Penman No. 258: A Boost for Art Education

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Penman for Monday, July 3, 2017

 

I WAS going to write about something else this week, but it’s impossible to avoid the elephant in the room, Ferdinand Cacnio’s sculpture “UPLift,” which has already stirred the biggest art controversy of the year on social media. That it’s happening almost literally on our front yard in UP Diliman makes it even more imperative for me to say something, as people have been asking me to do—given that, with “Vice President for Public Affairs” as my official day job, I’m supposed to speak for UP on matters of public interest, and you can’t think of something more public than sculpture.

That’s also exactly why I have to preface whatever I’ll say here with the disclaimer that I’m writing and speaking today as Butch Dalisay the arts columnist rather than Dr. Jose Dalisay Jr. the university spokesman, if you can separate the two.

With that out of the way, let’s lay out some basic facts. Sometime ago, the UP Class of 1985 Council—a UP alumni group—initiated a project to install the Cacnio sculpture in front of the UP Theater as its donation to inspire “honor and excellence” in the UP community. Smaller versions of the statue were sold to help finance the project. The sculpture was completed and installed, and when the public saw the figure of the nude, golden lady levitating in the air, held up magically only by her hair, their reactions ranged from delight and wonderment to curiosity and agitation—and, sadly, suggestions of plagiarism.

Word began to spread online that the Cacnio piece too closely resembled the Dutch artist Elisabet Bea Stienstra’s 2001 sculpture “Virgins of Apeldoorn”—a charge that Cacnio stoutly denied; he had never, he said, seen the Stienstra work. Soon, as images of other levitating figures in global sculpture emerged, a lively and impassioned discussion erupted over the possibility of plagiarism and the even larger issue of the work’s representation of its subject.

So, what do I think?

First, plagiarism: the similarities may seem obvious, but then so many things in life and art are similar, whether by nature or by design, or even lurking in a kind of universal subconscious. The basic forms we encounter in everyday life—the human face and body, four-wheeled vehicles, trees, birds—are after all pretty much the same. (While we’re at it, just count the number of statues of naked men with arms outstretched that you can find online, from ancient Greece to Africa.) Most portraits follow the same format, even the same pose, but no two faces will ever truly be the same.

When two art pieces are so strikingly alike, it’s almost pointless to state the obvious—that one is a “copy” of the other. Rather, it’s much more fruitful to observe and study the nuances that separate the two. When you come to think of it, art is much more about differences than similarities. And let’s not forget that we live in an age of parody and homage, of memes that recycle the same fundamental image, with incremental changes.

As the painter Imelda Cajipe Endaya pointed out, however, worthier of discussion than plagiarism is the politics of representation: does the piece truly elevate women, or does it—being naked and supine—merely repeat what too many (and often male) artists have already said about women? (This reminds me how, in 1989, an anonymous group of women artists calling themselves the “Guerrilla Girls” plastered New York with posters asking, “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum?” They were responding to a 1984 MOMA show that had only 13 women out of a total of 169 artists.)

With all due respect to the artist whom I’ve never met, my own sense—and here I go with my street-level appreciation of the work—is that it was in a way too passively traditional, that it missed an opportunity to highlight aspects of the female body and psyche other than its idealization.

I know how annoying it is for artists to hear comments like this, but criticism comes with the territory, even if I firmly believe the artist’s freedom of expression to be paramount, indeed near-absolute. It’s tempting and natural for viewers to wonder how the same idea might be worked by another artist—say, Agnes Arellano or Julie Lluch (or the American M. L. Snowden). That kind of speculation, while moot, is also part of our education.

As I told the TV journalist who interviewed me as UP VP about the controversy (and this is as official a statement as I can make), “The work in question was donated and accepted in good faith. Matters of artistic judgment and intellectual provenance are probably best resolved by artists themselves, by courts of law, and perhaps ultimately by the court of public opinion.”

No matter how “UPLift” appeals to us (or not), we should thank its creator for making this discussion possible, because very rarely does art capture the public imagination, as this work has. It’s certainly been worth a semester’s classes in Art Appreciation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our responses to art are conditioned by our experience, our preferences, and our projections—in a sense, by what we expect to get out of the work or what want it to be.

Penman No. 220: Viva Visayan Artists

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Penman for Monday, October 10, 2013

 

JUST LIKE the city itself, which has undergone a refreshing makeover these past few years under the watchful eye of its chief political patron, former Senate President Franklin M. Drilon, Iloilo’s artists have been brimming with a new vitality that art lovers beyond the region have begun to appreciate.

I know that, because a few months ago, my wife Beng—herself an Ilongga artist and conservator who’d gone briefly back to Iloilo on family business—came home with the news that while in Iloilo, she had found and purchased a large painting by one of the city’s brightest young talents. The word “large” pricked my ears because it somehow sounded like “expensive” to me, but then she said she was paying for it herself, so I asked no further.

