Negotiating the Influence of Culture OXS Gallery 2017
It’s good to be here again, the drive up was breathtaking, as always. The last time I was here in Carson City, I drove up with my family to attend Tilting The Basin at the Nevada Museum of Art, and it was an honor to be a part of that exhibition, mostly because, it has actually expanded the circle of conversation in the arts by merging two of the major art communities of Nevada in a single exhibition, with the cooperation of the Nevada Arts Council. It’s a big deal that we’re also showing it in Downtown Las Vegas this month on March 16.
I would first like to thank the Nevada Arts Council for this opportunity to share my art with the Northern Nevada Art Community. I remember at a Town Hall meeting, Susan Boskoff said, “Our agency is only as good as what we bring to our communities.” I believe from my very own experience that what the Nevada Arts Council has provided us, is the critical support they have so generously given to many of us struggling artists. Being an emerging artist among the many artists today is one of the toughest jobs in the world, baring your soul for the world to see, exposing weaknesses to criticism, risking to spend so much time making things that do not immediately translate to a fiduciary value in society.
Some of the recent paintings in this exhibition were a part of my Nevada Arts Council’s 2016 Fellowship Exhibition at UNLV. And the other pieces were a part of other exhibitions in previous years at UNLV and the Winchester Cultural Center, which were partially funded by the NAC through their Jackpot Grants. The Nevada Arts Council has been a huge part of my career, again, thank you so much for your support.
Just a little bit about my history, I’ve been living in Las Vegas, Nevada since 2009. My father is a portrait artist, and a professor of fine arts at the State University of the Philippines; my mother was a gallery owner, an art director and production designer in the film industry. Because it was such a cutthroat business, my father made it an absolute necessity for us kids to learn the craft, the rudiments of drawing as a foundation, and then later progressing towards techniques in classical painting. Eventually, my two brothers and I became my father’s assistants in his studio for about 10 years. This is where I’ve learned the discipline to paint 12 to 16 hours a day, and the work hours aren’t even a big deal, I guess because for me painting is part work and part play anyway.
But my career in art took a different turn when I decided to go to business school instead of fine arts. I didn’t want to be a struggling artist anymore, and my father and two brothers were great painters already anyway, so I thought maybe I’d be better off selling and promoting their art instead. So I studied at a university run by the Jesuits, and part of the requirements of the curriculum was also getting a minor in Philosophy and Theology (basically the Humanities) where I came across new ideas from Derrida, Adorno, Marx, Lacan, and many other great thinkers, whose works had me really thinking about painting again — art from a more theoretical or conceptual perspective.
In the most basic and literal way, I believe that art is a mirror that reflects who we are, the way we think and perceive the world, and how we interact with it. The process of painting therefore is like an internet password where you have to think of a unique word or phrase that we can't risk to forget, most likely a hint of something memorable from our lives. In this sense, the meaning of art is encrypted by culture, it is hidden into the form or the mark itself — that, if you're connected or sensitive enough to the culture, you are automatically shared the key to understanding art, its meaning unfolds itself in its own way to the viewer.
During my days in college, I came across this quote from Michel Foucault, 'On the genealogy of ethics’ (1984): What strikes me is the fact that in our society, art has become something which is related only to objects and not to individuals, or to life. That art is something which is specialized or which is done by experts who are artists. But couldn't everyone's life become a work of art? Why should the lamp or the house be an art object, but not our life?
For a while, I felt like there was a need for a serious reexamination of why I desired so much to go back to painting full time. At least in my mind, like the steam engine it sure felt like painting was at its "last gasp" in my generation when technology made much more perfect objects. Was an artist merely a decorator or a designer? But I realized from that quote from Foucault that, in the end, no matter what medium, style, technique, or subject matter, art is ultimately and will always be about people, the lives we live and the tensions between our relationships, a never ending negotiation of ideas that begins at the personal level, between my imagination and the physical limits of my materials; and the progression and realization towards a much wider macroscopic perspective, wherein communities negotiate their cultures between the forces of economics and politics, or between the resistance of the status quo and the inevitability of change as we move forward to the future.
In a recent interview by art critic and journalist Kris Vagner, she mentioned one of her observations that I was a sort of insider-outsider, having one foot “outside”, being actively involved with the many circles and cliques of the Southern Nevada Art Scene, from the Arts Factory to the various downtown art organizations, and the other foot “inside” with groups in the academe including the College of Southern Nevada, Nevada State College, and UNLV. Maybe I get so involved with everything in the arts because I believe that genuine art is an engagement with the community, to engage with oneself first and then encouraging engagement with others with the openness and exchange of a dialogue.
