The Mustard Seed
New works by Marcel Antonio
April 3-6, 2014
The Gallery, Greenbelt 5
Ayala Center, Makati City
1. Road to An Anti-Impersonal Symbology
MARCEL Antonio’s scenes have been viewed as narrative. By some—including yours truly—, they’ve been approached as quasi- and pseudo-narrative, more concerned with a certain enigma I’ve recently described as a sort of “blue funk erotica”. I described this “blue funk erotica” value here and here.
In the present collection, however, I am eager to acquiesce to others’ semiotics and confess that a more pronounced symbolism in the artist has indeed come to the forefront. But, doubtful of this, as I am doubtful of any critical certainty upon artistic intent, I stepped on a doorstep critics have been told to be wary of, and that is the doorstep of talking to the artist about his real intent of the moment. I disobeyed the warning and knocked on the door.
But I wasn’t keen on asking the artist about my readings’ correctness, only about his painting process. After all, artists do discourse on their process in exhibition catalogues and manifesto/thesis announcements during interviews. And, in certain snobbish quarters, artists are deemed significant or otherwise by a process particular to them or a group of them. Beatriz Milhazes’ imagery wouldn’t really be deemed special if she didn’t have that value of a different process added to the production of her imagery, would it? Argue with me if you like, but it has always been process that defined the being of every significant movement in the painting art. Action painting was but the bawdlerization of process itself, and jazz underscored improvisation as the immediate process occurring inside the structured product of a process of planning.
And so my conversation with Marcel Antonio might give us a clearer picture of a thesis that has been so often waylaid by traditional critical self-centeredness, that is, by the critic’s intent to frame his reading as an exhibition by itself almost independent of the “presumed dead” artist. That tradition is no more pronounced than in the Philippines, where artists are seldom wont (or allowed) to announce themselves as thesis authors on their exhibitions’ catalogues.
But, again, I did not knock on the artist’s door to ask him about his art thesis but to ask him about his process which should be his thesis, or at least should/could be a factor in a comprehensive appreciation of any critical thesis on the artist’s thesis (really the artist’s thesis as imagined by the critic’s thesis).
And this, over coffee, was what I and the artist came up with:
ANTONIO’S symbology (whether quasi- or pseudo- or closed-text-) is not really “blueprinted” from the start. Like a good painting, it starts as a traffic of pencil or charcoal or pastel marks directly applied as ghostly presences to a trigonometry on canvas. We have a formal composition involving figures in arranged spaces. The figures in turn acquire gestures, facial expressions, glances towards positions in the compass, poses, and so on, bent on acquiring a sort of dramatic dance that has yet no meaning. The figures’ hands and glances and poses become pointing arrows that provide pictorial motion. Yes, exactly—the concern is initially formal, with the eyes of a character placed at, say, 8 o’clock directed towards 2 o’clock, a figure at 3 o’clock pointing a finger to an object at 7 o’clock.
However, now, that’s simplifying the initial process too much, because simultaneous (not necessarily working together yet) to this formal beginning is the play with free association (which may later have an impact on the titling stage). Antonio may appropriate a dictionary of dreams or an online random sentence generator or the Inspiro app (an idea generator) on his iPad, all for the purpose of inspiring a drama springboard. A working title might be as kinky as “KC Concepcion tips the avocado hat of Slavoj Zizek” or as lewd as “A nun tilts a monk’s garden towards suburbia and Hollywood”. At this point, you may call him a Surrealist. Who isn’t nowadays, anyway?
But all this playing around with signifiers to arrive at significance within a formal arrangement might impress some as too plastic if one didn’t know the fact that some artists who work in this way are really already planning their work during the process, if only by way of tapping their subconscious’ prejudices for and against “things”. The play is as necessary as art qua an affirmation of life. In this sense, it is in the negation of play that one becomes purely plastic. And in Antonio’s case of playing around with the contents of life, there is the artist’s definitely far-from-plastic bias towards “the enigma stereotype” and bias against the “happy” moment. In this sense, the artist does display a taste, mostly subconscious, invoking his right to a marriage with the moods depicting ennui, melancholia, de Chirico, Chagall, and so on. “Ayoko lang talaga ng smiling face (I'm just not fond of smiling faces),” says the artist, flashing a smirk. You can’t be more organic than that.
This process, or process of processes, would then work onwards and work together until it finally gets things to gel. Gel, that is, color-wise, mood drama-wise, perhaps semantically, but primarily towards the fulfilment of a visual logic that had worked through its highways of visual premises and visual conclusions, with its visual conclusive finding finally sparked by the luminescence of the four or so layers of paint that now function as a glamorous glazed image.