But I had to find out who the artist was, and Beng—who regularly tends to Amorsolos, Manansalas, Botongs, and Ocampos in her line of work—began gushing like a fangirl about a young painter she’d met while touring the Iloilo art scene with her old friend Rock Drilon. Rock, himself a painter of no mean stature (a recent exhibit at West Gallery displayed a penchant for organic, microbial forms), has been based in his home city for many years now, and has been a guru of sorts to younger artists there. So it was Rock who took Beng around to introduce her to his wards and their work, which was how this haunting painting of a young woman in white drapery found its way to our home in Quezon City. (It was too large to fly home with Beng and had to be professionally packed and shipped; I didn’t get to see it until months later.)
That’s when I first heard of Kat Malazarte, whose first solo exhibit Beng had seen at Casa Real de Iloilo, where Beng’s chosen work titled “Purity” (an apt choice for anyone surnamed Dalisay) had been the centerpiece. Just 20 at the time, she had already won the Vision Petron National Student Art Competition in 2015 for her video entry “Tingnan nang Malapitan, Damhin nang Malaliman” (Examine Closely, Feel Deeply). Indeed there’s a classical composure and pensiveness to Kat’s work, uncommon in artists of her age more prone to wanton kineticism. Her self-avowed themes of “purity, innocence, chastity, modesty, inner silence, contemplation, and state of nothingness” are monastic notions one might associate more closely with a nunnery (Kat’s a Fine Arts cum laude graduate of the University of San Agustin), and her subject’s luminous hands might have been rendered by a Renaissance master.

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So it was with much delight that Beng dragged me a couple of weekends ago to a three-day show at the Gallery at A Space on Legazpi Street in Makati, where a unique concept was being tried out by a pair of young and enterprising creatives, Karen Nomorosa and Prim Paypon. On show were the works of none other than Kat Malazarte and another rising Ilonggo star, the sculptor Harry Mark Gonzales. Dedicated to the theme of “The Quiet Strength of a Woman,” the show of Kat’s paintings and Harry’s sculptures proved a perfect pairing—much like the show’s instigators themselves, who both have outstanding corporate and science backgrounds (both are summas—she in CS, he in Biology) but who’ve taken on the more daunting challenge of promoting Filipino art through their startup venture, Curious Curator.

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“Curious Curator was conceptualized in order to help budding and potential artists from outside Metro Manila, especially from the Visayas and Mindanao, penetrate the mainstream art scene,” said Karen and Prim. “Keeping the welfare of the artist front and center, Curious Curator manages the financial, marketing and sales aspect of the collaboration so that the artist can focus on the creation process. Curated and conceptual art exhibitions are held in non-traditional venues to reach a wider audience. This enables the startup to promote the evolving Filipino artistry while diversifying and simplifying ways that budding art collectors can secure original but affordable art pieces.”

The two-person exhibit at A Space realized that mission. While we had already seen Kat’s work, Harry’s cold-cast marble figures, more than vaguely reminiscent of Henry Moore’s sinuous women, were another revelation. Coming from a background in IT and with a large brood of siblings to help support (he once drove a sikad around the city), this carpenter’s son put his faith in his vision and his hands, and began sculpting pieces that quickly won local collectors over. The self-taught artist won a Metrobank Art and Design Excellence Award in 2007 for a terracotta sculpture he crafted to protest an oil spill in Guimaras. “My main inspiration for these pieces is my mother,” he told me as we surveyed his pieces, whose exaggerated torsos suggested an overflowing fullness of all good things.

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It was too bad the show ran for only three days, from September 30 to October 2, but with rentals at a premium, Karen and Prim have had to be more creative in their marketing, aggressively promoting the featured artists and their work online and selling a good number of them even before the show opened.

As for myself, I got the best part of the deal when Beng generously agreed to lend me Kat’s signature work “Purity” to hang in my new office at the UP Institute of Creative Writing (after the Faculty Center fire last April, we’ve found a new home in Room 3200 of Pavilion 3 at Palma Hall in Diliman).

But there are even more exciting events on the Iloilo art calendar to look forward to, chiefly the Visayas Islands Visual Arts Exhibit and Conference (VIVA Excon) which will be held from November 17 to 21 in Iloilo City. The event will take place in four different venues: the University of the Philippines Visayas (UPV) Art Gallery for the Garbo Sa Bisaya Awardees Exhibit; the Museo Iloilo for the Romeo Tabuena Tribute Exhibition; the UPV Auditorium for Turns in Form (Curated Contemporary Art from the Visayas); and the Visayas Art Fair.

VIVA Excon will also feature lectures on contemporary art practices, talks by artists, and workshops; an art conservator named June Poticar Dalisay, aka Beng, has been invited to talk about art conservation and restoration, and I’m going to do my darnedest best, my schedule permitting, to tag along. Left to herself, Beng just might drag home another local discovery—not that I’d mind too much.

 

Flotsam & Jetsam No. 45: I Love My Pig

THERE’S SOMETIMES a thin line between handicraft and fine art, and I think that this wooden pig I picked up yesterday from a souvenir shop in Puerto Princesa, Palawan may have crossed that line.

It stood all by itself in a roomful of pretty and exquisitely carved objects, but something about its form appealed to me, even the roughness of its finish—that long rise up its spine and then the precipitous drop down its snout, which ends up as solid as a fifth foot, and here and there the little lumps and undulations suggesting bone and muscle.

It was when I lifted it that I knew I had to have it—it’s one hefty porker, having been carved out of ipil (Intsia bijuga), a local hardwood. My hands wrap nicely over its back and belly. This is one pig that’ll be rooting on my desk for a long time.