Vicente Manansala, 1910-1981: National Artist

Painting was his lifeblood, as it was his long love and demanding mistress. Vicente Manansala pursued his artistic career with a singlemindedness of purpose, knowing art to be his own form of self-realization and no other. Even as a newsboy and bootblack in Intramuros, he already recognized his true calling, expressing his early creativity in designing kites and making charcoal sketches from materials saved from his meager schoolboy’s allowance. At 15, he studied under the artist Ramon Peralta while doing signboards for a painting shop. The following year, 1926, he entered the UP School of Fine Arts from which he graduated in 1930. Subsequently, he earned a modest living as illustrator for Herald and Liwayway and as layout artist for Photonews and Saturday Evening News Magazine during the great era of illustration in the Philippines which brought out such talents as Carlos Francisco and Cesar Legaspi.

It was in the 50s that he came out strongly as an artist with his famous painting of jeepneys and of the Madonna of the Slums, a masterpiece of the period. He later sought to enrich his art by studies abroad, in Canada, France, and the United States. In the 60s he made it to the top in the Philippine art scene as a leading first-generation modernist in the country and as one of the most sought-after painters by art lovers and collectors. Last year, he held a successful retrospective, a summing-up of his artistic production for more than three decades, at the Manila Hotel, a show which coincided with the launching of the Manansala book in silver and gilt-edged editions by Rodolfo Paras-Perez, followed by an art auction of his work, the first to be held in lifetime of an artist.

All his life Manansala breathed, lived, and talked art. His warm and vivid personality, sparkling with humor and occasional mischief, was fueled by the love for art. With increasing fame and success, he became a bon vivant, while remaining simple at the core, but never for once abandoning his easel. Late last year, he confided to friends—perhaps feeling the first intimations of mortality—that he would cease to accept commissions, of which he had been veritably swamped, to start working in paintings (“experimental,” he called them) which would lead to a new direction in his art. The morning the artist was taken ill, he probably held brush in hand before a canvas, and when he had to put it down, could he have known that he would never take it up again?

Manansala, or Mang Enteng as fondly called, was at the forefront of the modernist movement in the 50s. But it is of particular interest to note that the exploration on home grounds of modernist idioms derived from Europe and the United States was, in the same decade, followed by a wave of national self-consciousness which raised questions of national identity and culture. Manansala, along with his fellow artists of the period, among them Galo Ocampo, Legaspi, Botong Francisco, and H. R. Ocampo, did not put to question the idea of the nationalist orientation of art. Their works of the period reflected the social environment, the Manila of the post-war period, and expressed the native sensibility and temperament.

Of the modernists who emerged in the 50s, it is probably Manansala who has had the largest and most sustained influence on the younger artists. Mang Enteng opted to work in the figurative mode, with the exception of a few occasional abstract works. But shunning Amorsolo’s rural idyls, the new artists painted the faces of the city. And it was primarily Manansala who created and developed the new imagery. From his paintbrush issued multifaceted images of Manila endowed with a distinct personality: ravaged by war but picking up the pieces and recovering by dint of creative ingenuity expressed in the noisy and ubiquitous jeepney and in the ragtag barong-barongs. Most of all, unlike the great industrial cities and commercial hubs of the West, the city of Manila through the vision of the artist had a strong folk character, where the only cosmopolitanism was of the GI Joe variety and of the creoles and Americans of the past colonial regimes who set up their industries on the fat of the land. It was a struggling city of small vendors and hawkers with their petty, picturesque trades that brought in a subsistence income. At the time, Quiapo was still the center, with its church of the Black Nazarene reeking with incense and echoing with somnolent waves of song. And all around it in the patio and spilling over the sidewalks were, and have always been, the vendors of holy rosaries, novenas, and scapulars, and of candles, slender yellow or waxy red in flat human shapes to fulfill a personal vow or beg for a miracle. Manansala’s women sat veiled and hunched over their wares, their brown impassive faces like the archaic bululs, block-like and chiseled in broad planes, their large bare feet sticking out from the hem of their sayas.

The menfolk took to cockfighting as the native machos, kerchief knotted around the head, rooster carried in the crook of an arm, reared in the game from adolescence. The flurry of the cockfight brought out the vibrant hues of folk culture in sharp transparent facets. A key painting of the period is the Madonna of the Slums, in which predominate brown tones in the representation of mother and child in figures simplified but expressive, set against the makeshift walls and roofs of the barong-barongs in the geometric and contrapuntal patterns of cubism. Another early theme was that of a family seated at table for a modest meal in quiet reverential attitudes. Also not to be overlooked are the Manansala still life of native fruits and vegetables, of fish with their spiky patterns, and of the utensils of the indigenous kitchen, the almeres, palayok, and kawali, in a delicate play of tonalities against window frames or translucent capiz squares.

Manansala’s vision of the city and his fundamentally native and Filipino approach to his subjects would influence numerous artists who would take up his folk themes within an urban context. Among them is counted Malang with his own version of folk romanticism in paintings that convey the same fragile, makeshift character of the 50s. With him are other artists, largely from UST, such as Antonio Austria, Angelito Antonio, Mario Parial who all draw on the same fascination for the folk with their small occupations and pleasures. The senior artist’s most recent followers include some Laguna artists with a strong folk background such as Manuel Baldemor and Nemesio Miranda, Jr.

His particular style derived from cubism also influenced the work of Ang Kiu Kok, Romeo Tabuena in his later style, and Hugo Yonzon. The cubist aspect of Manansala’s work rests largely in the geometric faceting of forms and the shifting and overlapping planarities. However, in Manansala, the facets and planes are broader than in original cubism and bring out on large rhythms. Here and there are incorporated linear and decorative patterns, as in the ironwork curlicues of gates and windows. He exploited to the full the implications of transparency in the original cubist style of Braque and Picasso. Unlike analytical and synthetic cubism which arbitrarily fragmented and dissected the figure into a complex abstract composition with only a few stray hints of the subject remaining, Manansala stayed close to the figure, simplifying it to its basic geometric planes but refusing to do it violence. On the whole except for a short black and white period of Crucifixions and Madonna-and-Child paintings, he shunned the basic austerity of the European style with its limited use of color and instead used colors in all its folk vibrancy, sensuous appeal, and evocative power. His compositions feature lines of perspective creating a shallow space, but these are simultaneously opposed by lines and planes which create spatial ambiguities that play on planarity and recession. His still lifes have a tapestry-like quality as the various objects, not fragmented but left entire, occupy the visual field, bright figures on a dark, ambiguous space, at times showing the influence of the 17th century Dutch interiors with their checkerboard motifs, at other times, keenly aware, in the Oriental manner, of spatial resonance. On the whole, he reinterpreted cubism according to the native Filipino sensibility as he drew his themes from the familiar environment.

Manansala’s art constituted a solution to the problems of the 50s in terms of the use of modern Western idioms and their local transformations, and in terms of the subject matter and content of art as reflecting a people’s identity. Life and art for him were one and the same as he enjoyed, through the years, his steady fulfillment as an artist. With his death, Vicente Manansala as artist is now part of Philippine art history, especially in its difficult searching years, and as man he becomes part of the national legend.

Observer, 8 September 1981, 40–1.

From FrissonThe Collected Criticism of Alice Guillermo. Download the complete book here.

Abstract and/or Figurative: A Wrong Choice

The recent series, “Abstract Art and the Masses” by Domingo Castro de Guzman, has given rise to a number of reflections that have a bearing on the question of art and politics. Much of the attraction of his essay has presumably been in terms of the colorful vituperations and its emotional vehemence, but we choose to disallow ourselves such luxuries, indeed so fraught with hazards on the plane of the intellect as they so easily slip into the pitfalls of self-indulgence and intolerance.

