writings, projects and exhibitions of Clarissa Chikiamco

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Portraits c/o Tattoos



This piece was published in my column for the Philippine Star on 21 January 2008. I left my newspaper copy of the article back home so I'll just post some of the pics I have of this show :)

Portraits c/o Tattoos
By Clarissa Chikiamco

What does 2008 hold for the Philippine contemporary art scene? Plenty if the spate of recent shows is any indication—and plenty meaning plenty good. One such show that opened 2008 to much promise is Indelible, a solo exhibition of Bembol de la Cruz, at Finale Art Gallery at SM Megamall.

Indelible

Indelible, which runs till 22 January 2008, features portraits not of particular individuals but of individuals’ tattoos. Rather than featuring the usual headshots that portraits often are, the all oil-on-canvas show parades a mix of various tattoos on assorted entities, alleging that these pigmented markings reveal far more about the individuals than a normal portrait would.

Tattoos are an interesting choice as theme as they have become emblems of deviance in society with the extremely tattooed becoming a source of fascination to the public. Television has had its share of specials on the subject—what motivates people to profusely tattoo themselves? What significance do these stained skins imply? Why did these persons pick these designs? What stories lay behind these tattoos? Is it the decorative these persons are choosing to impress upon themselves permanently or something more?

Indelible asserts that the significance of these tattoos is multiple just as the portraits in the show are multiple. De la Cruz not simply depicts portraits of these tattoo designs but portraits of the persons on whom the tattoos are on. It may just be a torso, a chest, a hand, a back or various bits and pieces in the area of where tincture has met the flesh—all missing the faces that normally are essential for portraits. Yet, these zones of strangely alluring defacement display identities through their symbolisms and marked individuality. These people are called “collectors” just as others who buy fine art. Yet, they are probably very much as well “curators.” The placement, size, image and color of design are choices that are thoroughly theirs with their preferences and the distinct reasons behind them (that one can only begin to surmise) divulging more than a facial portrait would.

These collectors notably require artists to have the art they collect. A collector may have more than one tattoo artist and certainly not just any tattoo artist will do. In choosing someone whose steady hand, creative design and process determines the quality of a mark for life, serious collectors are [or ought to be if they aren’t] most finicky. Casting aside those who denigrate the profession through improper training and contemptible kiosks that result in cheap work, being a tattoo artist is a craft of supreme discipline. In the exhibit, de la Cruz pays homage to the tattoo artists’ work by immaculately capturing their form of art in these detailed paintings. As much as the works are portraits of the tattoos and its collectors, they also represent these artisans, imprinting the art that their own hands helped imprint.

De la Cruz would certainly know firsthand about the art of tattooing, tattoo collecting and its psychological underpinnings. He is a collector himself and the show is very much a self-portrait of the artist. There are four pieces, not including the Multiple Portraits that are collages of different tattoos of various collectors, which feature de la Cruz’s remarkable collection. It is tempting to specifically name these works but, for fear that viewers may give more weight to these pieces when all are deserving of attention, will just leave it up to the interested to find out. All the works in the show in their own way are self-portraits of de la Cruz anyway—the choice of subject matter doesn’t ring any truer in other artists than in this one. Indelible also reflects not only de la Cruz as a collector but as an artist and as a person as well.

Who is Bembol dela Cruz?

For those who are unfamiliar with dela Cruz, he is indisputably one of the most cleverly skilled painters of the day. A group who initially saw his show, A History of Things, at Mag:net ABS, two years ago via pictures thought the painted images had the actual objects glued on the canvas. Others who saw his works from Measures, a Finale Art Gallery show in 2007 that featured images of multiple rulers on backgrounds of war and destruction, believed real rulers were genuinely stuck on the paintings when they were really painted. This trompe l’oeil effect never fails to astound onlookers appreciative of the artist’s prowess.

Being so technically accomplished is not without its downside, however. Viewers can get so taken away by skill, scrutinizing a work by all angles that the concept of the piece or the exhibit is sometimes sadly forgotten all together. While skill is indubitably fundamental for an artist, the reality is skill can only go so far. If an artist is so technically adept then all the more for him/her to be choosy on what to paint and why.

Dela Cruz, who finished from the University of the Philippines College of Fine Arts with a major in painting in 2002, is continuously coming up with intriguing concepts that also pose a challenge his skill. His ideas usually dwell on the weighty side—automobile collisions that mingle on the abstract, sites of destruction and rules of law, seemingly innocuous everyday objects that are also tools of torture—so in comparison, Indelible is actually lighter fare (yet without sacrificing on substance). The 31-year old artist continues to grow into his potential and will undoubtedly produce more outstanding work this year and in the years to come.

More works of Bembol dela Cruz may be viewed at http://bembolbee.multiply.com. Email the author at letterstolisa@gmail.com and visit http://writelisawrite.blogspot.com.

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