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The vulnerability of a portrait

By Nicole Soriano, The Philippine STAR Published Dec 25, 2023 5:00 am

In MO_Space’s “A Portrait of a Portrait Show,” a portrait is a box filled with a hundred signatures, spread open on a pedestal. It is an abstract cloud of maroon, flesh and yellow. It is a trumpet atop a wooden box, emitting an old, triumphant melody. The sound follows me as I walk through the show. It glitches and crackles, simultaneously joyful and broken.

Curated by artist Elaine Roberto Navas, the show gathers nearly 30 artists who challenge conventional views of portraiture. The sheer diversity of forms and mediums alone makes it a far cry from the stiff, portrait-lined halls of old museums. There are abstract paintings and cerebral videos, figurative sculptures and sound recordings—all coalesce to form a rich and textured glimpse of Philippine portraiture today. This is the show’s first iteration (the second, featuring 31 artists, opens in January), and it turns the spotlight to a younger generation of artists whose practices span the late ’90s to the present.

A rebellious, tongue-in-cheek spirit runs through certain works, as if to both acknowledge and subvert a long tradition. Louie Cordero’s “Portrait of a Man Shaving His Balls (after L’origine du monde)” depicts a purple man shaving his veiny testicles, his face distressed and body covered in what looks like slime. A small figure shoots up from a toilet bowl beside him, unabashedly watching the scene through binoculars.

The painting nods to Gustave Courbet’s “L’origine du monde” (1866), a sensuous, painstakingly realistic painting of a woman’s genitalia. Yet, here, Cordero flips the voyeuristic gaze towards the male nude—capturing the absurdity of what female bodies have been subjected to for centuries.

I found myself intrigued, however, by the quieter works—portraits that felt a little more evasive. They seemed to demand my time and inquisition. The show claims to be a portrait in itself, but what emerges is not a clear and vivid face. Some artists refuse to show one too easily.

Bea Camacho’s “A Thousand Words” features audio recordings that describe the artist’s subjects. The subjects are artists, all participating in the show: MM Yu, Poklong Anading, Wawi Navarroza. Listening to the recordings, I was struck by the most minute of details —habits of the subjects that seem small and inconsequential, but endeared them even more to me. How Navarroza, her studio in “ordered disarray,” hums while she works. Or how Yu bites her lower lip while she tries to concentrate.

“After Kidlat Tahimik” by Nona Garcia

Particularly telling were observations of a subject’s discomfort towards being seen: “She doesn’t like being looked at,” says the narrator, describing Yu. “She prefers to stay behind the lens, invisible, obfuscated, constantly in motion... It seems she moves faster than the night.”

A commonplace observation about great portraitists is that they are always, in some way, painting themselves.

In a similar vein, Nona Garcia’s two black and white portraits, “After Kidlat Tahimik” and “After Roberto Chabet,” center on artists, both of them giants in the Philippine art scene: Tahimik, a pioneering independent filmmaker and advocate of indigenous culture; and the late Chabet, hailed as the father of Philippine conceptual art and mentor to many of the artists participating in the show. In Garcia’s portraits, their backs are turned towards the viewer, rendering them faceless. 

“After Roberto Chabet” by Nona Garcia

Both of them face an empty white backdrop, and all the iconic art associated with them is erased. Instead, banal details are put into vivid focus: Chabet’s crumpled checkered blouse; Tahimik’s long gray hair, haphazardly tied. Unlike their heroic depictions in media and art history, here they feel almost too ordinary, too human. Yet, Garcia seems to suggest, perhaps it is only through here where we can begin to know them.

“A Dollar and a Day: Angelo Villa (Farmer-Artist)” by Leslie de Chavez

Leslie de Chavez’s portrait focuses not on a human figure, but an object: the dollar bill. The artist blows up its image to the size of a grand poster, composed of 28 panels. Each panel was meticulously hand-colored gold by a family member of an Overseas Filipino Worker (OFW) whose families had been forced to accept distance—physical and emotional—in exchange for the benefits of the dollar.

Titled “A Dollar and a Day: Angelo Villa (Farmer-Artist),” the work’s focal subject is Angelo Villa. He works as a self-taught artist and farmer in Lucban, while his wife is an OFW in Taiwan. Villa is also a father, navigating parenthood largely alone. Beside the large dollar bill, a video essay featuring Villa plays on the screen, and laid on the ground below it are his paintings. In one, he paints a man with a hat, gazing out to the fields. Yellow intrudes upon the blue sky, and he seems to catch a glimpse of beauty before toiling another day. Here, a single portrait—humble and faceless—prods the viewer to imagine millions of Filipinos. 

Untitled works by Luis Antonio Santos

“A commonplace observation about great portraitists,” writes the critic Hilton Als, “is that they are always, in some way, painting themselves.” In a show filled with portraits that evade and conceal, one series of Untitled portraits feels particularly poignant in its bareness.

Four collages feature fragments of a face, never quite forming a whole: a sliver of eyebrows here, a glimpse of a nose and mouth there. The works employ unprimed linen, its uneven textures and loose threads making them feel particularly raw. They are self-portraits, and the face is the artist’s—Luis Santos.

The eyes here are particularly telling. They appear only looking down, and never at the viewer. It is as if, akin to Camacho’s portrayal of MM Yu, the subject does not want to feel himself being seen. Yet, in raw, imperfect fragments, he reveals himself anyway. If I could capture the show in a single portrait, it would be this one.

In a recent podcast, Hilton Als described making portraits as “a great act of generosity.” I would add that it is also one of courage.

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Show runs until Dec. 31 at MO_Space, 3rd floor, MOs Design B2 9th Avenue, Bonifacio High Street, Taguig.