To begin, we state that the categorization of figurative versus abstract is not decisive in the matter of the politics of art. In other words, the politics of art cannot be reduced to the simple equation of figurative equals progressive and abstract equals reactionary, or to modify, that the potentials for progressive lie with the figurative and those for reactionary with the abstract. For one thing, there is a danger in the simple dichotomy of progressive and reactionary, one that we sense when we move away from the black-white categories of good-bad, sheep-goats. This kind of dialectic is simplistic because it does not take into account the incipient or latent forces and energies within the categories. The danger, too, is that human beings and everything else will be victims of labelling: figurative you go to heaven, abstract you go to hell. Domingo Castro de Guzman may refuse this reduction to absurdity, but the emotionalism of his essay runs along a single track and ultimately leads to such a formulation. Another thing is that to place heavy stress on the dichotomy of figurative and abstract has the effect of isolating these two modes and considering them as self-sufficient categories in themselves, cut off from their historical dimensions in which alone they assume full meaning.

Abstract art is attacked as the enemy with such a passionate urgency, too, that we can easily imagine placards saying: If it is not Nuclear War it is Abstract Art that will blast us all, artists and non-artists alike, to Kingdom Come. It is attacked mainly because it is escapist, hence reactionary, and because, as in the example of Pollock, ugly, but then not ugly enough in an articulate way “to connect it with capitalist ugliness.” However, such a violent attack on abstract art only serves to divert the attention of the public away from the more immediate and potent effects of figurative art when used in the service of the ruling elite. The history of art will bear out the fact that the Western despotisms created and strengthened the classical Academy, as against spontaneous individualizing styles, because classical figuration supported the image of the absolute and the permanent that they wanted to project of their regime, which, through art, would obtain the sanction of venerable tradition. Examples are Jacques-Louis David’s paeans of Napoleon and propaganda tableaux meant to instill civic virtues in the new order which betrayed the ideals of the French Revolution. There are, of course, more recent examples in which the figurative style is harnessed to make glowing narrative accounts of the life and exploits of contemporary rulers, or to create myths in which the earthly powers are transported by art onto the plane of the legendary, and thereby invested with the aura of invulnerability, physical inaccessibility, and immortality. Let us remember that a lot of authoritarian art was in a conservative style of figuration. Shall we here also recall that Hitler himself did sorry academic nudes? (They bore little evidence, however, of his famed demagogic passion.) On the other hand, abstract art is not so easily serviceable to the ruling elite whose eulogies, in order to be useful for their purposes, will be rather in the figurative than in the abstract. For central to their myth-making is portraiture, and a portraiture, too, which intentionally cultivates a specific morphology of power, implicit with the ambivalence of attractiveness and inaccessibility. In terms of propaganda, whether overt or subtle and subliminal, figurative art carries more potential for conveying values because these values are within the context of a recognizable human situation. In contrast, the values that abstract art conveys are conveyed indirectly, a number of times removed from experienced reality, through the formal means of line, color, value, texture, shape, etc., in themselves. Abstract art conveys human values such as intellectual order, spontaneity, sensuousness, or pleasure in ornament, but these are not in a situational context.

As to the allegation that abstract art is escapist, a kind of self-indulgent, lotus-eating experience, this does not hold true in all cases. It may be true for decorative or purely sensuous abstraction, but the viewer is very rarely placed in a condition that he is continually saturated in a sensuous visual experience to the point of mental torpor, for, on the whole, these spells are only temporary pauses in a strenuous existence. Then, too, given the depth and breadth of human complexity, surely an occasional purely sensuous response to art as to nature and physical reality, while on the level of the senses and hence superficial, would not by itself constitute political culpability. It is, in fact, not possible, nor psychologically sound, to reject any mode of visual experience. We recall that non-figurative art did exist in various forms before the modern period, as in the Celtic Book of Kells. A great deal of Islamic art is non-figurative because of religious injunctions.

But relevant to the charge of escapism is the fact that many works in the figurative mode are no less escapist than forms of abstract art which may be considered as such. Under this would fall tourist art with their imagery of abundance, truly escapist fantasies in these lean times, while they propagate the illusion that all this bounty is still within the reach of all. In fact, these are all the more insidious in effect than abstract art because they perpetuate myths of reality in the service of ruling class interests. Figurative works of pure visual delectation without any more solid ideational basis are those which typify the epitome of “bourgeois art” especially since they do not pose any intellectual or aesthetic challenge.

On the other hand, it may well be possible that a state may encourage a hermetic art confining itself within the circumscribed perimeters of aesthetic concerns and denying socio-historical relevance and meaning while claiming a supra-historical character. Such can take the form of a tautological diversion, with little or no contribution to aesthetics, because no issues are raised and the use of materials and techniques is not shaped by an intelligible intellectual structure. And if there is at all, the structure may be lacking in originality, because it is second-hand or borrowed, and hence does not possess the dynamics to develop into a total aesthetics and situate itself within the coordinates of society and history. The state espousal of such art can proceed from the concealed motive of defusing the strong political potential of art in a society in the throes of change. But this is a specific situation with its particular vocabulary and politics, and as such does not make abstract art reprehensible per se.

Another attack mounted on abstract art is on its formal qualities. The work of Pollock, for instance, is cited as a “monotonous wormy ugliness” with its technique of splattering and “splurging.” By attacking the work of Pollock on the basis of its formal qualities, one easily falls into the snares of formalism which one has eschewed as an unsatisfactory approach to art. For the issues raised in a work of art may far exceed its importance as a singular object: aesthetics thus shifts from the approach based on a limited formal and strictly empirical analysis to a dynamic investigation of the issues raised and these situated within their historical framework of time and place. The work of Pollock, which was a reaction against formal abstraction typified by Neo-Platonism, posits the values of the spontaneous and personal gesture, the physical energy and kineticism of the individual artist. The Chinese, for one, appreciated these very qualities in their calligraphy as a personal mark apart from the meaning of the characters themselves. Pollock’s works are visual statements which assert the dimensions of the visual field as an arena enveloping and drawing in the viewer, reject traditional central focusing and the compartmentalization of space, refuse the traditional role of line as defining form, and deny the absolute finality of the work. Now, there is the famous story of one unfortunate monkey, who, given a brush and a canvas, was purportedly able to produce something that resembled the painting of Pollock, but a monkey does not have the capacity to conceptualize and raise aesthetic issues and neither does it have the consciousness of reacting to preceding art traditions. And while some may choose to dismiss Pollock’s work as formalistically unimportant, still it is impossible to lightly ignore the far-reaching influence of the abstract expressionists and Pollock on succeeding art.

Needless to say, much of the uglifying thrust in modern art constitutes an aggressive reaction [against] the notion of art for pure sensuous pleasure, a value so easily co-opted by the bourgeois establishment, as well as [against] persisting vestiges of the classical criteria of beauty and art which are no longer relevant to our times, and which are moreover aristocratic in politics. The ugly woman images of de Kooning, also gestural in approach, demolish the common expectations of the beautiful in art. Doubtless, they pose an aggressive challenge to the prevailing expectations of the ordinary art public and must be given due credit for courage. These images seen in the context of the brutality and brashness of American capitalist society, which has exceeded the economic reach of the Old World.

There is however, another angle not to be overlooked. Out of the Federal Arts Project of the Roosevelt administration which sought to restore a viable economy after the Crash of Wall Street, two groups of artists emerged: the abstract expressionists and social realists. The abstract expressionists of the New York School eventually enjoyed massive critical support from such influential quarters as Thomas Hess of Artforum, while the artists of social comment often rate so much less corresponding space in discussions of American art. These latter are, in fact, largely neglected and art students are generally left unaware of the vital figurative side of American art, enriched by such artists as Philip Evergood, Ben Shahn, George Tooker, etc. With their themes of trade unionism and class inequalities, they were likely victims of the hysterical witch-hunting of the McCarthy period because of the strong social implications of their art.

