Saturday, August 22, 2009

Deliver us

CAN one have two contrasting but gut reactions to an artist?

I first saw “Hapag ng Pag-asa,” a painting showing street kids eating with Christ, being sold as a postcard in the souvenir shop of a church.

Religious kitsch, I thought.

There were other postcards featuring the works of the same artist. Embedding the familiar biblical figure in contemporary scenes, the artist’s attempts to juxtapose material and social deprivation with redemption was as heavy-handed and vexing as a megaphone blaring during a street demonstration.

The postcards were not out of place in that shop selling commodities of varying degrees of piety and sentimentality.

After I made a circuit of the place, I stopped before the postcards’ display and picked up one reproduction of “Hapag.” What distinguished this from a glinting cardboard fan showing a red-and-gold icon or a pretty rosary bracelet with multi-colored stones and a tinkling crucified Christ?

The artist, I realized after some musing. I was curious about the person behind the visions emerging from the brush strokes.

Last Saturday, I joined the crowd milling around the exhibit of Joey Velasco in an uptown mall.

Velasco created “Hapag” and the other oil paintings featured in “Ang Ginoo Uban Nato.”

With a title referring to Velasco’s trademark motif of the Christ mingling with the poor, powerless and anonymous, the “heART EXHIBIT,” as billed by the Salesians of Don Bosco-Social Communications Office, drew many students, teachers and families.

I saw Fr. Fidel Orendain, SDB, social communications officer of Don Bosco Lawaan, and Velasco engage students and other members of a sizable audience in an informal, enthusiastic give-and-take. There was a crowd milling around a long table where poster-sized reproductions of the Velasco paintings were displayed for sale. Autograph-signing was lined up after the program.

After circling the paintings displayed outside, I entered the installation arc and came upon the actual “Hapag,” among other works.

Although they span nearly a decade, the paintings look, in the uniformity of their theme and technique, as if Velasco painted them in quick succession, with short breaks in between sittings.

This would be a glaring flaw, if I only wanted to chart Velasco’s expansion and depth as a painter. But as I understood from the exhibit handouts, Velasco is “more comfortable” about being called a “Heartist” than as an artist.

Seen from his perspective, his paintings attest to his inner journey, as leaves lifted from a journal will document the fall and redemption of someone who recovered from a “near-fatal illness” and mid-life anomie by discovering art and faith.

Understanding the role of social communication—the use of media for a specific social or political purpose—made me see the Velasco works in a new light. Certainly, the exhibit curatorship, which paired each painting with the artist’s reflection and stories behind the works, helped me find something to value beyond the visual clichés and sentiment weighing down a Velasco tableau.

When I was still in my high school skirt and blouse, I saw a newspaper review featuring two works from the Crucifixion series painted by Ang Kiukok. Ugly and brutal, the images stayed with me long after, flashing vividly when I crossed picket lines to cover strikes or penetrated inner cities to write about urban “resettlement.” Asked why he painted with so much anger, most notably during martial law, Kiukok replied, “Why not? Look around you.”

Watching school girls and their parents walk away, clutching their autographed reproductions, I hoped Velasco would deliver them from my Kiukok epiphany.

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Aug. 23, 2009 issue of the “Matamata” column

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