Tuesday, January 6, 2009


Top 5 events in Philippine visual arts
By Lito Zulueta
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 22:46:00 01/04/2009

THE most exciting development on the art scene in 2008 was obviously the high bidding for Philippine works in international auctions. This was noted by a panel of art industry leaders in the Inquirer Lifestyle’s yearend art forum last Dec. 17. Leading sculptor Ramon Orlina, artist-critic Cid Reyes and Vita Sarenas of the Finale Art File gallery took part in the forum.

“We’ve gone global,” said Sarenas. “Young artists have become recognized here and abroad.”

Reyes agreed. “The art scene is now dominated by the young. They’re the masters of tomorrow. Because of their competitive spirit, they’re the ones who are dominating the scene.”

Sotheby’s Spring Auction held in Hong Kong last April with 18 Filipino paintings generated a total sale of HK$6.9 or P36.8 million. What was most interesting was that young contemporary artists such as Nona Garcia, Annie Cabigting, Ronald Ventura and Rodel Tapaya found themselves in the same seven-figure league (in Philippine peso equivalent) as the masters such as Felix Martinez, Anita Magsaysay-Ho, Vicente Manansala and Fernando Amorsolo.

In the May auction in Singapore by the regional auction house Borobudur, works by Filipino artists under 40 did better than the works of senior or more established artists. The biggest gainers were Yasmin Sison-Ching, Rodel Tapaya and Eufemio Rasco. Among the senior artists, works by Federico Alcuaz and Juvenal Sansò did well.

Last October, two works by Lydia Velasco sold successfully in the Borobudur auction of Southeast Asian Contemporary and Modern Art: “Mona Mystica,” the 78x60-inch acrylic on canvas, and “Spring,” the 48x48-inch mixed-media on canvas.

At the Sotheby’s auction last October in Hong Kong, Ronald Ventura’s large work, “Pinagmumugaran” fetched bids from nine bidders and set a record for a work of Philippine contemporary art at auction. Ventura repeated the feat in last November’s Christie’s auction also in Hong Kong for another work that displays his graphic and compositional dexterity.

In a charity auction for the International Care Ministries in Hong Kong, Ramon Orlina’s “A Father’s Pleasure,” a 36 cm x 27 cm x 18 cm sculpture carved in blue-green glass, sold for HK$135,000 (P835,000). Also doing well was Mario Parial’s nude acrylic, “Joie de Vivre,” sold for HK$120,000 (P745,000).

Dominic Rubio’s “River Cruise,” part of his Old Asia series, was sold for HK$100,000 (P620,000) at a recent charity auction in Hong Kong.

Meanwhile, a Filipino photographer based in Melbourne, Australia set a record for the most expensive set of pictures sold at the Christie’s Southeast Asian Modern and Contemporary Art auction in Hong Kong last June.

“The Passing of Light” by Emmanuel Santos, which comprises 38 black-and-white pictures measuring 26 x 26 inches, was sold for US$44,000 (P1.9 million). It’s the highest on record for Philippine contemporary photography and Southeast Asian photography. They were a combination of first- and second-edition prints exhibited at Silverlens Gallery in Makati, in September 2007.
Reyes said the high prices Filipino art works had been fetching in international auctions should indicate “we’re not insular anymore.” “Auctions are a barometer of how Philippine art is now accepted internationally,” he explained.

But there’s a caveat. “The high prices are not healthy,” said Sarenas. “They’re cheapening Philippine art. Some of the art works don’t really deserve to be in the auction; they’re there because of speculation, because of commerce. We must always remember that sometimes, auctions are a fluke.”

Reyes said that while being in auctions may sometimes create “a false image of the artist’s worth,” and that “there may be certain forces that are contrived so as to hype up artists whose works aren’t quite accepted,” auctions by and large are good for Philippine art.

Orlina, who was instrumental in introducing Philippine works in international auctions like those of Christie’s when he was president of the Art Association of the Philippines, said that Philippine art has become “an investment.”

“Young artists are in demand,” Orlina said. “There’s a market for Philippine art in Hong Kong, Singapore and Asia in general. Now auction houses are looking for young artists because buyers are also very young.”

Reyes explained what makes young artists click. “It is in the nature of the young to be open to trends and challenges,” he said.

Lost Luna work found

The auction regime was enlivened last November not by young Filipino artists but by a master. A work of the old pre-war Filipino master Juan Novicio Luna (1857-1899), believed to have been lost and missing for over a century, surfaced and was auctioned off by Christie’s during its Fall sale of Southeast Asian Modern & Contemporary Art on Nov. 30.