To be honest, I don’t consciously think about these things while painting, and that everything I write and say is mostly an afterthought of experience. Just like the Anasazi people inscribing the Petroglyphs in the Valley of Fire, I guess art is an expression of our encounter with life. It is a natural unrehearsed spontaneous need to communicate with others through culture— our culture being a collective social consciousness as a living and breathing entity that evolves as a genuine response to our changing environment.
I learned about art the hard way.
The art I knew back then was mostly about work, a means of survival. Being an artist is one of the toughest jobs in the world, baring your soul for the world to see, exposing weaknesses to criticism, risking to spend so much time making things that did not immediately translate to a fiduciary value in society. My father was a portrait artist, an art framing entrepreneur, and a professor of fine arts at the university; my mother was a gallery owner, an art director and a production designer in the film industry. Because it was such a cutthroat business at the time, my father made it an absolute necessity for us kids to learn the craft, the rudiments of drawing as a foundation, and then later progressing towards techniques in classical painting. In his eyes, we were his future protégés in the studio, and I guess I can't really blame him for being tough, hectoring us to keep up with his skills, and my mother on the other side playing "good cop", encouraging us to continue with our "good" work.
I remember my mother used to bring home these binders of badly drawn storyboards from the film studio, a mess of arrows pointing to scribbled words and stick figures. On another binder were beautifully illustrated improved versions of the same strips, much like Robert Crumb's drawings based on Harvey Pekar's rough sketches. It became clear to me that serious painting had to start with sharpening the image in my mind through drawing, back to the basics of sketching out a whole series of compositional illustrations from memory first before committing to painting. I use portions of “found photographs” online or from magazines to fill in the details much later in the sketches, distilling and extracting only what is essential so that viewers recognize and identify with the ideas immediately. In a sense, there is still an element of portraiture in my work, but I take those familiar subjects out of their original context, and use them in a certain way that provokes viewers to face their own ideologies, to understand our shared culture a little better with the least amount of effort, much like seeing ourselves through a “Lacanian Mirror”.
Mark making isn't all about accuracy. It is also about recreating the visibility of what is invisible, to interpret the observation of reality into a much richer visual communication. Texture plays a huge role in this process. I love painting with thick globs of paint, just slapping it onto the canvas in a seemingly clumsy way and then leaving most of it to chance on how to polish them later. Spontaneity through bold, thick and heavy strokes, always comes first with the fear of purposely ruining a painting. It brings that sense of contingency and urgency forward, forcing me to follow it through later with the precision of finer lines and defined tonal values. Of course, it's easy to get stuck on the visuals or the elements of design in the work, but every piece I have ever painted has always originated from an underlying philosophical narrative. Form is just one facet to invite the viewers to keep looking, allowing its meaning to remain open and accessible, and eventually enabling the underlying “subtext” in the work to unfold on its own terms. For instance, the 16-foot wide diptych, "A Requiem for the Outsiders", has many levels of form and meaning. It's composition is based on the shape of a Cassini Oval, which is visually associated with the Infinity Symbol. The cross in the image of the Black Nazarene is actually a cropped Facebook logo that stabs right at the center of the painting, suggesting a major a shift to technology from religion as a means to bring a mass of people together. Others see it as a migration of people to the "promised land", a chance to rebuild their lives. Or maybe a clash between different cultures in a segregated society.
Ultimately, in spite of the multidimensionality and layers of meaning, my work is really about people, probing and testing the limits of the human condition. I believe that art has always been about the tension between relationships, a never ending negotiation of ideas that begins at the personal level, between the artist's imagination and the physical limits of materials; and in a much wider macroscopic perspective, wherein communities negotiate their cultures between the forces of economics and politics, or between the resistance of the status quo and the inevitability of change as we move forward to the future. Art is a negotiation indeed, according to John Ruskin, "...between monotony and change, like darkness and light, cool and warm, the one incapable of being enjoyed without the other: change being most delightful after some prolongation of monotony, as light appears most brilliant after the eyes have been for some time closed. In cases of more majestic monotony, the patience required is so considerable that it becomes a kind of pain,—a price paid for the future pleasure."