Beyond the Tangible: Seeking the Familiar in Abstract Art
- 11 November 2022
Abstract art is, and has always been, an intensely intimate connection – between the artist and his work, between the work and the viewer, and between the artist and the viewer. Artists prod beyond the reaches of reality, and the viewer is welcome to glean the meaning behind the colors, lines, and forms. More often than not, these masterpieces invoke introspection and a quiet invitation to look deeper within. Sometimes, they simply offer a respite to the tired soul.
The revered modernist master Justin Nuyda chose to explore the metaphysical. His Mindscapes series depict landscapes created from sojourns in his mind. Search Mindscape: ‘Break of Dawn’ captures this enthralling journey through the expansive aurora-like blue and white swathes of oil on canvas. Among his last finished paintings, this piece conjures a dreamlike fantasy that soothes and calms.
Meanwhile, Lao Lianben seeks the very core of nature and pictures them within the aesthetics of Japanese art. Nature is simple yet grand, subtle yet loaded with meanings. It is dynamic and at the same time restrained, just like the haiku that seeks conciseness with words to convey its meaning, and the bonsai that encapsulates the gigantic force of nature into a contained form. Lao transmutes this metaphor into the forms that dwell within the chosen sizes of his ground, whether it be paper or canvas.
“You do not measure genius by inches” may be a saying that best describes Lao. He elevates the art of minimalism by rendering the vastness of his imagination within a square foot of space. He extracts the core of his experiences, ideas, and emotions and concentrates them within a spiritual landscape that taps into the consciousness of the soul. Diminutive yet prodigious – that is the energy that lies at the core of Lao’s visual universe.
This meditative place also takes form in Lao’s Garden, a recreation of the minimalist rock landscape that is structured around naturalness, subtlety, simplicity, and stillness. Lao gathers the basic elements of a zen garden and accentuates it with subdued brush strokes. The abundance of empty space is pronounced, bringing forth either a quietness that empties the mind, or a pregnant silence that evokes deep contemplation.
While Lao’s works offer spaces to breathe and to declutter the mind – occupying a unique and tranquil position in the spectrum of Philippine abstract expressionism – somewhere towards the heavy impastos, lively brush strokes, and highly contrasted colors then is Lee Aguinaldo.
Aguinaldo’s style later evolved into geometrical forms of pop art and hard edge paintings. His earlier works featured his explorations on innovative techniques of applying paint. He flicked pigment from a palette knife until it built up layers on the canvas.
This untitled 1963 piece is one of Aguinaldo’s oeuvres from this period. It reflects his dive into mass composition and displacement, with a touch of his earlier gestural painting style. Aguinaldo’s blacks and vivid warm colors here are reduced to more controlled geometric shapes, the same forms that would dominate his later works.
The gestural painting style was among the techniques explored by Aguinaldo and his contemporaries as they became more attuned to formal modernism. It was their generation’s collective form of protest against the pictorial cliches established by their predecessors. Among these young defiant souls was the future National Artist Jose Joya.
Joya mastered the spontaneous brushstrokes and broad textures of gestural painting. His works are defined by heavy impasto swiped by brush or spatula, and by unexpected splashes of color. Yet they remain intrinsically Filipino; a feature that Joya maintained from his learnings under the tutelage of the conservative art stalwarts National Artist Fernando Amorsolo and Toribio Herrera.
Joya found inspiration from local landscapes, using palettes that reflected the growing rice paddies and the light-filled sky. This possible boceto was painted during the period of Joya’s initial exposure to American abstract expressionism. He placed a vibrant array of hues in blocks of color, a characteristic feature of the earlier phase of his non-figurative works. The sublime blend of cool colors is a departure from the typical warm reds and yellows that he utilized during this time.
Jose Joya, ‘Untitled,’ 1961
The spectrum of abstract art also gestures towards a hard-edged figurative art style, embodied by National Artist BenCab’s exploration of shapes, lines, and composition. His iconic Sabel expressed his fascination with the billowing shapes and volumes of his beloved muse, while the Larawan series bloomed from his discovery of turn-of-the-century photographs of Filipinos in London.
In between these inspirations, BenCab painted Introspection No. 1. This is a rare and exceptional work that showcases his rhythmic brush strokes that depict a long-tressed person and a silhouette over a flat blue plane. It encapsulates BenCab’s mastery in breathing life into stylized figures and their surrounding space.
BenCab, ‘Introspection No. 1’, 1970
Artists have explored and expressed abstraction in a plethora of ways, yet the movement continues to unravel and expand as far and wide as the free wings of imagination can soar.
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