“The recovery of an important and beautiful Luna will surely cause a stir on our art scene,” Orlina told the Philippine Daily Inquirer at that time. (Orlina’s sculptures were among those auctioned off.)

The found work was “Las Damas Romanas” (Roman Maidens), which was supposed to have a floor price of HK$8,000,000-10,000,000 or US$1,025,600-1,282,000).

Prior to the discovery, documentation on the work was scant. It was noted in the 1957 biography of Luna by Carlos E. Da Silva, and appeared as a faded black-and-white photograph from the file of the prewar art dealer and historian Alfonso T. Ongpin, which was reproduced by art historian and teacher Santiago Pilar in “Juan Luna: The Filipino as Painter,” published by the Eugenio Lopez Foundation in 1980.

The painting is an oil on canvas, 100 x 170 cm (around 39 x 67 inches). It is signed and dated “Luna Roman 1883” at the lower right.

Like “Spoliarium,” Luna’s most famous mural showing the corpse of a Roman gladiator being dragged in a chamber under the coliseum, “Damas” is also drawn from ancient Roman history but its elements are cheerful. It shows two maidens on the steps of a building, one with her back reclining on a Roman pillar and the other, partly supine, holding on her leash, two frisky dogs trying to chase doves which are all around them, creating a merry scene of rest and languor. In the background is what appears to be a small shrine with incense smoke rising.

But during auction day, the Luna did not sell on the floor because, as historian Ambeth Ocampo who covered the auction, reported, “Winston Garcia of GSIS was not around to repatriate it,” referring to the non-participation of the Government Service Insurance System in the auction after its controversial attempt in 2002 to recover Luna’s “Parisian Life” in an international auction. “Damas Romanas” was sold out of auction for HK$4.7M or US$606,354.56.

Just the same, the fact that a big work by Luna has been recovered from the dustbin of history should be a cause for joy for Philippine art.

Amorsolo retrospective

Perhaps the biggest visual arts event in 2008 is the multi-museum Fernando Amorsolo retrospective, “His Art, Our Heart,” an ambitious attempt to showcase the length and breadth of the oeuvre and achievement of the first Filipino National Artist (1892-1972). Seven museums—the UP Vargas, Lopez, National, Metropolitan, Yuchengco, GSIS and Ayala—along with several other museums all over the land bring out their respective Amorsolo collections in a seven-month exhibit that pays tribute to the artist who best captured “the essence of Filipino beauty and sunlight on canvas.”

An exhibit held in tandem with the retrospective featured young artist’s interpretations—or better still, deconstructions—of Amorsolo. The linguistic basis of the interpretations was evident in the title of Hiraya Gallery’s brash August show, “Amor Solo: Amores Muchos.” “Eleven artists work together to rediscover an old master each of them hardly knows, admittedly,” the gallery notes said. “But they end up more than simply rediscovering; they reconstruct him, each creating his/her own Amorsolo towards an ever growing set of Amores Muchos. This is an invitation extended to every Filipino—that we look again… at Amorsolo’s works. Not to celebrate his genius by simply remembering him, but by constructing him over and over again.”

The show had a point. Amorsolo cannot be received in the new century by the new generations like a time machine mechanically shuttling between past, present and future; recontextualization is unavoidable. Thus, the young Italian-Filipino Constantino Zicarreli’s “Pathetic Act of Meaningless Violence”—which represents the pathos and violence of recreating an Amorsolo landscape fully: the sunny landscape one associates with Amorsolo has been recast by Zicarelli in his trademark ashen panorama much like lahar land, with the inscription on the painting itself, “This is not an Amorsolo painting,” reinforcing the artistic denial or the creative impossibility of recreating the Amorsolo idiom in its purest form. And Leeroy New’s fiberglass-and-polyurethane sculpture, whose body is a patchwork of Amorsolo iconography and pop images, which the gallery notes said were “Amorsolo recontextualized, reinvigorated for an audience that constantly yet unconsciously juxtaposes classical realism with Nickelodeon.”

“Amores Muchos” was perhaps 2008’s most intriguing art show, but nearly as always when the art of the young addresses the art of the old, its tenor was dismissive of the past, even defiant. At the least, it seemed to make a badge of honor out of the admission of its own artists that they were ignorant of Amorsolo. Perhaps the young should learn to stop putting the cart before the horse: contextualization is always prior to recontextualization.

