It’s not easy to map out the coordinates of today’s abstraction since signaling the modernist turn in visual arts in the Philippines and elsewhere.
While most of the postwar artists still did figurative paintings, they emphasized the expressive and emotional content of their works through bold colors and sweeping strokes, no longer interested in faithfully depicting reality. Soon, a few were emboldened to venture into pure abstraction. Much of the gains we are reaping now were brought about by the lyrical — and then experimental — works of National Artists H.R. Ocampo and Jose Joya as well as Fernando Zobel and Charito Bitanga, and their eventual heirs Gus Albor, Lao Lianben, and Justin Nuyda, among others.
While it’s hard to state with certainty what the developing strands in the field are, there seems to be a persistent compulsion present even in today’s practitioners: the gestural, uninhibited action of making a mark on a surface. Before, abstract artists of yore were contending with the long tradition of figurative art. Now, the painters are reckoning with the omnipresence of the screen. With all the talk about non-fungible tokens (NFT) and AI-generated images, which seem to drain the work of human intervention, there is something about gestural abstraction that is analog, defiant, and affirmative of the body and its embeddedness in the world.
Prerogative of Exuberance, which opened at Art Cube on Oct. 8, proposes, demonstrates, and queries this type of abstraction rooted in bodily motions, improvised choreographies, and expenditure of energies. Invited artists Dale Bagtas, Rene Bituin, Miguel Paulo Borja, Lee Caces, Demosthenes Campos, Jonas Eslao, Jose Gabriel, JC Intal 7, JoJo Lofranco, Pauline Reynolds, Joy Rojas, Emmanuel Sutton, Victoria, and Wipo bump against the question of abstraction today, which is how to meaningfully add to what’s already out there when even the briefest skirmish on a canvas looks like a gestural work.
As their works attest, abstraction as a mode of experimentation is not finished, since materials are still evolving and giving artists new toys and tools to play with. For instance, Gabriel, who also co-runs the independent art joint, KalawakanSpacetime, uses spray and black light fluorescent paints to add dimensions to the flat application of paint, as if creating a portal into his works through which an altered state of consciousness may be achieved. Lofranco, in previous works, incorporated neon lights, which rendered an otherworldly luminescence to his furious, masculine strokes. Intal, on the other hand, employs pure oil paint without other ground support in sculpting the shifting, multicolored terrains of his works.
Biography is also brought to bear upon the gestural strokes as the artists make oblique or direct references to lived experience. Rojas has consistently incorporated his love of racehorses by approximating their stamina and speed through charged, galloping pigment. Also exploratory with his materials such as carpet, fur, and found objects, Campos refers to the urban scape with his medley of zigzagging lines and geometric shapes. Eslao, hinting through the titles of his works, gives visual translation to psychological — and even spiritual — phenomena.
For other artists, abstraction is a way of testing out ideas. Wipo, for instance, looks into how abstraction can be a reality of its own, configuring layers, depth, and even perspective, flirting with the illusory properties of figuration. In the same vein, Borja assembles abstract shapes and forms as a way of teetering onto the edge of representation, but never broaching the resolution of an image. The youngest in the group, Bagtas, who already won such accolades as the grand prizes for the Metrobank Art and Design Excellence and the GSIS National Art Competition for the nonrepresentation category, presents fields of mutating, spherical forms, taking over the canvas with furious virality, which presaged our knowledge of the novel coronavirus and its dreaded spikes.
No other form of painting exemplifies the life force furiously activating each cell of the body like abstraction. It prioritizes growth, continuity, and transformation — a stay against inertia. As the works of this exhibition present, the artists record, transmit, and crystallize their “prerogative of exuberance,” the notion that to paint is to activate fully engages the vitality that makes visible the world’s hidden velocities.
Prerogative of Exuberance will run until Oct. 29. Art Cube is located at the OPVI Centre, 2295 Chino Roces Ext., Makati City. Visit www.artcubephilippines.com for details.