As we have earlier said, we do not wish to stress the figurative and abstract dichotomy, but prefer to view the development of modernism within its historical perspective. Now there was, with the Industrial Revolution, a conscious rupture between the 19th century Academy and the rising modernists as seen in the defiant Salons de Refuses from Manet to the impressionists. One battlecry of the new art was enunciated by Maurice Denis who declared that before a painting was a beautiful nude or a battlehorse, it was, first of all, a canvas covered with colored pigments. This statement with its implications for abstraction, was a position articulated against 19th century academism in France, which, like elsewhere, was burdened with antiquated and anecdotal subject matter colored by bourgeois sentimentality. To reject the Academy, therefore, was to make a strong opposing position. It was likewise a position which affirmed what Janet Wolff calls the “specificity of art,” its own formal language as distinct from the other human disciplines, at a time when it faced the danger of collapsing into the literary and the didactic. It was, likewise, a necessary repositioning of art in the context of the rapid socio-economic change ushered in by the Industrial Revolution. And one premise in this refocusing of art dealt with asserting its autonomy, relative however, to historical and social coordinates, as all distinct human activities and specializations are viewed within the socio-historical perspective.

Thus, what happens is that the development of modernism had to do with exploring and extending the limits of the unique language of art. The thematic concern for space, for the relationship of figure and ground, for instance, which is, of course, in the realm of the aesthetic, parallels Einstein’s relativity theory in its new interpretation of the universe and reality as against the static and mechanistic concepts of Euclid and Newton. The idea of the relative movements of the universe of which man is a part, the notion of the living organism and organic evolution are implicit concepts, for instance, in the works of Paul Klee.

The abstract artists are to be carefully distinguished in their philosophies. Mondrian’s art was based on Neo-Platonism in which he sought, by limiting his means to the primary colors and to the horizontal and vertical axes, to create visual reminders of the underlying harmony of the universe, one based on mathematical relationships even as the classical Greeks apprehended God as the Great Geometer—a political conservatism which is anchored to the idea of an immutable and absolute order underlying the universe from which erring man but temporarily strays. In Russia arose two opposing artistic responses to industrialization: suprematism and constructivism, two antagonistic groups. The suprematist Malevich asserted that art was meant to be useless and had no bearing on society whatsoever. His White on White was supposed to mean final emancipation, a state of nirvana where man’s will sheds its materiality and merges with infinity. He refused any cooperation possible between artist and scientist-engineer. His position thus clearly typifies the ivory tower artist who insists on art as a purely hermetic exercise without any socio-historical dimension and outside the larger arena of human experience. By so removing from art any links with reality, and hence any potency for modifying, influencing, or changing reality through the conveying of values in ways direct or extremely refined, conscious or unconscious, he served the interests of a politics based on the static and immutable, and finally the ineffable and metaphysical which man can neither know or affect. In contrast, the constructivists, likewise working in the abstract, upheld a progressive politics which gave full support to the revolution, although their innovations and artistic program were not understood, being beyond the current levels of aesthetic and technological development. The abstract art of the constructivists, more active in sculpture and in architecture than in painting, aimed to redesign the modern environment that would reflect the modern technology and at the same time create a truly human space. Their art, as it later became disseminated in the Bauhaus, was based on design along a thorough understanding of materials and techniques, to advance their aims of environmental renewal in social and technological terms, with the cooperation of artist, architect, and scientist-engineer. While abstract, this art was, indeed far from being escapist and apolitical as it believed in the socialization of art, with the aim to “meet the material needs, to express the aspirations of the revolutionary proletariat.” In painting, Ed Lissitzky invented a new medium of propaganda through the use of geometric symbols. What all this goes to show is that abstract art ranges within a political spectrum. Present aesthetic demands that one go beyond the merely formal and descriptive qualities of the individual works to the issues involved and thus to comprehend the range of politics underlying the varieties of abstract art.

The figurative and abstract modes in art are, moreover, not irreconcilable poles of an antagonistic relationship. Most of the finest works of figurative art have an underlying abstract framework. One thinks, for instance, of the admirable Dutch interiors of Vermeer and the 17th century Dutch petits-maîtres, with their geometric structures that interplay with the delicate light-and-shade. We can only surmise how much these interiors with their precision and clarity provided the basis for Mondrian’s balances. The best figurative art grapples with elements of line, value, color, texture, shape, and spatial disposition in abstract relationships in order to arrive at greater coherence and expressiveness.

From impressionism in the later 19th century to cubism and futurism before the First World War, to dadaism and orphism between the wars, art moved irresistibly towards abstraction in an unrelenting exploration of the formal vocabulary and specific language of art in its potentialities for expression. Serene and classical beauty had become an anachronism in the context of the violence and anguish which attended the events of our century. In its stead was expressiveness, as well as a new role of art as challenger of traditions petrifying into academisms. The School of Paris is more than half a century and two world wars away through which time we have gone beyond the original isms that created the range of modern art. We have transcended the labels of the isms because so much has occurred in the history of art and human history since then and these events call for new means of expression. We have likewise gone beyond positing the dichotomies of abstract and figurative, because the new art, after abstraction had been reached, is an art, neo-figurative, perhaps, which has learned and enriched itself immensely from the resources of abstraction.

Thus the furor about abstract art is rather belated—it is no longer a relevant and burning issue. In the context of art history, it has enriched the language of art and its varieties show how artists have expressed their philosophy and worldview through the formal language of painting and sculpture. But since art continually evolves, there are always redefinitions and syntheses, as new aesthetic issues are raised which at the same time convey values of direct or indirect political import. There could in fact be a conservative abstraction, grown petrified and academic, because reduced to stylistic mannerisms. The political positions of contemporary artists make up an entire spectrum of persuasion which has to be delicately sifted and discerned. The mode, whether essentially abstract or figurative, does not per se determine the politics of art. What one has to reckon with are the philosophies and ideational structures often supported by statements, manifestoes, or personal records, and of which the works are visual conveyors.

In contemporary art, then, abstraction will always be a component of the aesthetic language. In the case of agitprop for the masses in response to topical issues, it is expected to be figurative—illustrative, in fact, with the values of directness and clarity. Posters, for instance, are a common vehicle for political agitprop. But even posters do not support the dichotomy of figurative vs. abstract. Many Cuban posters, visually exciting for their original approach, verge on abstraction, if they are not actually abstract. While addressing the large population, they are able to use sophisticated means effectively, being able to convey, through largely formal resources, notions of absence, rupture, conflict, solidarity, etc., with an admirable emotional range and subtlety. Another example is the mass media which learns much from formal resources to convey concise and graphic value-laden images. The very potency of much of present art arises from the contributions of abstraction.

In this particular period of art history, co-extensive with the history of human events and cultural expressions, we have exposed false categories and demystified myths that were impositions of the academe: painting and sculpture as separate categories, or abstract and figurative as unrelated modes. Art has expanded greatly in terms of materials, techniques, styles, and the artist, enjoying artistic freedom, is heir to these rich resources discovered, explored, and elaborated on by his precedents. With these resources, however, there rests for him the crucial matter of political choice and standpoint: an art caught in the toils of the bourgeois establishment or an art in search of a new liberating order.

WHO, 24 August 1983, 30–2.

From Frisson: The Collected Criticism of Alice Guillermo. Download the complete book here.

