verily spot-on.
     Now, looking at the artist’s “portraits of memory” in the show, we’d notice that the characters in these portraits derive from our collective (international) memory of fairy tales, legends, myths, fables and other cosmological sources, each a jumbled child of mnemonics born of this memory’s confused splicing of their sources’ genes, producing thus a new community with its own potential symbology and semiosis almost independent of their parents’ own. With these new creatures, then, Semper transforms the societal Mnemosyne of a universal myth to become a Mnemosyne of the private, almost self-indulgent, ego (the artist’s as well as the viewer’s own reading ego).
     This drunk inward contemplation (and embrace) of memories comes in the manner of an occurrence wherein a hundred influences arrive upon it to such a level of simultaneity that one already forgets the specificity of those influences, rendering it thus impossible for the occurrence to properly acknowledge an influence for a specific/distinct virtue. In Semper’s new art, therefore, the public Mnemosyne is appropriated for the production of portraits of self-indulgence, a collection that ultimately spits on emblems and their fixed genes in favor of new visual species, with each creature wallowing in its own secret aspirations and desires, removed—if possible (as per Barthes’ wonderment)—from societal contexts. In the artist’s words describing these new-mnemonic creatures, “they are codices and syntaxes of my ideologies . . . they are what I am and what I am made of.”
     Additionally, with this new exploration Semper creates a series of new private icons whose feet nonetheless rest on the ground (“I made them look like icons but I took off the halo they should have had”), like new ideal mongrels of merely self-absorbed, sometimes funny, musings (“I wanted them to be ‘fernal’, as opposed to infernal, that is to say of this world and part of it”). Portraits these are, therefore, not of our respective selves as physical figures of vanity for social consideration and awe but of our respective inner selves as “mnemosynes” of honesty.
     Building thus these new alternative icons instead of scolding old ones, Semper engineers a new democracy of iconographies, which democracy and vouching for the private memory could be the better weapon against any iconography’s bigotry and consequent authoritarianism.

— May 20, 2012
18 x 12 inches
Ink on water color paper
18 x 12 inches
Ink on water color paper
18 x 12 inches
Ink on water color paper

Monday, February 27, 2012

Irony in Numbers

The STUPendous Show, February 23 to March 8, 2012 at Gallerie Anna, SM Mega Mall, is here being peddled as one hell of a, well, “stupendous show” by eighteen select young and not-so-young painters whose training derive from the College of Architecture and Fine Arts of the Technological University of the Philippines (TUP).
     “Stupendous” may sound like a modifier edging towards a hardsell approach to positioning an art exhibition, almost puzzling by the fact that this show involves merely paintings and not gigantic sculptures and fearsome installations. However, looking on and hard, could the point of this show lie in that very title? For to tag a bunch of quiet paintings on quiet walls in a quiet gallery with that very adjective usually reserved for extreme sports (or for hyped-up artists from the bigger universities) is an act that does carry with it the juice of irony, even tongue-in-cheek parody.
     And so, looking further at the individual pieces, and expecting to find nothing stupendous, the irony I allege seem to be truly present in the pieces. See here, for instances:
     Alrashdi Mohammad’s Yellow Spot In Nebulae illustrates through its titling act a signification or valuation method (for paintings, at least) that might proceed from mere updated allusions concerning present-day realities, in this case present-day science. However, what is here achieved seems not so much a mimicry of science illustration as a parody of painting itself, the way Franz Liszt might mock his own program music if he were to say his themes are but mere afterthoughts upon the finished products of the composition act.

     Meanwhile, Arden Mopera’s title Hitting Z Birds In One Stone for an oil piece on textured canvas may initially strike the viewer as mere forgivable bad English, but yet, what really is the canvas but itself another wall of a big rock cave on which painters paint their hunting stories? And those stories become fossilized/embedded in the rock and not with the rock, the same way pigments (the metallic ones of which are from rocks) are fossilized in the (textured) grounds and may even be pushing themselves further (via their oil) into the gesso-protected recesses of the cords of the canvas weave.

     Further, in Warrior, Mopera also seems to push forth a comment on portrait subjects as could-be warriors, with umbrellas for shields, who might best be shielding themselves from the visual interpretations of artists (and critics) who treat portraiture as a kind of visual social-science-labeling medium.

     Now, could Cesar Delgado’s Counting the Cost—despite some obvious or latent other statement—also be a comment on portraiture, presenting a disinterested subject that’s either ignoring, or unaware of, the painter and his concerns?
     There are other works in this show that manifest the ironies in painting today in more elliptical ways, elliptical for being disguised within established traditions. Chriseo Sipat’s Toxic Zone explores yet again the Pop art poetry of treading the line between oil painting and poster art, while Demosthenes Campos’ abstracts (Passage and Trail) classically extend the mixed media painting tradition of asking yet again where painting ends and where sculpture begins.

