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When Ilustrados walked Manila

By SCOTT GARCEAU, The Philippine STAR Published Jan 27, 2023 3:00 pm

The style is distinctive and modern, while also nostalgic, shot through with bright-toned vistas of the past: Filipinos from the Spanish colonial era, captured in portrait mode, their large faces round and serene, with elongated necks suggestive of Funko Pop characters, set against historical backdrops of Old Manila and Intramuros.

These are the figures populating Dominic Rubio’s “Ilustrados,” the inaugural exhibit of the newly launched Galleria Nicolas Greenbelt 5. Rubio’s style is already quite popular, so it’s no surprise that this show has already sold out. (The Greenbelt gallery opened just two weeks ago, following successful branches at Glorietta 4 and Manila Bay.)

Interior of new Galleria Nicolas Greenbelt 5

Walking into the Greenbelt Galleria Nicolas, you’re struck as much by the open glass interiors as by the exhibition space. If art is meant to represent clarity, then Galleria Nicolas’ glass house lets us see all. Artist Anna de Leon designed the new 120-sqm space, which includes modern chandeliers with retro touches, and a gallery cleaved in two by a glass partition.

Ilustrados” is the second in a planned trilogy by the Laguna artist, a University of Sta. Tomas fine arts graduate who transitioned from graphic design to immersing himself in Mindanao’s visual language, the textile designs of tribes like the T’boli, the Mandaya and the B’laan, which now inform his work. Growing up in Paete, with its strong woodcarving tradition, perhaps gave him a sense of form: those unique, elongated figures, set against historical backgrounds. “Ilustrados” draws romance from the idea of elites: the “enlightened ones,” scions of rich landowners who brought liberal notions to a fledgling Filipino nation, fighting to be born amid colonial rule.

Galleria Nicolas managing director Carla de Jesus-Teotico with artist Dominic Rubio for his exhibit “Ilustrados

But don’t look for signs of turmoil. These figures are serene. Indeed, as art historian Dr. Rueben Canete wrote, “Viewers retrieve from his paintings a dialectic sense of individual and collective identification that only help to emphasize the significance of the established present.” Galleria Nicolas managing director Carla Teotico adds that Rubio’s show “represents a rich culture, a very glorious past, and a lot of people can relate to it directly because of the themes—because they see themselves or associate themselves with the figures and what they're doing: they’re having meals, having coffee. Some things never change, even if things always change.”

These are happy paintings, and Rubio seems a happy artist. Dressed in a thatched cap (his “favorite”) and wearing a collared shirt designed by Robbie Santos that itself speaks of centuries past, he is a bit shy around the media gathered for lunch to mark the new gallery’s opening. But he’s happy. You could even call him serene.

"Coffee Break"

The Greenbelt 5 Galleria Nicolas is the biggest so far, and friend of the gallery Tedrick Yua calls it “an incubator for emerging styles and new artists.” Expect shows from upcoming artists like Jay Ragma, while previous shows have featured names like Camille Ver, Aldrino Abes, Fitz Herrera and Kenneth Montegrande, along with National Artists Abdulmari Imao and Federico Aguilar Alcuaz. “We don’t want to just feature the masters, the usual artists that clients are looking for,” emphasizes Teotico. “We also want to discover new talents, highlight new artists that need a platform to have their art discovered. I think Greenbelt is a good location, the clientele is wide, and they’ll be able to appreciate undiscovered talents here.”

And having Rubio as the inaugural artist made perfect sense. “Dominic has been a friend of the gallery since its inception, and it was just fitting that he exhibit with us for the inauguration,” says Teotico. “He has a very good following, and a distinctive, nostalgic style, and he’s a master at this.”

Rubio’s work—presented in bright yellows, warm, creamy earth tones, vivid reds and supple whites—seems to speak to a desire for simpler, more romantic times.

"Ilustrada" and "Afternoon Delight"

I ask Dominic whether his unusual, elongated figures are based on real people, and he explains that he works from photographs, mostly: “I have so many pictures on my phone, and from books, and then I create a painting inspired by these pictures,” he says in the vernacular. “They come with a lot of stories.”

His work draws from historical references: Intramuros, Old Manila, Escolta, a book of photos from ‘50s fashion designer Pitoy Moreno, whom he calls his “idol.”

Before, he focused on realistic paintings, calling himself “alipin ako ng picture,” or a slave to the photographs. “When you pursue a realistic style, you’re bound to make many mistakes,” he says. So it was necessary for him to become free, to depart from the realistic style and create freely, so there are no mistakes and no rules. Sometimes, in pictures, there’s a certain distortion as well. He says his current style reveals his own character.

The fashion worn by the ilustrados in his current show reveals intricate, detailed design (an artistic technique called “miniaturismo”). While before, Rubio would copy existing fashion design for his painted barongs and ternos, now he creates his own. He’s collaborated with fashion designers, and considers himself an “aspiring designer.”

"Noblewoman II"

After previous show “Life is a Journey,” depicting historical transport imagery as a metaphor for various forms of passage and arrival, Rubio will follow up “Ilustrados” with “Tipos del Pais”: watercolor paintings and photographs of the Philippines’ inhabitants from varying social backgrounds, occupations, and ethnicity performing specific functions, wearing distinct clothing and accessories, and bearing “diverse tools of trade.”

As Teotico notes, 2022 was a big comeback year for galleries, and indeed, a good year for Galleria Nicolas to expand. People are ready to collect again, particularly work that fits into the comforting idea of home cocooning: a mindset that was nurtured, ironically, by the long lockdown and pandemic. “We like to present artists and work that is happy and positive, which a lot of people appreciate right now and that's what makes them want to collect art because it gives them a good feeling, positive feelings. So we tend to look for artists who emanate the same ideals that our clients also want.”

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The new Galleria Nicolas is located at 3/F Greenbelt 5, Makati City. For inquiries call +63 936 225 1226 or +632 7 0071137, or email [email protected].