The Social Form of Art

The criticism of Alice Guillermo presents an instance in which the encounter of the work of art resists a series of possible alienations even as it profoundly acknowledges the integrity of distinct form. The critic in this situation attentively dwells on the material of this form so that she may be able to explicate the ecology and the sociality without which it cannot concretize. The work of art, therefore, becomes the work of the world, extensively and deeply conceived. Such present-ness is vital as the critic faces the work in the world and tries to ramify that world beyond what is before her. This is one alienation that is calibrated. The work of art transpiring in the world becomes the work of the critic who lets it matter in language, freights it and leavens it with presence so that human potential unerringly turns plastic, or better still, animate:

Against the cold stone, tomblike and silent, are the living glances, supplicating, questioning, challenging, or speaking—the eyes quick with feeling or the movements of thought, the mouths delicately shaping speech, the expressive gestures, and the bodies in their postures determined by the conditions of work and social circumstance. The workers reach out to the viewer with a finely focused human presence, a pervading reality made even more acute by an implicit sense of struggle, a vital tension coming through.1

Guillermo, however, does not only constellate the work and the world. She is also interested in how the work and the world play out in time. Though this effort need not end up in a proposition of art history, it is nearly by default an articulation of a desire to historicize or to furnish a context for that which materializes as art. The art critical practice of Guillermo, therefore, is parlayed into a consolidation of sorts of an art historical discourse. The criticism of the everyday life of art and exhibition-making becomes the primary ethnographic datum, as it were, of art history. While mediated by procedure, the categories of artwork, artist, and exhibition become some kind of evidence of the life/world of art in time. Here, the status of these agencies is complicated because the supposed object of critique is actually the subjectivity of the critique. The work of art finally overcomes both the isolation and the seriality of objecthood within an autonomous space, as it is reinscribed within a wider meshwork of relations. This is the second moment of alienation that is hurdled.

The third one intersects with the professional biography of Guillermo as a teacher, scholar, and academician within a broadly intuited realm of the Humanities. She would situate the study of art across the politics of culture and its contentious representations. In this regard, she was insistent on a reappraisal of the discriminations of high art and the recuperation of a genus of art that has been stigmatized as bearing inferior aesthetic valence. For her, the binarisms wedded into fine art and folk art, art and craft, and so on are not only needless, they ultimately affirm the untenable asymmetries of class, ethnicity, and the other constitutions of the self. In other words, she sought to restore the generative relationships of forms within a more generous Humanities, one that does not only invest in art but in an affective sensibility that is not beholden to the doxa and habitus of a cultural elite. This made her engage in a wide gamut of interests and disciplines, as she wrote not only on the visual arts but on film, literature, and performance as well as forayed into the commentary of the public sphere and the socio-political sensorium in general. She may have been the only practitioner of this kind in her time: a critic of faceted sympathies and a gifted observer of all things Philippine. All told, the Humanities inspired Guillermo to evoke the big picture, as it were.

What this anthology offers to the reader is the relationship of the art critic to the language with which to disseminate the criticism. This is a language shaped by academic knowledge as well as experience with the material of art and the life of artists. The interplay between the two is oftentimes complex, steeped in contradictions as well as in efforts at reconstruction which defy convenient dualities. Moreover, this language passes through circuits that are not exclusively within the domain of the art world and academe, which in the long term may morph into echo chambers and hermetic circles. The language of art criticism is transformed time and again through the parole of its dissemination and the politics of reading itself. What is gathered here are essays for the mass-circulation popular press that addresses a general audience. The critic finds the most suitable pitch or tone with which to put the discourse across without necessarily diminishing its theoretical density. This is a tough act to carry out, but one that is finessed over years of practice. It is for this reason that Guillermo’s turn of phrase can at once be lyrical and incendiary. Most of all, it is ostensive, alert and wide-eyed to metaphorical cognates. It is demonstrative, precise in its simulation of an ambience, punctual in its poetic urgency. For instance:

There is a continuous sense of submergence and perilous drifting in a Freudian sea, twilight-violet or blood-red, where the convolutions of brain and gut become chambers of coral and sea anemone. Space here is transparent and in timeless suspension, enclosed and hermetic as in a womb. In the fluid vehicle, brains float and innards unravel and spread out for scrutiny as hairlike cilia comb the waters and absurd organic accordions contract and expand. At one time, a homunculus with a threatening face and vestigial claws rends the nightmare open.2

The other aspect that his compendium focuses on in the conduct of critical writing is method. Guillermo’s sustained argumentation on the intricate relationship between art and the socius and the concomitant dynamism that both infuse into each other is supported by a scheme of thinking and writing that endeavors to cast art as an integral form. This is wrought in the dialectic between historical forces and the aesthetic intervention, a mixture of the delicate touching at the seams of Theodor Adorno and the rupture prefigured by Walter Benjamin. Guillermo reweaves this theoretical textile through a careful teasing out of the strands of the formal fabric without letting the fabric overdetermine the form as mere sociological function. Useful in this operation is her turn to the semiotic as a sieve through which the material condition of art and the artistic condition of the material are imagined to condense in sensuous particularity and political quality. Layered around this formativity of the artwork is the ideological formation of the beholder, a subject to be sure, of the Althusserian apparatus and its negative critique. It is at this point that Guillermo delicately pushes and pulls the various forms of materiality as a way to elude the capture of instrumentalization or idealization and the defiles of reduction or generalization. Her sensitivity to humanistic philosophy, materialist critique, and the history of art strongly places her at an angle of vision to enable her to discern the nodes of context and the elucidations of emergence. Forms, therefore, are rooted and yet released, relativized and yet distinguished, cherished and yet implicated. A work of art in Guillermo’s critical program is not reducible to a leviathan force; it is rather rendered complicit and intractable in an assemblage or a conjuncture. An encompassing “cognitive mapping” is revealed through levels of facture and meaning even as a singularity finds it ground.

In grappling with language, the art critic astutely choreographs the tension between form and content. These categories are provisional, with their autonomies or self-sufficiencies dissolved in a vigorous interaction between discrepant phases of a work’s formativity. In the succeeding quote, Guillermo reveals the reciprocations between technique and discourse as well as the conjuration of a feeling:

Conflict is expressed in a vigorous dialectic of lines, as in Eskirol. The continuous oscillation of outlines and the lively dialogue of gesture is disciplined by a stern geometric framework of verticals and horizontals. This may likewise function on the symbolic level, articulating the barrier separating protagonist and antagonist in the conflict…Characterization is achieved through gesture and telling detail: the sleek mustache of the ilustrado, the long flowing hair of Sisa. Faces speak, mock, grieve, or silently stare. At times, a kind of historical atmosphere is attained, summing up in an image the collective experiences of a people. But one important contribution of Castillo is the image of the hero that is realized in a few of his works. Truly, here is an artist who has not, in any obscure or patent form, betrayed the people in his portrayal of them.3

The language and the method of criticism are finally sharpened in light of the praxis of Guillermo, foremost as a writer in media and popular culture who endeavors to reach out to a wide public that is introduced to the modernities of an aesthetic situation, or specifically, the appreciation of specific objects, actions, and sensations that fall under the epistemological category of art. This struggle with language and method to discursively assemble an audience would form the praxis of Guillermo’s persistent pedagogy as a critic whose textual production is instructive because it constantly deconstructs and re-institutes a fragmented humanity and its creative expressions.

In her critical sorties, Guillermo writes affectively and persuasively and is never glib or smug; she neither peddles influence nor sells contrived ideas. She does not try to dazzle the unsuspecting reader with self-referential word play that has very little regard for intellectual lineage. She stays away from high-handed verbiage and does not write with a pose, but with a certain “sharpness that draws blood.”4 And when she finds weakness in the art, she hints at options even for social realist artists whom she thinks need to work on expressivity, the characterization of the particular, and inventiveness as a way to demystify the typical as well as the academic and the anecdotal. All told, her writing does not suffer pretensions and cares for the public’s labor to ponder and probe, not consumed by the fantasy and conceit of cultivated fluency.

Perhaps it is in the exposition of social realism where Guillermo’s mindset percolates. It is for this reason that one of her essays, “Abstract and/or Figurative Art: A Wrong Choice,” is set apart in this anthology. This is largely to shed light on a polemic that has acute implications. One of the main arguments to shore up this discourse of social realism pertains to how the form embodies the essential elements of the phrase: “social” and “realism.” Guillermo seeks to enhance this politically charged form that has been claimed by the dialectical tradition as well as socialist ideology. On the other hand, the ample reach of both the “social” and “realism” also lends well to a liberal demos, affirming the ethos and habitus of the popular, because it is supposedly of, for, and by the people. These tendencies would be in the long term framed institutionally, and therefore “officially,” by governments and academies, or both.