Chriseo Sipat – “Toxic Zone” – 36”x36” – Oil on canvas

Demosthenes Campos – “Passage” – 34” x 48” – Mixed Media on canvas

Demosthenes Campos – “Trail” – 37” x 48” – Mixed Media on canvas

     Then there are the likes of Joselito Jandayan, who seems to be swinging to and fro between magazine-illustration-like 3D drawing/modeling and the established visual poetic form commonly known as oil painting on canvas. In The Liar and the Beast, is Jandayan offering the argument that both the Expressionist and the Surrealist traditions of figuration are no more fanciful than the current fiction of extraterrestrial-beings-representation? In appropriating all of these traditional imageries, is Jandayan both paying tribute to those traditions as well as parodying/mocking them? Or is a tongue-in-cheek “alienization” of figures (as against a Francis Bacon seriousness) in order here? If so, isn’t that, qua attitude, by itself already a reality slap (in the Surrealist sense) on painting’s and painting collectors’ all-too-serious regard for any figuration of things blue and green and flesh-brown under the Sun?

     Lexygius Calip’s Substance (Series 1-4), meanwhile, is a mixed media on paper series that yet again represents the sculptural potential of painting, almost as if to remind us and reiterate the painting or drawing field’s kinship with the installation-art space.

     Finally, consider such approaches as Sam Penaso’s nationalistic dark earth tones upon an ethnic-faced subject ironically called “Annalyn”. This mugshot portrait, ladies and gentlemen, is not painted in dye, but in plastic acrylic—a painting medium from the 1960s Pop decade of the plastic boom. How can you be more ironic and subtly sarcastic than that? And what about a female name that combines the Latin “Anna” (19th-century Hispanic Philippines) with the American “Lyn” (20th-century Philippines)? How can you be more contextually expansive than that?

-- END --

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Romantic Lie: Desire, Ennui, Anxiety

Marcel Antonio's new statement at the Yuchengco Museum, February 6-25, 2012

In July of 2010, I posted a blog essay on the art of Marcel Antonio titled “Blue Funk’d Stories: The Expanding Art of Marcel Antonio” and coined the phrase-tag Blue Funk Erotica for Antonio’s art. I described Blue Funk Erotica as 1) unsmiling faces-derived figurative drama (primarily portraiture, then), 2) replete of appropriations or art-historical quotes, 3) suggestive (but only suggestive) of a narrative, 4) quasi-rebellious towards rigid allusions and painting titles’ guidance, 5) unpainterly expressionist, 6) of an in-a-trance mood as against a happy one, and 7) conscriptive of the painting viewer as peeper. “This erotica should stay around and keep us entranced,” I wrote, “being not so much one that tickles the groin as the 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.” But also debunking a previous simplistic tag on Antonio’s art as “narrative expressionist,” I wrote: “In Antonio’s case, his blue funkism's ‘de-expression’, or ‘dis-expression’ and narrative confusion through the mannerisms of narrative imagery and titling, seems to be a produce of a Russian Formalist narrative bent on ‘defamiliarizing’ images and shapes towards a higher enigma. Thus his refusal to ‘express’.”

    The abovementioned blog started a dialogue between Antonio’s art as well as intent (of unintent) and my reading, culminating in a late-2011 production of a collection titled “The Romantic Lie: Desire, Ennui, Anxiety” which shall be shown this coming February at the Yuchengco Museum.
    This title for Antonio’s new series does not so much signal a change in his art’s direction as clarify where my reading is right and where it needs to be tweaked. For instance, while I opt for a Barthesian “variety of narrative possibilities,” Antonio’s pragmatic knowledge of his audience allows/welcomes two basic approaches to his art.
The White Ribbon
    The one approach favors rigid symbolist readings, especially as Antonio is himself attracted to the “monumental” (Antonio’s term) figure common among utopian-art compositions (e.g., Wagnerian glorifications, classical idealism, Nazi art, Stalinist totalitarian art, socialist realism, etc.) and advertising art imagery or the various idealizations of soft porn.
    But, for the other approach, Antonio acknowledges that I am right about his own efforts to frustrate, so to speak, all symbolist and narrative approaches, via experimentation with juxtapositions/relations and eclectic allusions. These experimentation, appropriations, and art-history quotes result in a dehumanized atmosphere, involving such stuff as machine aesthetics (steampunk, etc.) and the usual facial expressions of ennui and boredom, all moving towards Antonio’s intended postmodernist multiplicity of meanings. But the final result on each single canvas is an invite to a pseudo-narrative half-aware of this pseudo-ness, welcoming while parodying the various cultural and moral significations possible to professional and popular semiotics.
Ars Poetica
    In this sense, Antonio’s art would be self-described as anxious about the unknown, desirous of knowledge as a matter of course but likewise celebrating the ennui of knowledge’s elusivity, even the charm of that ennui itself alone. Ennui as both springboard and object of desire, then, visually fulfilled or illustrated on an Antonio-esque drama field.
    A final stamp to this anti-narrative effort to “recover the sensation of life” (Victor Shklovsky) is the artist’s devotion to the coloration of Diego Velázquez (recreator of the classics) or Chagall (dreamy Chagall) as well as to the latent abstract geometrics beneath all his pseudo-narrative stagings.
    I shall join Antonio in this exhibit with fourteen new poems in the exhibition catalog. Antonio also invited me to fill a curved wall he refused to use with my own paintings as the show's guest paintings. For which wall I did three shaped canvases, for a collaborative five-painting project with Antonio as counter-instigated by me. [END]