But I’m lying. For, at this arrival, there is the equally primary recognition of a power in the center, a drama at the center (not necessarily in the physical middle), that has decided on the peripherality of the peripheral and the graveness of the central gravity.
Add to this feeling of fulfilment lies the bonus of recognizing the enigma of the recurring motif in relation to the other pieces in the studio. The power of the center has occurred in each piece and in the solar system of pieces around and in the galaxy of works that the artist had churned out through the decades retained in his memory. The beauty of the recurring motif has also arrived.
And so we come to the titling stage, as if that wasn’t already working with the daily progress of the work, as it is the case often with artists working in this manner. Books read are recognized, movies seen are presences acknowledged, news events come into play, the working title bolstered or felled. The title comes not as a conclusion to a contrived process for closing an oeuvre but as a signature on a plate that has been acknowledged to be personal. Anything less than or beyond the personal is not yet done, the arrival must arrive at the personal. This is the satisfaction that comes with the recognition of the old familiar recurring motif, which we critics often desire to call the thesis element. The recurring motif becomes proof of the personal.
It is now, at this point, that we can say Antonio’s symbolism has happened, in the past as open ones in acknowledgment of the values others may attach to the same picture, in the present as both secretly personal and publicly public by virtue of the publicly-shared referents of the chosen titles. The title itself has become a center.
Then again, it’s not as if the title wasn’t already there progressing with the daily evolution of the work as it was initiated by the traffic of pencil or charcoal or pastel marks directly applied as ghostly presences to the trigonometry on canvas. So much for this talk about process. [FIN]
2. Depot of Anti-Expressionist Symbolism
SOME Antonio followers might have seen that 2012 Antonio work titled Poetry in Three Tongues. I call back this work to show how in the current show of mainly 2013 works it may represent Antonio’s transformation from an artist of a previous Blue Funk Erotica to being one for a new BFE direction. In years previous, Antonio’s BFE rested luxuriantly behind his quasi-narrative and pseudo-narrative still stage plays as well as in his illustration of various existing literary narratives that turned out to be more like BFE variations on the original stories they purported to depict.
|monochrome photo of Antonio's Poetry in Three Tongues, 42 x 54", acrylic on canvas, 2012. From http://www.surrealismnow.com/totem/featuredartistpage.html|
That 2012-13 transformation leads us to the present collection of works, painted through the stretch of 2013, that momentarily (or permanently) leaves the poststructuralist openness of the artist’s older paintings to almost hype up that part in Antonio with a more closed text (as against open text) symbolist intents.
Where is this symbolism leading us toward? In that 2012 work Poetry in Three Tongues, Antonio provided us a hint—familiar images of concerns mundane (chess play), deep (zoology study), and routine-economic (butchery work). As usual, Antonio’s portrait faces here defied expression (and expressionism) and played up his wont for that drama of thinking that in turn inspires viewers to inhabit a similar world of contemplation.
What is the point of this contemplation? What should be the object of our contemplation? Another 2012 piece I would like to go back to is Aegri Somnia, which was a more literal erotica showing an undressing female’s back and backside (talk of facelessness as dis-expression that also hurled at our faces an ass!). Around this erotic central figure were: a clown/jester/harlequin on his way out carrying on his right shoulder a young female with a likely-false sceptre and crown in her hands (she had a mesmerized/drunken look, unworthy of a queen, directed at “the cameraman”, and Antonio avoided showing teeth in her open mouth); a student or intellectual sleeping beside his open book or journal; a gourmand studying a slice of meat on his fork; a young female figure observing a butterfly. If you had seen this piece, you would have noticed that action and expression, respectively, were present only on the bird diving toward a river and on a cannibal pig showing his teeth upon a roasted mate. This work’s drama was an ennui- or tiredness-filled world for humans, horror of horrors, where dramatic expressionism was the mere luxury of animals. And although anyone could have structured Marxist readings of a worker-capitalist or subject-royalty or powerless-powerful relationship into an Antonio scene like Aegri Somnia, in the end they would find themselves in a mere depiction of a quiet or hidden misery behind a contentedness both political and psychological. (If it’s an aesthetic contentedness, it then offers political and psychological symbolism independent of expressionism’s shock methodology).