Guillermo disciplines the polytropic disposition of the term by stating that the social realist is not academic and not anecdotal. In this formulation, realism, which comes to a post-colonial art history via academic realism, is severed from its orthodox origins. That being said, the social, which may be imagined to dissipate as some kind of “scattered phenomena,” cannot be described as unmediated or indiscriminate. Guillermo, therefore, simultaneously emancipates and hinges the social realist form, from the strictures of the institution and the fantasies of freedom, on the one hand, to the articulation of the material condition and the liberation of its prospects, on the other. Through this delineation, it assumes an irreducible particularity, inflected with humanistic expressivity and inventiveness, and aspires to a total or universal “thought-feeling complex.” For Guillermo, this is the only way to frustrate any effort to drain the energies of the social and the real through the routine exercises of instrumentalist instinct.

The other salient trajectory into which the social realist passes is the modern. It is the post-colonial modern that sustains the critique of the hegemonic canon and institutional power and lets the social realist refunction distortion and abstraction, for instance, as idioms of negation and transcendence. The modern breaks through tradition even as it renews it. The modern, therefore, reorganizes a subjectivity best suited to respond to the condition of “time” and what it means to invest “space” or locality with present-ness; and how the latter gains the valence of a historical context, which absorbs the ethnic, the national, the contra-colonial. Inevitably, the consciousness of the self and of the past suffuses this subjectivity.

Finally, as has been alluded to earlier, the social realist speaks to the temptations of the people and the popular. This moment mutates into variations across a spectrum of the related manifestations of the “mass” and the “commodity” both of which circulate in labor movements and markets, in solidarities and consumers. It is at this conjuncture that the social realist intervenes to foreground the category of class and politically mediate the mass to the extent that the aesthetic material becomes a pedagogical material, a means of learning the intricacies of a resolutely class society.

This assemblage enables Guillermo to bring into a dynamic interaction, a rhythmic reciprocation of forces so that the social realist does not only fulfill its axiological promise of rearticulating the social ethically and aesthetically, it also, finally, pursues the praxiological premise of art as an embedded permanent seminar in the imagination of Beuys under the auspices of a permanent war fully fleshed out in action as contemplated by Foucault.

In the landscape of art critics in the Philippines, Guillermo was one of the most prolific and the most dedicated to the métier.5 While her colleagues like Leonidas Benesa, Emmanuel Eric Torres, Rod Paras Perez, and Cid Reyes furthered artistic and curatorial practice alongside criticism, she was dedicated to writing and teaching.6 It was also Guillermo who would risk to always locate the nexus between art and society. Paramount in her mind were the coordinates of production that oriented the vast enterprise of art as a project of society and not a culmination of commodity or the achievement of objecthood. But never was Guillermo not curious and inquisitive. Her passage into the work was not knowledge fully formed or judgement conclusively crafted. It was rather what she felicitously called frisson, the thrill of the senses that arouse, enliven, quicken. A shiver or a chill, the frisson is an omen; it is as well a visceral response. It was this stirring that drew her to art, the same catalyst that she redistributed across the decisively, relentlessly social form.


1 Alice G. Guillermo, “Renewing Realism,” Who, 28 September 1983, 31.
2 A. G. Guillermo, “Malang’s Pleasure, Drilon’s Pain,” Observer, 12 May 1981, 46.
3 A. G. Guillermo, “Castillo: A Total Vision,” Cultural Research Bulletin 1, no. 2 (October-November 1975): 12.
4 A. G. Guillermo, “Abdulmari Imao: The Tausog Artist Does a Pigafetta,” Who, 17 May 1980, 21.
5 See Patrick D. Flores, “The Abstractions of Critique: Alice Guillermo and the Social Imperative of Art,” Southeast of Now: Directions in Contemporary and Modern Art in Asia 3, no. 1 (March 2019): 125–42.
6 See Patrick D. Flores, “Lineage: Leonidas Benesa and Alice Guillermo,” Pananaw 6 (2007): 8–15.

From Frisson: The Collected Criticism of Alice Guillermo. Download the complete book here.

CCP Museum: The First Five Years

As late as three years back, I would meet long-lost friends at the CCP lobby who still ask, “What, you have art galleries here?” as though the CCP Museum of art never existed for some three years. We remember when in 1970, then Director Roberto Chabet would think of poster ideas like getting Nora Aunor or Elizabeth Ramsey to pose inside the Main Gallery, looking at a painting, with a caption that says, “Visit the Art Gallery.” But there was no serious campaign done. The Cultural Center was just at its infancy and all its moves were under close scrutiny and observation. Today, the seemingly slow build-up of development in the CCP Museum can still make claims for the tremendous increase of activities in the visual arts.

What the CCP Museum emphasized in its early stage was the introduction of advanced art—labeled by reviewers as “avant-garde,” or “gimmicks,” or plain “pakulo,” as though such works were done by sensationalist young artists who have not had thought wisely enough to go on to the next phase of their lives. The public was puzzled, dumbfounded to find scraps of metal, scatterings of sand on the floor, hanging planks and other objects that were not associated with art, but intelligent enough to re-examine what art was all about. At last this is what we feel now.

‘Explaining’ exhibits

Later in 1972, the second phase of the Museum Introductory Program started. While the earlier phase just exposed the public to puzzling works with no explanations, this second started to “explain” exhibits through notes and more guided tours and more analytical press releases. Instead of organizing large exhibits which considered a great deal of diplomacy by including “all” artists, the Museum became more emphatic and selective, but balanced as to include children’s exhibits and an annual for all artists. It made the Thirteen Artists program permanent, establishing promising thirteen young artists every two years. The public became less curious with the giant capiz shells at the CCP lobby and the tapestry of H.R. Ocampo at the Main Theater and was looking for more artistic things to see. This “educational” phase was thus challenging and determined what type of regular audience the CCP was going to have in the future.

Any successful cultural institution has to establish an audience that is more or less stable and reacting to its services. A rapport between artist and viewer must be established inside a gallery through better directed exhibits. It is only through regular communication between audience and artist that art becomes relevant—something that is as genuinely significant as
any other institution for the development of
a country.

Regular patrons

The audience that the CCP can proudly claim to have today is basically the student. While there is a bulk of tourists and visitors from provinces, it is the students who are regular and who visit the Center not just to accomplish their assignments but also to experience what this “new” art is all about.

Today, the limits and functions of the CCP Museum are known. It has a Museum of artifacts from the collections of Arturo de Santos and Potenciano Badillo, a Main Art Gallery for major exhibitions, and a Small Art Gallery for one-man exhibits and “experimental” works. It also holds theater presentations at the End Room. It has a complete documentation of CCP art activities and publishes irregularly a magazine on the visual arts, Marks. The Museum office accommodates regular visits of artists who want to show their works for a “possible exhibit at the Center,” who discuss projects and plans for ephemeral works of art, who ask for consultation regarding some research problems, who dig into the Museum files for some important data or ask for some other forms or make suggestions. Out of this came interesting projects of “unknown” artists and suggestions which were included in its program of activities.

Looking back, we seem to transcend the inevitable problems that still beset all art museums in the world: lack of an ideal place, misunderstanding with the artists, office inefficiencies, and most all, financial limitations. In spite of the dramatic change of climate in the visual arts, what we accomplished is never ideal, and five years is too short a time to create an effortless ambiance of art that illuminates its public and keep works of artists all the more significant. The CCP Museum hopes to finally set such ambiance.

Business Day, 10 October 1975.

From Raymundo Albano: Texts. Download the whole book here.

