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Fecundity of imagination

By ALFRED A. YUSON, The Philippine STAR Published Apr 22, 2024 5:00 am

Litanya 1972-2022 is a comprehensive 50-year inventory of the artworks, installations, and performances of Jose Tence Ruiz. It is a thick, handsome tome in hardcover, all of 450 full-color pages. The artist himself as author and auteur wrote all the text, did the book design, cover design, InDesign layout, as well as the photography and plate reproduction, this last in partnership with Pepito R. Blanco. Additional photographs were provided by friends, galleries and publications. Quite a monumental undertaking it is, with “Bogie” himself as the publisher.

He dedicates the book to Arturo G. Rosenberg, whose photograph appears before the title page, with the following caption: “My grandfather, who somehow guessed that babysitting his hyperactive 4-year-old grandson with a book on Caravaggio was not such a bad idea.”

Born in Manila in 1956, Tence Ruiz studied at the Ateneo de Manila and has a BFA, Major in Painting, Cum Laude, from the College of Architecture and Fine Arts of the University of Santo Tomas.

He is a painter, sculptor, editorial illustrator, graphic designer, action/performance artist, writer and occasional curator. He has had more than 30 solo shows and over 200 exhibitions in various cities. He represented the Philippines when it made a comeback to the 2015 Vienna Biennale with a fabulous mixed media installation titled Shoal.

Ironically, the large-scale assembly made up mostly of wood pieces, painted in dark red, takes the form of a boat, with its geometric lines and shapes suggesting that it may have been beached in shallow water. Joining the wood pieces as his usual steeple forms from an earlier wagon series are perforated angle bars, velvet, PVC pipes, foam, iron wire, etc. Now resembling petrified masts, a subtle option may be to imagine it as having turned into a sandbank itself.

Jose Tence Ruiz in collaboration with Danilo Ilag-Ilag and Jeremy Guiab et al., Shoal, 2015, Metal and velvet Dimensions variable

Shoal actually had several iterations, including its first assembly in Bogie’s studio with the collaboration of numerous friends, as well as its display at Vargas Museum in UP Diliman and at St. Benilde’s School of Design, this time with the partner title of Tie a String Around the World.

Most artists granted the privilege of national representation in a celebrated biennale, and coming up with a much-discussed showstopper, would likely mark the milestone as the apex of a lifetime creative career.

Jose Tence Ruiz’s Mlle. Allegro

But such has been the rich evolution of Bogie’s art that he can actually claim any point of his half-century of visual creativity as being one milestone after another, in a ceaseless chain of significant production.

In his Straightforward Foreword, he defines the book: “It stretches 50 years, thus far, from inception and attraction, from deciding it as my life’s path and training for it, to sustaining it as a serious if precarious occupation, to the last few years where grit, persistence and some measure of acceptance and recognition by peers and community have allowed me to label it as a proper endeavor.”

Further, he adds: “Because of limitations of personal energy and time, I have decided on a partial inventory of my output as maker of images. I have concentrated here on the ‘artsy’ side, for want of a better classification.”

“This book may list and display more than 600 works—50 years is an arbitrary number, but I feel it should be indicative, illustrative, and sufficient testament to my committed desire to create these images.”

Jose Tence Ruiz during Litanya 1972-2022 book launch

So, were there cycles of themes and genres that led from a particular partiality to another? Going through the chronology of presentation, it’s hard to say, even as we spot favored preoccupations that last for a number of years, and are revived as subsequent iterations. There’s also a multiplicity of pass-on elements that have served as precedent motifs.

Carcasses as a central subject first appear in 1989, along with a fondness for deep red. Wood, enamel, adhesive, fabric, found objects, metal, even plastic toys figure in the assemblage or installation Untitled of 1993.

This may have been prefigured by a dominant piece that can be classified as sculpture—1992’s The Winged Victory Reconstruction Project, with ultra formaldehyde resin and burlap added to the motley assembly that presents a dark, large winged figure stretching up to the ceiling.

In 1996 a similar figure is presented as a Version 3, this time predominantly in red.

Serving as contrapuntal floor pieces are 1995’s horizontal figures that resemble cubist reptilian tails, like Door to Door, although the main material is corrugated cardboard boxes of diminishing sizes that extend to 18 feet.

Also in 1996, a collective installation titled Pabitin was created for the 2nd Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art at the Queensland Art Gallery in Brisbane—with mixed media contributions from 27 artists. More than a fancy chandelier or an oversized piñata, its layered, segmented bulk makes it look more like a futuristic flying object.

The 1998 Centennial of Philippine Independence inspired Tence Ruiz to produce a number of oil-and-acrylic (or enamel) portraits of assorted human figures, but also those of expressionist mythic beings like the manananggal.

Subject, concept and/or theme have always been the primary impulse for Bogie as illustrator / graphic designer / painter, but his complementary character as builder and structural fantasist may be said to echo—in a more modern age of randomized materials—the playfulness of Da Vinci.

The cornucopia of creative ideas is only too evident. And of course there are infinitely more visual elements to paraphrase, from parts of nature to intricate vestments to cigarette packs—as rendered in one of my favorite works, “Paraiso Mentol” in digital print on vinyl, of 1999.

Performances became rife in 2003-05, and in terms of fresh stylized offerings, wooden wagons bearing replicas of mock cathedrals figured frequently in 2003-08. Ornate, surrealist portraits as oil on canvas started in the same period till 2008, before further revival. The surrealism goes beyond Gothic or rococo, while weaving intricate details through physical flesh and Victorian vestments. Then there’s the Dalagang Bukid series where local figures and scenery present an interlude. And it’s back to the uber-Gothic with its minutiae of intertwining forms—the central subject still a heavily clad lady, her gown as bespoke as all possible forms and objects.

In 2010, realist portraits of Cory Aquino, Pacquiao, Bonifacio, and Hitler help make up a series, whose commonality is the addition of the kind of symbolist heart each subject is identified with. The half-a-decade preceding the Vienna Biennale triumph may be remembered more for the large surrealist portraits of heavily robed ladies whose swirls of gowns have now become metal and seemingly mechanical, while continuing to turn the Victorian era on its head.

And beyond 2016, Jose Tence Ruiz has not let up in developing more finery of particulars to characterize his wildly protean work. It is sheer fecundity of imagination that is matched by inexhaustible creative energy.