Saturday, January 07, 2012

Instructive accident

AN INSTRUCTION on reading or cultural resurgence?

In search of the “Contemporary Cebu” exhibit, I stood outside the wrong museum. Answering my inquiry about modern art, the guard at the Museo Sugbu pointed out a tarpaulin announcing recently excavated artifacts.

Rereading the invitation, I discovered the venue was not the provincial museum but the Cebu City Museum. For old-timers, the Rizal Memorial Library and Museum is a landmark I’ve come to associate more with neglect and renovation rather than any cultural stirring.

Yet, if it is now possible for a native Cebuano to get into a museum mix-up, this may still foretell of the blooming of the city of my birth.

It’s an expectation the renovated Cebu City Museum meets. In place of the dark recesses and creaking floorboards that, while redolent with the patina of years, reinforced the museum’s mothballed state is a space of light, height and vision.

This extravagance of light and space is exploited by the “Contemporary Cebu” exhibit, which has all works except two of Ritchie Quijano’s sculptures mounted or ranged along the walls.

In the late 1980s, J. Karl Roque’s lifelike depictions of marine creatures exerted an impact like photojournalism: seeing the bounty up close underscored the evanescence I witnessed in my work with nearshore communities.

Roque’s 2011 diptych, “In His Eyes,” brings back the sensation except this time, instead of observing and judging, I am immersed, part of a silent but not inarticulate world. An undertow of spirituality is created by the title and the blurred glimpse of beauty, as a diver perceives the bottom of the sea roiled up in a storm.

Roque’s “After the Storm” and “Scent of the Morning Rain” are, poetically and visually, depictions of healing and resurgence. Each work is circular, with a hole painted off-center, bringing to mind an artist’s palette awaiting a hand to mix the colors interpreting reality.

At first glance, the spirituality of Roque is reflected in Wenceslao “Tito” Cuevas’s huge canvases. Stand before the works long enough and the child-like innocence of the pastels and the figures shift and move till the viewer realizes that meditating with Cuevas leads her down a different path.

Deified or vandalized? Cuevas’ contact print of Holy Family images, “Do Not Enter Our Aura with Your Hysteria,” has bright yolk yellow suffusing the iconic Sto. Niño. Is this splash of color the gold leaf of veneration? Or splatters of superstition defacing faith like rotten eggs hurled by unbelievers?

In “Amen (So Be It),” white smudges obliterate a sea of faces. The symbol of purity, white here is anything but restful. Cuevas wields the color with the icy precision of an executioner expunging, reducing the canvas not to the original state of blankness but the bleakness of a death-soaked field.

From nil to nil. This leaps out during that afternoon of walking around the Cebu City Museum exhibit. In the works of Roque, the phrase rises like a benediction, undeserved and all the more precious for being bestowed.

Yet, taking a few steps across the room or twisting the glance, I encounter the same phrase, bristling with innuendoes, in the Cuevas works. The artist is a razor stripping away the layers with which we cover our nakedness and exposing what lies pitifully at the core of our pretences.

The “Contemporary Cebu” exhibit opens portals for viewers to step inside and through. For curator J. V. Castro, the assembled works are revelatory of the maturity and complexity of art produced by local artists. He wrote that the works defy the caricatures of provincial art, or the sort of pastoral scenes art experts in Manila imagine are being created and appreciated outside Manila.

As one who has never left home, I am not startled by what has been growing in the backyard all this time. It pleases me though that the organizers—the Ramon Aboitiz Foundation Inc. (RAFI), the Alternative Contemporary Art Studio and The Grove by Rockwell—have assembled until Jan. 31 this breadth of artistic vision that refracts realities, unique to Cebu and at the same time, universal.

That this third element—vision—finds its way into an old landmark given new relevance—formerly the Rizal Memorial Library and Museum, now the Cebu City Museum—pleases this true-blue Bisdak even more.

(To be continued next Sunday)

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*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Jan. 8, 2012 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

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