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Excess equals exuberance in Singapore show focusing on Philippine art

By IGAN D'BAYAN, The Philippine Star Published Oct 16, 2023 5:00 am

In this show billed as In Excess: An Exuberance of Philippine Art on view until Oct. 22 at Gajah Gallery in Singapore, a sense of exactitude is evident, with a balanced approach and deft curatorial hand at work.

Louie Cordero’s “The Choice” painting of a multi-eyed monstrosity mesmerized by its handheld mobile device (a commentary on the onslaught of online information) is situated near Annie Cabigting’s more introspective gold-nail installation with a shadow cast by the gallery lights as well as shadows painted with “mimetic fidelity” (a blurring of the line between reality and representation). In a sort of alcove in the gallery, works by Marina Cruz (her signature dresses) share the same space as Leslie de Chavez’s Russian icon-like paintings made with dried pig intestines, beads, lace, gold leaf and acrylic (“Mater Piedad: Fernanda,” “Mater Superiora: Imelda” and “Mater Dolorosa: Luzviminda”). Viewers go from Jeona Zoleta’s “weird and eerie” works in swathes of pink to Christina Quisumbing Ramilo’s crossword cuss words made from torn posters of Rirkrit Tiravanija. Mark Justiniani’s “Portal” box (made with mirrors, lights and wood) is on one corner, giving off the illusion that there exists a tunnel to nowhere.

Marina Cruz’s “Elisa & Laura’s Dress,” oil and embroidery on canvas, 2023

Just when viewers thought they had Filipino art locked in a categorical box, they soon find out there are more spaces to explore, more viewpoints to be considered, and that more is, well, inevitably more.

“You cannot be timid when you do the Philippines,” says curator Joyce Toh. “And because it’s the Philippines, nothing is done in halves. It has to be bigger and bolder than what one might anticipate.”

Mark Justiniani’s “Portal,” mirrors, lights and wood, 2017

This is Gajah Gallery’s first foray into Philippine art. The people behind the gallery got in touch with Joyce Toh, who had the Philippines as her country portfolio when she worked at Singapore Art Museum (SAM). When asked about the method, the magic behind the madness of putting together this show, Toh answers how largeness and bigness characterize the way people live in the Philippines.

Curator Joyce Toh

“The expressions, the heart, the spirit are very large, almost to the point that—coming from Singapore where we tend to be much more low-key and very moderate—they almost seem excessive by comparison.”

Maria Jeona Zoleta’s “My Body is a 5-Star Hotel for Puppies/ You in Me That Nobody Knows R Shapeshifting into Bugs with Spiral C-Shells Induced by a Surface-Piercing Cloud Vortex/ Log Out of My Life Log into a Possessed Islands Crash Course Game Demo / One Can(not) Advance with Very Poor Magic . . . To be Continued,” 2023

Years ago when Toh was working with the artist Kawayan De Guia, they had a discussion about “how too much is never enough” in the Philippines. That jump-started Toh’s meditation on how excess seemed to rule the lives of Filipinos. In a negative sense, there is abuse of power and authoritarianism, and (on the personal side) excessive consumption is the norm. “But on the positive side,” continues Toh, “when you look at it in terms of how a family might love, when you have feasts and celebrations—they are always excessive. So I was intrigued by the idea that it’s not enough to be enough.”

Victor Balanon’s “Congress of Crows,” acrylic, charcoal, correction fluid and ink on canvas, 2023

In putting together the show, Toh’s strategy was to choose artists who are not obvious choices for a theme like “Excess.” She wanted artists who would be able to explore or interrogate the concept in a range of ways.

Louie Cordero’s “The Choice,” acrylic on canvas, 2023

“Someone like Louie Cordero is going to be absolutely right for this because of his visual language; there is something very over the top already about his artworks. But then, at the same time, I wanted someone like Annie Cabigting, whose minimalistic work of the 18-carat gold nail titled ‘Superfluous’ is amazing.”

Imelda Cajipe-Endaya’s “Bagong Nobena Kay Isidro Labrador,” oil, collage and sawali on canvas, 1988

Toh continues, “(The goal was to get) artists who would be able to deliver works that are unexpected. Someone like Mark Justiniani who takes a much more philosophical approach to this subject. There is also Ling (Quisumbing Ramilo) whose life seems to be about excess because she collects the discards of other people without knowing what to do with them. But then her works look visually structured and very ordered, nothing chaotic about it.”

Charlie Co’s “Contemplation,” acrylic and modelling paste on canvas, 2023

In short, they wanted a lineup of artists who would bring different inflections, varying perspectives to the show.

“Generally, it’s a mixture of methods (in mounting ‘In Excess’). There are no presets. And it is partly instinctive,” explains Toh. “I do hope that, especially for people in Singapore who may not be familiar with Philippine art, that it gives them just a really good introduction to the richness and breadth of works by Filipino artists.”

Charlie Co’s “Black Moon Over Troubled Waters,” acrylic on modelling paste on canvas, 2023

In laying out the works by these artists with different voices and visions, the curator says she did not go for obvious juxtapositions or placement in terms simply of color, motif or material. She looked at the artworks as having spatial relationships with each other because some pieces are exuberant while others have a quieter character. The aim is for the works to open up interesting conversations.

“Curating the exhibition involves responding to the space, which is part of the great excitement of a physical exhibition that I think a digital counterpart can never replicate,” Toh explains. “And what makes Singaporeans respond remarkably well to works by Filipino artists? I think it’s the sheer liveliness, the vigor, and the energy of Philippine art.”

Annie Cabigting’s “Superfluous,” 18k gold nail, oil paint, plyboard and plexiglass, 2023

An exhibition of Philippine art that both “critiques and celebrates its conundrums, complications and paradoxes,” while exploring the idea of the proliferation of excess is indeed an intriguing and insightful prospect.

Inevitably, a show like In Excess can leave you wanting more.

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In Excess, on view from Sept. 22 to Oct. 22 at Gajah Gallery Singapore, features the works of Victor Balanon, Annie Cabigting, Imelda Cajipe-Endaya, Charlie Co, Louie Cordero, Marina Cruz, Leslie de Chavez, Geraldine Javier, Mark Justiniani, Christina Quisumbing Ramilo, and Maria Jeona Zoleta. The show is curated by Joyce Toh.

Founded in 1996, Gajah Gallery has remained at the forefront of the Southeast Asian art scene, with premiere exhibitions curated by the region’s leading academics and art historians. The gallery (with locations in Singapore, Jakarta and Yogyakarta) continues to support the work of Southeast Asian artists through a full calendar of exhibitions each year. For information, email [email protected] or visit Gajah Gallery on Facebook and Instagram.