Pacific Diptych, Prudencio Miel and Jose Tence Ruiz (Artesan Gallery 8 to 29 November 2011)
“There is a history in all men’s lives.” — William Shakespeare, Henry IV (Part 2, Act 3, Scene 1)
Everyone has a story. For biographers, the highpoints of any story come when individual personal histories intersect with the general social milieu and with particular historical or current events. The ability to navigate this intersection is what sociologist C. Wright Mills called the “sociological imagination”.
Whether they are conscious of it or not, all artists in their capacity as creators and intellectuals are inevitably influenced by the imperative of their social imagination. More importantly, it is only through the understanding of this viewpoint that audiences and critics can comprehend the artist as an individual and as an individual within a certain time and place. Art is, after all, most important because it documents humanity’s attempts to recreate reality, or to be more accurate, humanity’s attempt to create its reflections of their reality.
In Artesan Gallery’s Pacific Diptych, Jose Tence Ruiz and Prudencio Miel, both Filipino Artists with a long association with Singapore, lay bare the events, forces and themes that have shaped their artistic practice. The body of work presented is the concrete realization of their personal mise-en-scène. It is both a confession and a biography, a reflection of the two artists’ views on reality as filtered by their own personal histories.
Mills said that social imagination was all about the ability to present different points of view and present different truths about society. To paraphrase his work, artists need to break free from the immediacy of personal circumstances and put things into a wider context for their works to have true meaning. All the paintings and drawings in the show demonstrate this capacity to shift from one perspective to another: from a meditation on Philippine history and the national hero Jose Rizal, to the sacred influence of traditional religious iconography and even the viewpoint of the Avant Guard in Asian Post-modern art.
Miel’s triptych “Ceci n’est pas un Pape”, “Josekristo aka Ceci n’est un Pepe” and “Terrafixion” recall the work of the 19th century Filipino religious painter and portraitist Damian Domingo, the Dutch master Hieronymus Bosch, and certain Social-Realist works by the art collective Salingpusa (e.g. “Karnabal”, 1992). “Terrafixtion” seems to be a loaded critique on the Catholic Church. It shows a man crucified on what appears to be one half of an antique spectral map, one hand nailed to Manila and another nailed to Rome. The man’s burning eyes had been put out by an angel, implying censorship by the Church.
“Ceci n’est pas un Pape” (“This is not a Pope”) references Rene Magritte’s “The Treachery of Images” (1928-29) and its famous paradox “Ceci n’est pas un Pipe” (“This is not a pipe”). It shows a fat naked man wearing a papal mitre being pierced on his side by an angel. Despite the overt pontifical symbolism, the title denies that the man is the Vicar of Christ and the lack of blood and water flowing from the wound reinforces this negation. Both paintings leave the viewer with the artist’s discomforting personal view of organized religion.
The title of the central panel “Josekristo aka Ceci n’est pas un Pepe” is also a double entendre. The “Josekristo” in the title substitutes Jose Rizal – the Filipino archetype for the artist-intellectual – for “Hesukristo” (Jesus Christ). However the second half of the title seems to disavow this “Ceci ne’est pas un Pepe” meaning “This is not Pepe” (“Pepe” being Rizal’s nickname) – again recalling Magritte’s text/image dichotomy. The painting features a portrait of the Philippine’s national hero presented in the manner of a retablo, a traditional devotional painting. Blood flows from his stigmatic wounds to a man and woman below, implying that Rizal’s spiritual progeny was the Filipino people (Rizal’s only child was stillborn) and that his blood is now part of the national patrimony. This symbolism can also be seen in image of a single spermatozoa falling towards an egg-like moon. Both are floating over a sea of plants with vaginal flowers, another metaphorical device to show that Rizal’s seminal ideas impregnated the nascent land.
