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The flux — and flex — of art criticism

By SCOTT GARCEAU, The Philippine STAR Published Jun 24, 2024 5:00 am Updated Jun 25, 2024 11:55 am

An archive isn’t quite a network of memories, the way a brain might be. It’s a curated glimpse; an overlapping series of snapshots, perhaps. When writer Lk Rigor started working on “Critic/ism in Flux” for the Purita Kalaw-Ledesma Center, which just celebrated its 10th year of holding its PKL Prizes in Art Criticism, she asked these questions: “What is the texture of an archive? And of a memory?”

The exhibit, ongoing until Sept. 20 at KL Tower, Makati, left Rigor deep-diving through hordes of archived clippings representing the best of art criticism in her own country, starting in 1948 with the founding of Art Association of the Philippines up until her passing in 2005. Visiting universities and annexes. Combing through an archive of 83 scrapbooks filled with newspaper articles, letters, invitations, and other ephemera.

Lk Rigor, writer for “Critic/ism in Flux,” and fellow artist Anna Miguel Cervantes at the Purita Kalaw-Ledesma Center

You could say the archives represent an evolving snapshot of the Philippines art scene, decade after decade. Purita put it best, writing in 1962, “No nation has progressed in its cultural development without competent art critics.” Critique must evolve, or at least exist, alongside fresh artistic statement. As curator, Rigor represents this in a series of palimpsests: Purita’s own words and essays rendered on translucent acetate, her letters overlaid on extracted quotes. The idea is to honor the layering, to seek a new context to interpret those insights, and maybe inspire more analysis and critique.

The many archived articles collected or written by Purita Kalaw-Ledesma are rendered as acetate overlays, serving as a guide for critical inquiry.

The exhibit deserves a deep dive as well, studying the 1971 letter of, say, F. Sionil Jose, offering to link arms with Purita and go deeper into art criticism with Solidaridad, his curated bookstore. (“It is now time, I think, to cast aside some of the euphoria and look more objectively at Filipino art itself, where it is heading, what are its qualities and what are its failures.”)

Layering text and photos, Rigor’s constructions suggest a palimpsest of meanings.

Rigor laid out her aesthetic in approaching this assignment (her first gig as curator), calling it a “critique of the critiques,” as she went through various recontextualized essays and notebooks on display at PKL Center. Other works by Lena Cobangbang and Nice Buenaventura are featured, expanding the theme.

In Anna Miguel Cervante’s pieces, she projects “image transfer cured” photo stills taken in besieged Marawi City to suggest the layering of war, distress, and daily life.

We are reminded that art criticism is abstraction: those who examine art for meaning must reach for new definitions and connections, injecting insight from elsewhere—history, or feminism, or race, or futurism—in trying to define something that is ultimately ineffable, except for the expression of the artist, and the attempts of the critic to expand our perception of it.

“A piece of textile draped over a body, and whose, becomes an inquiry.”

Another artist showing at “Critic/ism in Flux,” Anna Miguel Cervantes, was spurred by one of the clippings in Purita’s archives — an essay from 1973 by Rosalinda Orosa (“Is Art Becoming Arty?”)—to examine the nature of wardrobe and social status. The essay touched on “black tie and dress” art openings in Manila, and how it excluded “the masses.” For Cervantes, “a piece of textile draped over a body, and whose, becomes an inquiry.”

Lena Cobangbang, “2nd Life in Lockdown” (2021)

She revisited Marawi City—“ground zero” in a military siege in 2017 that displaced 40,000 families—to take video stills of houses still left razed, lying in debris, fragments of children’s school notebooks left behind, clothes still hanging from windowsills. The stills were the materials to design a vocabulary with her art: transferring the images using projector mapping, then what she calls “image transfer curing” to reimagine them in a physical space, projected onto the walls of PKL Center. The images come with oblique commentary about the function of wardrobe in Muslim culture and perhaps in our co-axial levels of society, vertical and horizontal. As an outsider who is, nonetheless, no stranger to Lanao del Norte and its Muslim population, Cervantes was careful to frame her piece within context, asking herself: “Whom will I intrude upon? How can I appropriately move within this borrowed space?” Not only the material-gathering with cameras, but the framing of the final “borrowed” material itself, must fall under the same kind of objective scrutiny that an art critic must exhibit in trying to “understand” a work.

Nice Buenaventura, “Mojibake” (2019)

All of this was opening act to a second feature of the day’s event, to honor a decade of winners of the Ateneo Art Awards - PKL Prizes in Art Criticism, many of whom gathered to check out the exhibit, socialize over drinks and give their own account of how winning this annual contest —which awards the best art criticism essays received by end of June each year—with a stint as writer for The Philippine STAR Lifestyle section and Katipunan art journal.

(Seated front from left): Anne Marie Ozaeta (KLFI president), Ada Ledesma Mabilangan (KLFI Board), author Scott Garceau, Dra. Lourdes “Wally” Ledesma (KLFI Board), Mayumi Hirano (KLFI director) with (back) show curator Lk Rigor, PKL Art Criticism prizewinners Joyce Roque, Jord Earving Gadingan, Portia Placino, Sam del Castillo, Mary Jessel Duque, Dondie Casanova, Pristine De Leon, Nicole Soriano Lao, Sean Carballo and Jaffy V. Fajardo.

As PKL Foundation trustee Ada Ledesma-Mabilangan put it, creating the contest in 2014 was a “gamble,” resting on the input of curators, museum directors, professors, writers and artists, but it paid off: “We all agreed there should be something that would recognize the importance of a well-researched, well-written art criticism, article or essay, because that is one of the pillars of the art world, and necessary to the culture of life in any country: it needs good art critics.”

It still does.