Although the multi-exhibit Amorsolo retrospective (which runs until March) is calculated to introduce the younger generations to the greatness of Amorsolo, it appears that it is the older generations who are reacquainting themselves with the master as shown by the demographic makeup of those attending the openings and those lining up to the museums. Senior artist James Onglepho said that although the holdings of most of the museums spearheading the exhibit are thin, the works reaffirm Amorsolo’s artistic achievement. He said the exhibits brought to light that the late National Artist was “a master of composition.” Critic-artist Cid Reyes agreed. In the Inquirer Lifestyle art forum, he said the exhibits sustain and bring to another level what many have thought all along—Amorsolo was a Philippine master in the ultimate sense of the term.

But Onglepho lamented that in nearly all of his visits of the museums and galleries, the attendance was woeful. “Kami lang matatanda ang nanonood,” he said. “Where are the young people? Can’t the Amorsolo exhibit become part of educational tours?” Alas, students and young people are making educational tours of “Sis,” “Wowowee,” “Eat Bulaga” and the SM Mall of Asia! And their teachers and school principals who should know better are leading them there: the blind leading the blind.

Bigger, bolder art spaces

The year 2008 will be remembered as the year when major galleries and art spaces moved out of their constricted nooks in the shopping malls into bigger spaces or “art compounds,” as one gallery put it—and rather unorthodox sites. The move embodied the general optimism about Philippine art as getting bigger, bolder.

Silvana Diaz’s Galeria Duemila, no doubt one of the more exciting galleries, moved out of the Megamall into a compound on Loring Street in old Pasay City, following the example of Albert Avellana’s Avellana Gallery, which had moved long ago to a compound on F. B. Harrison Street near the San Juan de Dios Hospital. The compound has since become an art center of sorts.

Toward the latter part of the year, Finale moved out of Megamall to a bigger art space on Warehouse 17, La Fuerza Compound, 2241 Pasong Tamo, Makati City. Finale’s Sarenas said the new space meant a bigger space for Philippine art, particularly for sculptures. “Sculptures are getting popular and a bigger space would provide more opportunities for their appreciation,” she said.

Earlier, Silverlens gallery, a center for the photographic arts, had opened at 2320 Pasong Tamo Extension, Makati. It later opened in the same space a gallery for the visual arts, Silverlens Lab (Slab).

Toward the end of the year, Pasong Tamo (now known as Chino Roces Avenue) consolidated its reputation as, together with the bay area-Park Avenue side of Pasay City, as the new center for the visual arts when regional art dealer Valentine Willie opened his Manila Contemporary gallery at 2314 Chino Roces Avenue, with National Artist Arturo Luz and Philippine Medal of Merit awardee Anita Magsaysay-Ho as special guests.

Other unorthodox but exciting new art places that opened included “Botong’s Up,” a restaurant cum gallery at A. Venue on Makati Avenue, Makati City; and Sigwada gallery in Santa Cruz, which opened last October with a group show by award-winning young artists from UST Fine Arts such as Mark Magistrado, Ivan Roxas, CJ Tanedo, Oliver Ramos and Lawrence Borsoto.

Vatican, Manila sign treaty

Perhaps the most far-reaching event of 2008 was the signing of the treaty between the Holy See and the Philippines on the protection and conservation of the cultural heritage of the Catholic Church in the Philippines. Signed last May 29 by no less than Pope Benedict XVI and President Macapagal-Arroyo, the treaty is the first between Vatican City and Manila since diplomatic relations were established between the two sovereign entities in 1951. That only now has a treaty been signed should show how “the most numerous Church” (Claro M. Rector’s phrase) holds sway in the country: there was really no need for formal agreements because the Philippines almost always puts high premium on its relations with See of Peter, as shown by the fact that the nuncio or papal ambassador is dean of the diplomatic corps in Manila. But that a treaty has now been signed should show the concern of both the Holy See and the Philippines over the survival of the cultural patrimony of the Church that has suffered abuse and misuse from shortsighted clergymen and laymen who look at heritage as a bane to development and modernization.

The treaty stresses the importance of sacred patrimony to the Philippine cultural patrimony. As Cardinal Francesco Marchisano, the former president of the Pontifical Commission for the Cultural Heritage of the Church, said, the Church’s heritage ensemble “constitutes an incisive major part of the cultural heritage of the nation.” The nuncio to the Philippines, Archbishop Karl Edward Adams, put it more plainly: “It is a fact that what constitutes the cultural patrimony of this nation takes its origin from the Church and was contributed by her agents.”