The psychology around this relationship gets clarified in some of the works in the present collection. In The Do-Nothing King, the royalty-subject relationship is more explicitly used to show a squawking, supposedly bird-brained bird-king (expression allowed on a roi fainéant!). And although the singer-figure on the left is showing his teeth as he sings and could be read as Antonio’s version of Munch’s The Scream, context frustrates (mocks?) expressionism as that figure’s singing ultimately ends up on the senses as nothing more than a picture of submission to a job’s requirement. Here is Antonio’s symbolist genius working through a Lee Strasberg device, quietly method-acting through space without the need to screech.
EXPRESSIONISM was inspired by 19th-century symbolism and carried forward even into this period of the 21st century the latter’s torch. But Antonio’s reservation towards expressionist symbolism is not in any way similar to Stuckists’ claims to “authenticity” versus Conceptualism.
For instance, in what would otherwise be a Buddhist-cum-Christian narrative piece, the show’s eponymously-titled The Mustard Seed, we are presented a moustachioed man in a suit and tie carrying an axe, one leg embraced (hindered) by a dwarf, as he approaches the supposedly mustard tree. Lesbians kiss in the background, another male figure on the right eats indifferent to what’s around him, and two blank-faced females appear on the foreground. It’s all a product of an attitude that seeks not to destroy an expressionist bent but merely to offer an alternative—the alternative of disengagement. This modesty, compared to expressionist self-hype of its direct engagement, is his own modest mustard seed to achieving an aesthetic heaven.
|The Mustard Seed, 60 x 60", oil on canvas, 2013|
If there’s any mockery in this show at all, it’s in the subtle mockery of expressionism’s tantrums. As an option to these tantrums, Antonio offers symbolism’s postmodern self-consciousness or self-semiotics. I was already seeing it in 2012, as in an acrylic titled The Mirror Stage, where Antonio portrayed a Lacanian self-remembering. In the picture, a boy pondered himself on a girl’s looking-glass while the girl lying on the ground contemplated her imaginary self while looking at “the painter’s camera”. Defying the concept of self-contemplation as synonymous to narcissism (you could see a pool of fishes in the background)—perhaps narcissism has more in common with tantrums and complaining—, Antonio demonstrated that postmodern self-consciousness is self-alienating instead of self-identifying, actually a denial of identification even as it struggles with the truth of the surrounding illusions. Or is this denial of identification verily a resultant of this very struggle with the truth of those surrounding illusions? Ultimately, after the fact, all those (de Chirico-esque) objects in Antonio’s compositions act as mirrors for his characters’ self-conscious crises.
In a piece in the present show titled A Love Encounter, the lovers’ dance and the accoutrements of courting likewise become mirrors for this self-alienation. Animals are mirrors for contemplating the relationship between self and those living others, going beyond anthropocentrism. Mulling over one’s nudity becomes a meditation on one’s place in the existing interrelationships in nature, on one’s humanity within the ecology. But lest we equate this self-consciousness solely with intellectual reflection (zoology, perhaps), it can also lead to the denial of the self through escaping intellection and falling for the (albeit boring) freedom of socializing (card games, perhaps, or hobbies like sewing).
And so, coming full circle, we come to understand Antonio’s obsession with ennui in the years past. It is not simply “boredom” the way the word would translate to English, but the product of man’s estranged relationship with a challenging world. It is in fact an almost-sad surrender to the mysterious Immensity. But while some would illustrate alienation with the self-deprecating smile of humour or self-effacement, Antonio illustrates it with features of reflection (science, magic), contrivance (religion, myth-making, story-making), indifference (the ennui we see), and subtle or silent (because fearsome of aloneness) detestation. We see that last struggle in Myths to Live By, through the psychology of a dancing couple in the foreground who may not really be into their being a couple—is marriage one of the social myths Antonio would want to include in his Joseph Campbellian list of myths? We don’t know.
In To Be or Not to Be, Antonio combines elements of cubism, the collage, and Pop art to posit his characters in a psychology of awe, speechlessness, and innocence/ignorance vis a vis a colourful world of consumer goods and decisions. The human perspective here becomes no more intelligent than a dog’s.
Other possible relationships (between man and objects as well as between man and others) are explored further in a Kafkaesque composition titled The Test. Antonio’s acting direction works well here in representing the tension between two debating male friends, again subtly presented instead of loudly.
Another subtle trick is used for Untitled, where a post-coital scene of two young people sleeping as curling shapes on a beach is foregrounded by the sea’s curves, a curling fish set within. Is the fish asleep (in harmony with the couple) or not (contrasting with the couple)?