The mix of religious imagery and Jose Rizal also appears in Ruiz’s “Kerbau Kuning and the Redundant Decalogue” (“Yellow Water Buffalo and the Redundant Decalogue”). The painting seems to allude to Rizal’s broader appeal in Asia outside the Philippines, particularly in Malaysia and Indonesia where he has sometimes been referred to as “The pride of the Malay race”. The carabao or water buffalo is a national symbol common to all three countries and the colour yellow is sacred to the Malay royalty. Indeed Rizal himself identified with the Malays (despite actually being a mestizo-Chinese) and had once said “In my blood runs the wanderlust of the Malays.” Yet the work seems to be an image of pure fantasy, with Mayon volcano erupting in the background as a Portuguese Man-of War and a stylized octopus float through an alien sky with three moons. The anthropomorphic figure with Rizal’s head and a French Cross below seems reminiscent of a Don Quixote tilting at some unseen windmill, which is perhaps the unconscious message of the painting.
Jose Rizal was both a writer and a visual artist. During his time he was very much on the vanguard of the Intelligentsia. Ruiz’s other two paintings “The Pro-Rated wage of the Abang Guard” and “David the Goliath” reflects his thoughts on three modern thought leaders in the modern Asian Post-modern Art scene. “The Pro-Rated wage of the Abang Guard” shows Roberto Chabet, known as “The Father of Filipino Conceptual Art”; multi-media artist David Medalla, the Philippines’ “Enfant Terrible” of the Avant Guard; and Singaporean installation and performance artist Tan Da Wu, a founding member of the pioneering Artists Village which Ruiz had joined when he lived in Singapore. All around them float images of the artists’ works (particularly Medalla’s Cloud Canyons Bubble Machine from the 1960s) as well as other artworks that may have inspired them (Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain”, Andy Warhol’s “Banana”, a canvas by Piet Mondrian and a sculpture by Constantine Brancusi). What is most interesting is that the heads and bodies have all been swapped around and the three are depicted as armed guards with the bodies of Medalla and Chabet shown with arms drawn, while Tang Da Wu’s is standing at the ready. The words “I don’t give a ship” float on toy blocks separating Tang Da Wu’s head from the other two artists.
“David the Goliath” is harder to interpret. The painting is split into two plains, the main subject seems to be a spaced out David Medalla wearing a cosmonaut’s suit and smoking a corn cob pipe of bubbles. On the left hand section is a disembodied human figure, much like David Bowman in 2001 A Space Odyssey, on a tether surrounded by the words “As he wafted beyond the exploding galaxies, alone but not lonely, wondering if heaven an limbo were one.” Both paintings perhaps illustrate Ruiz’s complicated relationship with conceptual and post-modern art. He has been most identified with Social Realism, however his own sociological imagination has steered his works of
art from strictly realist to one that has been modified and enriched through the diverse influences of modernism and the visual technologies most identified with Conceptual art.
Lastly, no discussion on the intersection of art, personal history and society would be complete without touching on the subject of Death. Miel’s “Conquering Holbein’s Anamorphic Tower of Death” and Ruiz’s “Icarus in the Age of Spandex” are both about overcoming the paradigms constructed by the ego. Miel’s work shows a man climbing a giant version of the skull in Hans Holbein the Younger’s “The Ambassadors” (1533). It is a much-cited example of Anamorphosis, which is a distorted projection or perspective requiring the viewer to use special devices or occupy a specific vantage point to reconstitute the image. The original Holbein painting included a memento mori skull lying diagonally across the bottom of the frame. Viewed from the correct perspective, the man is seen to have already reached the top of the skull, instead of just nearing the summit (when viewed head on) and thus he has already conquered death. Ruiz’s “Icarus in the Age of Spandex” shows a tower of auto parts and industrial junk wrapped by a plastic figure that seemed to have been caught in flight but still desperately trying to soar onwards. The Myth of Icarus is a classic tragic example of hubris or failed ambition and the tower can be seen as an insurmountable personal construct of reality.
Anish Kapoor once said that “Artists don’t make objects. Artists make mythologies”. Each work in Miel and Ruiz’s Pacific Diptych is a mirror to this personal mythology, a construct of sociological imagination formed from the intersection of their own experiences, their artistic practice and the wider currents of their time and place in the world.