But because the two patrimonies—Church’s and state’s—seem to meld seamlessly, there’s the problematic of who will have the upperhand in the management of the Church’s cultural heritage. After all, the Church’s corporate set-up is such that the bishop—and or through the priests under him—have dominion over the Church’s properties and could freely do with them as they please even if they happen to be historical landmarks or part of a nation’s patrimony. But Fr. Ted Torralba, executive secretary of the CBCP Permanent Committee for the Cultural Heritage of the Church, explained that what the treaty really seeks is “harmonizing the implementation of Philippine legislation within the norms of Canon Law and the exigencies of the pastoral activities of the Church.” He explained the Church has universal laws on heritage conservation that are “timely and timeless” that are “subjects of genuine implementation.”

Other important events

Abstractionist Romulo Olazo’s contributions to Philippine art were reaffirmed when “Azool” opened at the Ayala Museum to much acclaim last August. Already 74 years old and his heart monitored by a pacemaker, Olazo defied expectations by exhibiting large-scale works from his Diaphanous series that belied the state of his health and which engaged the senses with their gossamer brilliance. Toward December, SYM Mendoza, Olalia’s contemporary from UST Fine Arts, did a show of his vintage Cubist-inspired works that showed the artist’s gift for composition and color dimensions.

A stainless-steel work by Filipino sculptor Joe Datuin that reinterpreted the traditional Olympic logo into a flight of the athletic spirit won the grand prize for sculpture in the international Sport and Art Contest in connection with the 2008 Beijing Olympics. “Dancing Rings” recast the conventionally horizontal Olympic logo into a vertical leap of faith, much like a gymnast or a classical dancer in action, to signify both human grace and human solidarity. “We’ve struck gold even before the Beijing games have opened,” Orlina, Philippine Olympic Committee art coordinator, said. Datuin received US$30,000 and a diploma. Meanwhile, “Dreams for Goals,” an oil-on-canvas work by Edmar C. Colmo, a young artist from Molo, Iloilo, won a Highly Re-commended award In the Graphic Arts ca-tegory of the contest.

“Ploning” became the Philippine entry to the 2008 Oscar Awards’ best foreign language film category. Set in Cuyo, Palawan, the film was notable for its production design and art direction, which were faithful to the milieu and the setting and put into practice the lessons of cultural heritage studies and cultural mapping.

Manila-trained Spanish painter Juvenal Sansò’s “Ode to Brittany” at the Alliance Française paid poignant tribute to his late French friend, Yves Le Dantec. The exhibit of powerfully enigmatic Brittany landscapes (where Sansò used to spend vacation with Le Dantec and his family) was a non-selling show that disclosed another dimension to the artist’s expressionist genius. Toward November, Sansò exhibited “Dawnscapes,” consisting of eery landscapes employing the “reverse painting” technique that he developed when he was stage scenarist in Europe back in the 1970’s.

Deanna Ongpin, who used to be with Unesco Paris, became curator of Alliance Française to provide rhyme and reason—and some weight and prestige—to the French cultural agency’s visual arts calendar.

Orlina consolidated his reputation in the region as a leading sculptor when Art Trek, the annual multi-gallery exhibit of Philippine art in Singapore in June around the time when the Philippines celebrates its National Day, opened at the Singapore Management University’s art gallery with an exhibit of his works in glass and brass. Orlina has had a number of large works on display in Singapore, including a large window installation in the Singapore Arts Museum. The exhibit also featured brass works by young sculptor Michael Cacnio.

Master builder Eduardo Castrillo started sculpting a gigantic brass Marian statue in Montemaria, Batangas City that had been planned to be bigger than the Statue of Liberty.

The late Onib Olmedo’s reputation as one of the more seminal and influential figurative expressionists was reaffirmed when the book “Dimensions of Depth,” by art critic Alice Guillermo, was launched to great acclaim. During the launch, National Artist for Literature F. Sionil José, whose Solidaridad Gallery in the 1970’s was the first to show Olmedo, said, “With the significant role that he played in the history of Philippine art, I believe that Onib Olmedo should be given the recognition that he so rightfully deserves by being conferred the title of National Artist for the Visual Arts.”

Exciting young artists in the Ateneo Art Awards finals: Poklong Anading, Marina Cruz-Garcia, Christina Dy, Lyra Garcellano, Robert Langenegger, Mark Salvatus, Rachel Rillo, Mac Valdezco and Mark Valenzuela.

Art publications flourished, such as the quarterly Muse magazine. Glossies that have a strong arts and culture coverage included Metro Home and Entertaining and Cocoon. A new visual arts magazine was born—Contemporary Art Philippines.

- Passages: Angono folk muralist José V. Blanco (March 19, 1932-Aug. 14, 2008); “Manscapes” master Edsel Moscoso (Jan. 30, 1952-Dec. 21, 2008).


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