A masterstroke of subtle symbology is Life Is A Struggle Against Sleep, where Antonio’s bored actors struggling to kill time with their respective chosen interests—as mere workers for or subjects to a giant hand of power—are backgrounded by a de Chirico window to a metaphysical world, transporting thus the ennui and acquiescence to other possible philosophical or even political heights.
|Life Is A Struggle Against Sleep, 42 x 54", 2013|
The Devil’s Backside (a word-play, perhaps, around the title of the del Toro horror flick The Devil’s Backbone) tames the terror in the devil and night owl figures through a post-coital-ennui composition that’s been a signature Antonio mannerism. Notice also the artist’s nice habit of inhabiting many of his scenes with “workers,” in this case a brass-band musician.
More workers inhabit The Midnight Radio Hour, just as they do many of the pieces in this show. But in Midnight Radio Hour, the scene occurs in the bright of day, with the modern-day urban inhabitants going about their business (is Antonio mocking or emulating grade school social studies textbook illustrations?), expressionless, with one asleep. Thus, even Diego Rivera’s Marxist expressionism gets a kicking in this river of Antonio dramas.
The drama of roles is played on further in The River Dreams of Angel Flores, Jr., where we see the living head of the late Angel Flores, Jr. (aka Roberto Chabet) floating on a dark river, his body left on a wheelchair at the bank. You could say this is Antonio’s salute to last year’s passing of his dear professor and godfather, acknowledging the aesthetic guru’s eternal presence in the Philippine art world’s river of artmaking dreams; but doesn’t Antonio also here regard the river as separate from his worldly concerns? And so Chabet’s open-eyed intellectual leaning towards the abstract and the conceptual is thrown into this collectively-emulated river, as if to say, “look at me, sir; see me go back to the symbolist narratives and myths that you so left out in your (equally mythological, by the way) ocean of preferences.”
Indeed, Antonio’s symbology does try to cover all the grounds of his personal semiotics, from where he works like a free jazz artist who starts from A, goes on to B and C and D and so on, and later goes back to A. This is what decides for Antonio’s process of adding or replacing images to a composition. For instance, in Antonio’s 2012 work Elective Affinities (not in this show), the artist’s philosophical bent started as a visual pun on the egg in Magritte’s own Elective Affinities, which latter piece was itself a pun around the title of a Goethe novel on chemical affinity. In Antonio’s version, the egg was a bright female thigh near the groin; the Goethean chemical incompatibility, meanwhile, was dramatized by the painting’s male figure’s seeming rapture directed not at the female figure but at another object of interest: a book. The Goethe theme went to Magritte went to Antonio went to Goethe. Or was this Antonio’s self-critique on possible incompatibilities within his own symbolist erotica occurring in that surrealist space between his symbolist intent and his audience’s reading?
In his new works, as in Two Girls Reading a Book, Antonio’s self-critique on possible incompatibilities within his own symbolist erotica is illustrated by the distances occurring between objects of intellection (e.g. books) and the knowledge pursuer, between knowledge pursuer and the disinterested, between what could be knowledge and what could be pop rumor, as if that last portrays symbol reading itself. Indeed, in 2013-14, two girls (or boys) reading a book, or reading a painting on a wall for that matter, has entered the gallery of the mind way beyond where Picasso’s work with the same title could go when it attacked our eyes in 1934.
The Mystery of the Butterfly Wing, meanwhile, compartmentalizes individuals into profiles with props. That makes that title quite apt, considering that in science that would precisely translate to “the mystery of diversity”.
Then, Antonio takes this compartmentalization farther in Untitled (with big fish), where the partitions are more psychological than spatial. The cubist-collage format as dream generates a social take on urban alienation.
|Untitled (with big fish), 43 x 54", acrylic on canvas?, 2013|
Finally, in Pandora, the psychological partitions turn into portrait images of self-immersion, this despite the image in the background of a relational activity (a relational activity which could in itself be a product of a self’s or the involved selves’ selfishness). Self-immersion as self-worship? We know better, of course; judging from all the Antonios we have seen through the years, any self-immersion is really an immersion in the distance between the self and something or someone else. Self-immersion as the root of all evil? Perhaps.
Indeed, with this collection’s dizzying array of intelligent significances, it is already a cause for celebration that in spite of the commercial popularity of the many sorts of Marcel Antonios peddled to the art market these past two-plus decades, a popularity enough to content an artist towards luxuriating in the routine of mass producing his success, the Antonio thesis has proved once again that it will never ever be dead in its tracks. Year after year the BFE thesis develops. Well, perhaps it has really only just begun. [FIN]