Place of Region in the Contemporary

In this incipient moment, PCAN is shaped by the concerns and anxieties implicated in the phrase “Place of Region in the Contemporary.” It is a deliberately elusive term, the better perhaps for PCAN to move within a wide latitude as it explores its various nodes, its endeavors or impulses of making: making art, making exhibitions, making relations. At this stage, too, PCAN scans a wide horizon to set the coordinates of the “Philippine” that is oftentimes reduced to the national. It is at this point that the “region” becomes some kind of a foil, though not necessarily a binary opposite or an alternative. The region is imagined to having a place, a geography, and therefore a geopolitic and a geopoetic. But when “place of region” is formulated, the geography is instilled with the urgency of position, an assertion of location. PCAN is currently under this climate of positionality and locality that is exigent and interested. The region can transpose within the nation and beyond it, within a geopolitical area and through it, across hemispheres and around it. It is not only province or periphery. It is not only a collection of countries co-opted under the sign of a block or a coalition. It is route, corridor, travel, axis, harbor. It can be at home and abroad, city and suburb, gap or nexus between water and land.

PCAN mindfully reflects on the notion of “region” as a level of locality; it may be construed as hometown or island within the nation or a space beyond the nation such as the inter-nation. However it is regarded, the region is turned into a trope to track sites and zones of various scales so that it can recover traces of agency from the hardened identities and monolithic rubrics of nation or globalization. All this plays out in an inchoate environment or a complex milieu called the contemporary. Needless to say, the latter is re-inscribed in the interrogation of both place and region. For this initial foray, PCAN proposes the following entry points: an exhibition of contemporary art across the country; an anthology of the texts of Raymundo Albano; research on four artists who stood on the threshold of the modern and the contemporary; and a revisit to modes of honing artists and spaces away from the governmentality of the capital city.
PCAN conceptualizes the region as shifting strata of locations. As locations they are rooted in natural histories and historical transformation. The region is seen in relation to the contemporary, gauging its place, that is, its claim to be in this place, its stake in this claim, and the effects of this sense of belonging. The intention is, therefore, to convene these three terms in one utterance: place, region, contemporary. They point to temporality, instance, subjectivity. To be positioned in a particular locus at a certain time encompasses the politics of the region. This region as mentioned is shifting because it is construed as emergent and extensive. While it is grounded, it is linked and hinged, as it continually also delinks and unhinges. PCAN is interested in this process of settling, unsettling, resettling. It is a process realized by agents and structures that are verisimilarly enlivened by this process.

Three templates support these initiations.

First is the archive-exhibition that ferrets out the creative and intellectual work of five artists who worked on the edge of the modern and the contemporary in Philippine life: Raymundo Albano, Jess Ayco, Santiago Bose, Abdulmari Imao, and Junyee. They bring into their respective forays the precipitates of their hometowns: Ilocos Norte, Bacolod, Baguio, Sulu, and Los Baños. They also translate these precipitates into condensations of migration to Manila and elsewhere. These artists incubated hybrid forms in their studios: painting, sculpture, photography, drawing, intermedia, installation, video, and performance. Aside from migrancy, the queer element figures, as strongly evinced by the inspiring oeuvre of Ayco.

The second format is the survey presentation that accrues from research on the various art worlds across the country. It aims to traverse the ecologies of this art world and thrust to the fore productions that embody how these art worlds are produced. The survey, because of its horizontal orientation, implicates a variety of expressions. It also casts a wide net and draws attention to a mix of subjectivities: generational, gendered, queered. Counter-intuitively, it furnishes the city its own distinction as a region and inflects the so-called province with the gritty ethnographies of protest, play, and catastrophe. Diversity is not the only agenda of this survey. It probes the logic of the aesthetic practice nurtured by localities.

The third format is the laboratory in which research material and aesthetic proposition come together to produce pedagogical modalities that blur the boundaries between art and political economy. This is an interesting gesture to the degree that is displaces the centrality of the production of art from a singular intelligence and consequently redistributes the energies of the facture of the sensible proposition and its makers. In the same breath, the centrality of Manila as the privileged source and telos of knowledge transmission is disabused as it dwells on places like Los Baños, Dumaguete, and Dansalan/Marawi. It likewise complicates the idea of an exhibition because the display is at once disrupted and supplemented by the para-curatorial and the post-curatorial: gathering of data, reading session, discussion. And the forms in the space are a cross between the ephemeral and the documentary: writing, paper, instruction.

These three situations of presenting and perceiving reckon with the promise of the contemporary to simulate the ambience of both the festival and the seminar in which there is excitement in the recognition and acknowledgement of art as well as deep reflection on its ramifications for the intimacies of the body politic. Finally, in terms of a curatorial panoply, PCAN tries to choreograph a space that allows for contaminations, spillovers, interferences across the specific enunciations of the projects. This is done by drawing out zones of interface in terms of, let us say, a shared origin or a glimpse of semblances or moments of gathering like an essay, cooking, moving image.

From Place of Region in the Contemporary catalogue. Download the whole catalogue here.

Developmental Art of the Philippines

About ten years ago, or just about the time when Philippine art saw a new home at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, a program of activities in the form of exhibitions and small grants was started. The plan was for a length of time, for the next 20 years. And the basis was the fact that the institution and the public it was addressing itself to were new. There was a need, therefore, to opt for a learning center type of a Museum, but which would not in any way paralyze contemporary artistic concerns especially those of the young artists. Thus started what we call, “Developmental Art.”

Within the scope of education, we shall define what we mean by our term, “Developmental Art.”

We are not referring to a whole school of thought nor of painting styles. Nor are we referring to a group or series of works which [we are] able to identify for their qualities. It is a program which yields results based on a total community response.

It should be noted that the word “developmental” was an operative word given by our government and press to government projects for fast implementation. Activities that had the nature of being under fast-action plans. The building of roads, population control, or the establishment of security units for instance, have to be done quickly, within a period of days. In fact a course, generally called “Developmental Communications,” has been instituted by universities such as the University of the Philippines, to develop careers among radio-TV or other media producers who would creatively come up with audio-visual materials that instruct the public with the latest methods of population control or the existence of low-priced markets, etc. The implication of a fast-action learning method is similar to that of developmental art.

There are three elements involved: the artists’ group, the audience, and the CCP Museum. To be specific, we refer to the presentation of artists’ contemporary ideas within the context of a learning public. As works of new artists became more complex, the Museum’s curatorial staff had to organize exhibits that would elicit response and establish a healthy rapport. The intricate trafficking of information and response had to be maintained at a high pace. It became the institution’s duty to maintain a balance of pressures and achievement. After ten years, the program is paying off.

As a background, Philippine art is in the Western tradition, that is to say that what it is now developed as a result of a long line [of] artists who trained in Europe and the U.S. Painting, for instance, is nowhere to be found previous to the coming of the Spanish conquistadores. The first Filipino great painters, Juan Luna and Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo, were winning awards in Europe with their Neo-Classical or Romantic style. By the turn of the century artists emerged who started to paint local color. The most famous of them was Fernando Amorsolo, our first National Artist, who captured Filipino gentleness through his rendering of rural landscapes and virginal women. Later-day modernists adopted international styles of the day, but revising them to translate local color.

Philippine Art in the seventies went into the crossroads. Art became big business. It promoted all sorts of styles and disciplines. But it bred a new group of artists who were more responsive to the time, meaning, to the social, economic, and aesthetic requirements of the people. It was a time of questioning roots—a time to once again, as in our government and people, assert the Filipino identity. And so it was a time to unlearn. Our artistic tradition, was well as our system of art education had to be examined once more.

Ambassador Armando Manalo, then a critic, stated that this was a “period of metaphysical unrest.” Our program called the period from 1971 to 1975 the Exposure Phase. Advanced art—experimental in nature—were deployed in the galleries. The use of sand, junk iron, non-art materials such as raw lumber, rocks, etc. were common materials for the artists’ developmental strategies. People were shocked, scared, delighted, pleased, and satisfied even though their preconceived notions of art did not agree with what they encountered.

The Museum’s curatorial policy was that of stimulating public minds and [at] the same time allowing the artists to question and investigate with their work. Minimal explanations in the form of notes and brochures were distributed. Everything was practically taken with a grain of salt. It was a powerful curatorial stance—it created some negative forces, too—but it took the risk in establishing an attitude that prepared the public towards a more relevant way of seeing. For instance, bringing pieces of junk to the gallery for aesthetic perception would lead one to consider virtues of things considered ugly and cheap. It made one relatively aware of an environment suddenly turning visible.

The emergence of a new generation of artists equipped with knowledge and insights into current international trends pressured the CCP for attention. For an establishment to accept and promote such uncategorizable visual propositions was rather controversial, and yet it was the only workable plan possible. Exhibiting more established works would be duplicating the commercial galleries. A permanent collection is not possible to have because the CCP has no building and accompanying budget yet. A bias for interdisciplinary tendency stems from the fact that the Cultural Center promotes the “seven arts” together.

Now, the artist’s idea is one thing. The other is how to make such work accessible to the public. True, the audience of the CCP Museum is a learned lot—in Humanities classes mostly—but advanced art is much too advanced yet. So the CCP Museum negotiates for this problem. Curatorial considerations work this out.

Principle I – Exhibitions should be alive, not church-like, quite high in festive ambience. It should be entertaining.

Principle II – Exhibitions should be thematic, dealing with current visual interests.

Principle III – Exhibitions should be stimulating, controversial but not scandalous.

As time went on, a pattern of seasonal activities became apparent, especially when many memorable exhibits became a line of the same kind—at least in spirit. The public started responding to the phenomenon, thus establishing rapport between artist and audience. How interesting to know that didactic artworks—or works that disarm us with different information—are most popular among viewers.

In 1979, the CCP’s 10th anniversary, the exhibition, A Decade of Developmental Art, was organized. The works included in this exhibit included recreations of sand works that depended on specific time. A rundown of art reviews of the past decade was presented.

In a press conference, we sent out answers to accumulated questions:

Q. Why do you promote experimental art when in fact you should be concerned with established art?

A. The Museum has adopted a policy of giving priority to contemporary experiences so as to develop a stable of present-day artists who can be ahead in the international front. It goes without saying that historical and other types of shows will be dealt with regularly, but with the purpose of supporting our contemporary art bias.

Q. The works are not Filipino.

A. On the other hand, neither are they European nor American. They seem to be continental, but the disguise is thin as one realizes the works have charming shortcomings such as reduced scale, over or under control, humor, etc.

Q. What about the other types of arts?

A. We have a program of exhibits such as the CCP Annual that takes care of the more established artists. Aside from this, we would be duplicating programs of the other museums and even the commercial galleries.

Presently the CCP Museum’s program for developmental art is fixed on four programs: first is the series of exhibits on regional art or art of the regions. Second is the publication of the Philippine Art Supplement. Third is the series of art fiestas or art excursions. Fourth is the Artists Workshop for young artists.

As a result of this program, Manila is treated with an experience of a variety of artistic concerns, quite advanced and still puzzling. But this is what we needed to achieve in the first place. Nowadays, artists are not making masterpieces of Western molds. But they are seriously considering options for more authentic experiences even if they have to take risks. The Museum places itself into a role that may be too biased to some. But it is a role that is relevant for the moment.

Philippine Art Supplement 2, no. 4 (July to August 1981): 15-16.

From Raymundo Albano: Texts. Download the whole book here.

“Roots, Basics, Beginnings”

By Patrick D. Flores

To introduce the writing and the textual work of Raymundo Albano (1947-1985) is to sort of glide across terrains of “serious games.” Serious because Albano ponders. But he also plays a lot. Thus, the game of figuring out, challenging, contesting, losing, gaining, testing, teasing, baiting, biting. He does not seem to mind that the thinking meanders, or that no thought coheres. That being said, he, too, stakes certain claims, and with conviction at that. He rolls the dice, makes his moves, and leaps into the “unthought known” of Mieke Bal. You might want to call it his gambit, but for him, it is by constantly paving paths, following through efforts, and building on frameworks that an art context may be able to animate itself, to achieve, in his words, “style.” In Albano’s agenda, “roots, basics, beginnings” (taken from an eponymous exhibition in 1977) matter, and primarily because they constitute the material through which process or method takes place. Whatever may be inferred or alluded to or implicated emerges from these: lineage, rudiment, origin. Whether critique comes in to complicate or relations intervene, the “intelligence” of the material cannot be severed from the “integrity” of the lifeworld from which it is generated and through which such lifeworld is reinvested. Some would call this “context,” others would say it is “impulse” or “urge.” Whatever it is that may be brought to our attentiveness as that which excites what we broadly reference as art, it should, in the imagination of Albano, stir up a world “suddenly turning visible,” a condition quite akin to Michel Foucault’s “sudden vicinity of things.”

True to the spirit of Albano’s expositions, this introduction will not be long-drawn, or “extenuate.” It keeps to the register and acuity of his improvisations on the essay, criticism, think-piece, polemics and poetics, theoretical tract, manual or memorandum, field notes, journalism, diary. To weave in and out of these circuits of rhetoric and reflection is an achievement in itself. So few have been able to mingle all these pursuits and at the same time direct a museum, create art, write poetry, present papers internationally, and attend to other errands besides. According to one account in the eighties, one of those loose-leaf ephemeral materials in the archive, Albano, in spite of his administrative tasks, “manages to paint regularly (‘evenings’) and in quantity (‘possibly more than what a dozing painter has’) and with marked development (‘I just keep my theories sharpened’). To develop this technique and for research, he makes posters (‘hangover from printmaking days’), designs sets for Bulwagang Gantimpala, conducts workshops (‘to interact with people’), and is in constant travel (‘through streets where one can discover things that appear new’).” One watershed in Albano’s career was his participation at the Ninth International Biennial Exhibition of Prints in Tokyo, an exhibition that was held in 1974-1975 at the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo and Kyoto. He sent three entries, and Step on the Sand and Make Footprints (1974) was conferred an Honorable Mention by an international jury of which Emmanuel Torres was a member. In an interview for Sunburst (March 1975 on page 8), he confides: “I just sent them a blueprint, a piece of paper with instructions to spread enough sand for four people to step on. It was the only floor piece on the show. They said it qualified because a foot print is…a print.” According to him, an Italian critic raved: “The print goes back to the primitive in man. The first print man made was of his own body. A catalyst for the imagination.” And that “a joke can win.”

This anthology addresses the concerns of Albano in the intersecting fields of the creative, the critical, the cultural, and the curatorial. It is to these that Albano speaks: the discourse and practice of art making and instilling it with presence in the world of ideas, exhibitions, and the particularities of lived life that is oftentimes captured in the category of “culture.” This is the ecology of his generous writing, its province. And it is a robust ecology, something that Albano, born in Bacarra in Ilocos Norte, had learned quite early in life. His sister Fe Albano MacLean relates that while Albano was in grade school, he would design pillow cases for his aunt to sew. He would also make lanterns and decorate floats for Easter. In the late fifties, he began to pursue writing when he was in high school in San Sebastian College in Mendiola, where he was involved with the school organ, after which he took up English at the Ateneo de Manila University and contributed to the literary journal Heights. This anthology includes some of his poems. It is worth noting that many of the germinal modernists and interlocutors of modernism in Philippine art history wrote poetry like Aurelio Alvero, Hernando R. Ocampo, and David Medalla. According to the poet and literary critic D.M. Reyes in an unpublished text: “With certainty, the poet Emmanuel S. Torres has listed Raymundo R. Albano as a voice worth the renewed attention in the lyrical traditions of the Ateneo de Manila. His poetry pursues a style at once abstractive and pictorial—not as posture but as fluent assertion of a fully achieved sensibility. This command shows in the way he frames a situation—eliciting drama in the ordinary, as painting would seize upon an insight, stark with tension. Drawn to nuance, Albano secures poetic lines taut with details, the world of things beheld in suspended animation—mirrors in a dressing room, walls of lime, egrets and rain, people and crickets, or even the remnants of a lovers’ quarrel. His poetry lets loose howls of music, too, as the undergirding tempo of revelation, pulsing with fear, tenderness, or cerebral calibration. Quite importantly, concept emerges from his verse through patterns, for the examined life gains dimension through fleeting symmetries perceived in broken vigils. This is the sensible effort of both poet and painter, discerning shades of a single color or depths of a solid substance, the refinement of perception rendered as personal triumph.”

Albano never stayed overseas for a long time to pursue studies. It was only in the late seventies when he went to the University of the Pacific in Stockton in California to fulfill a grant as artist-in-residence. He became director/curator of the museum spaces at the Cultural Center of the Philippines around 1970 when Roberto Chabet left seemingly in haste. While at the Center, aside from making art (painting, print, photography, performance, poetry), he planned, curated, and wrote about the different projects for the diverse programs of the space. In 1974, for instance, as director of the Museum department, he oversaw the following:

  1. The collections of Arturo de Santos and Potenciano Badillo. The de Santos collection consisted of archaeological pieces from trade ware to glass beads. The Badillo trove was largely built around the Islamic heritage, specifically of Maranao and Maguindanao lineage, to include musical instruments, weapons, and brass ware.
  2. The Main Gallery that presented retrospectives, surveys, and large exhibitions.
  3. The Small Art Gallery that hosted experimental exhibitions.
  4. The End Room, which was at the end part of the Main Gallery, that became a space for experimental chamber theater for “abstract theater pieces and hyper-realistic dramas.”
  5. The Thirteen Artists Program, a grant-giving scheme to artists engaged in innovative work.

Over and above these, Albano initiated publications like the Philippine Art Supplement and Marks; a program for the regions outside Manila like Los Baños and Baguio; and platforms for the image like “Carousel” (a slide-show project) and the exhibition Otherwise Photography. It is clear that Albano’s inclination was outward in terms of extending the prospects of form and engagement. The “outside” of the Center meant the art market, too, or any other entry point into the public. In fact, Albano was the curator of the early projects of the art gallery that would later be known as Finale Art File in the eighties, including Four Masters, Four Worlds.

This anthology does not dwell on these; the practice across the Albano years at the Center, from 1970 to 1985, is so exceptionally dense that it deserves a distinct study altogether. This is to ensure a closer reading of the efforts and to resist the temptation of conjuring hagiographies on supposedly patriarchal potentates of so-called conceptual art and further flatten the complexity of the Philippine art scene.

One wonders, in retrospect, what had shaped Albano’s mind. A conversation with his colleague, collaborator, and conspirator Judy Freya Sibayan would sketch out some contours. A deep wellspring was the popular culture around him, specifically of the graphic kind to encompass the komiks, posters, billboards. He was also fascinated with artists like the bricoleur Italo Scanga; the video, conceptual, sound, and performance artist Terry Fox; intermedia artists Lynda Benglis and Michael Snow; the conceptual artist Tom Marioni; among others. He read Art Forum often and was struck by the critical and curatorial work of Robert Pincus-Witten. To just constellate these trajectories is already a daunting task, so we leave it for later. It might, however, be germane to say at this point that Albano, while keen to interact with the contemporary art world whirling around him, was in touch as well with the wisdom of Philippine modernists like Hernando R. Ocampo and his superior at the Center, the musical artist and musicologist Lucrecia Kasilag. It should be instructive to study how Ocampo, Kasilag, and Albano conceptualized the “Philippine” in relation to the nationalism, the nativism, and the avant-garde around them. In this regard, we look forward to recovering and reading the manuscript titled “Things Change.”

This anthology begins and ends with Albano speaking, not really writing. First, he responds to questions posed by the art critic and artist Cid Reyes. Then, he interviews Fernando Zobel. Alongside his texts are some of his poster designs and the documentation of his installations as a curator at the Center. These are all the intimations of the artist-curator who has ceased to be mere imitator or native informant. Let the basic work of research (artistic biography and art history) and annotation (critique, theory, aesthetics) begin and take root. And do not forget the joy. Albano: “There must be more comedy in art.”

From Raymundo Albano: Texts. Download the whole book here.

Ayco, Bose, Imao, Junyee

The Knowledge Production and Circulation component of PCAN identifies research themes and topics pertinent to the vision of the proposed network. For its pilot research project, it undertakes archival research on Philippine artists Jess Ayco (1916-1982), Santiago Bose (1949-2002), Abdulmari Imao (1936-2014), and Junyee (Luis Yee Jr) (born 1942). Born or based in the regions of Bacolod, Baguio, Jolo, and Los Baños, the artists represent the disparate conditions and production in Philippine modern and contemporary art. Their artistic practices have since been translated beyond province and nation, decentering the national and global privileges of Manila and the west, and altogether broadening the scope of locality.

The pilot research project offers timelines and historiographies of the aforementioned artists based on annotated bibliographies of extensive compilations of primary sources and a meta-critique of historical surveys. In mapping and retracing their places in the master narrative of Philippine art, the project reflects on the constructed notions of “region” and the “contemporary” and the former’s presence in the latter.

Works by Jess Ayco and Abdulmari Imao as part of Ayco, Bose, Imao, Junyee
Installation view, Ayco, Bose, Imao, Junyee
Installation view, Ayco, Bose, Imao, Junyee
Installation view, Ayco, Bose, Imao, Junyee

Traversals/Trajectories: Expansive Localities

This is an exhibition to launch the Philippine Contemporary Art Network. It explores ideas of the region and the different “practices of placeness” in Philippine contemporary art by tracing numerous strains of place making in the works of artists from different localities across the Philippines. Art by emerging artists are presented alongside more settled ones, allowing one generation to speak to another by way of art. The exhibition examines negotiations of the global by gathering various practices of making and claiming place through contemporary art. It subsequently attempts to formulate ideas of the contemporary by way of a pliant and porous local, giving form to an attitude sharply described as a “restless worldliness.” Collateral activities are organized with the exhibition, including a discussion platform to examine impulses underlying the curatorial —those that frame and activate localities in their assertion of claims to place against an overarching globality.

Isha Naguiat
Carzen Esprela
Bag in a Boat
Rocky Cajigan
Fabric of Activisms
Martin de Mesa
Noel’s Shrine
Jose Tence Ruiz
S’kool (detail)

An Ecological, The Obligatory

Within the frame of Public Engagement and Artistic Formation, this initiation outlines the ground for accumulating and reviewing resources (institutions/infrastructures) and references (actors/agents) for the research direction of the Philippine Contemporary Art Network. It sets four terms into motion: the public/s, engagement, the artistic, and formation. The method of temporarily collapsing the clusters of “public engagement” and “artistic formation” aims to design pathways for reading the multiple gaps and intersections across practices of access, exchange, custodianship, and reception in the Philippine cultural sector.

It is loosely divided into four segments: Scenes of Access, Patterns of Exchange, Modes of Custodianship, and Fields of Reception. These rubrics are generative intermediaries in studying attachments and affiliations in the contexts of artistic production, and in the histories of institutions and institution building.

Initially, it elects three ecologies of practices: Los Baños through the Philippine High School for the Arts and the International Rice Research Institute; Siliman University as an interface to liberal (arts) education in Southern Philippines; Aga Khan Museum of Islamic Art at Mindanao State University through the journal archives of the Institute of Islamic Studies at University of the Philippines, Diliman.

Installation view
Four segments of public engagement and artistic formation
Adjani Arumpac
Unedited script of War is a Tender Thing
Mark Sanchez
Rice Food Web
Collateral materials
Poster for each site: Los Baños, Dumaguete, and Marawi
Archival text painted on textile
Announcement of the opening of Dansalan Junior College in Marawi
W. Don Flores