Testing the Limits of Imagination
Written by: Cid Reyes
Date: Jan. 15, 2016
“Painting is discovery. Every time you make a mark on canvas, all sorts of possibilities open up—and all sorts of problems to which you have to find solutions. When you take a brush to canvas, you never know exactly the result paint is going to make. The tension of always trying to push yourself over the edge, of testing the limits of your imagination, in the hope of creating impressions distinctly your own and quite unlike anything you ever expected when you started out. Therein lies the continual challenge and beauty of the act of painting for me.”
The first time I read those statements, I thought the words were uttered by the British painter Francis Bacon, who made the astonishing remark of wanting to make a screaming mouth as beautiful as a Monet. No, they were not said by the creator of those violently twisted faces, delivered, in fact, by a rug smeared across a visage, expecting an orifice to turn into an Impressionist sunrise. The words came from someone whose process of art-making temptingly bring to mind the techniques of Bacon, rugs and all, and Monet, whose lush layers of rich pigment are now regarded universally as the progenitor of Abstract Expressionism.
Arguably at the top of the heap of Philippine Abstract Expressionism is the US-based artist Edwin Wilwayco, in town for another exhibition, this time at the Altro Mondo Gallery. The arrangement of being domiciled in the US (where daughter Moma is studying, accompanied by his wife Loby) and then exhibiting the fruits of his solitary labor, has been quite ideal. The result of this salubrious industry was, of course, a consequence of a more intense concentration on his art. Moreover, attaining seniority in age and status has given Wilwayco a welcome vantage point where he can see his works in retrospect and re-confirm an unwavering conviction that he was indeed fated to paint until the day when, as Picasso once dramatically said, the brush falls off the hand. Only then can it be said that one’s life has arrived full circle.
One can’t help but write of the artist as a fellow journeyman in the adventure of art, for Wilwayco and this writer were both besotted with Abstract Expressionism and considered the late National Artist
Jose Joya as a kind of artistic deity. Wilwayco did study at the UP Fine Arts under Joya’s tutelage. He also studied under Constacio Bernardo and Dr. Rod. Paras-Perez. From such mentors came the inspiration, and more importantly, the belief, that painting is a lifetime vocation. No matter that the practical way to make use of one’s Fine Arts training then was through the commercial fields of advertising and publication design.
After graduation in 1972, Wilwayco was initiated into the commercial world of advertising. (While many are wont to look down their noses on artists who worked in advertising, they will be chastened to know that such luminaries as National Artists H.R. Ocampo, Cesar Legaspi and J. Elizalde Navarro, Jose Blanco, Romulo Olazo, and Lydia Velasco got their feet wet and their hands stained with layouts and storyboards for detergents and cola drinks. This was all, of course, prior to the Digital Age.)
In 1976, Wilwayco held his first solo exhibition titled Images of Exuberance. Not surprisingly, the works were in the abstract vein, a show for which Manuel Duldulao, then riding the crest of his fame as the author and publisher of the first coffee table book on Philippine Art, wrote an effusively admiring essay. In his typical hyperventilating prose, Duldulao enthused: “Color is the pulsebeat of Wilwayco’s art. Broad ribbons of throbbing acrylic are stained, flicked and sponged to create forms and glide and melt into each other. They flow, ripple, pulse and float on the surface of the canvas in flimsy transparency that brings to mind springs, forests, galaxies and the wings of butterflies.”
This show was followed in 1979 with a show at Sining Kamalig gallery, the so-called Flag Series, where, as the subject indicates, elements of pop and patriotism had taken over. One can assume that this was still in the wake of the pervasive influence of Pop Art that had taken the sails off Abstract Expressionism. There was, however, no evading the risk of being compared to the Flag paintings of Jasper Johns, who had commandeered the American flag for posterity. Johns depicted the American flag as flat on the canvas surface, leading to the conundrum: is this a flag or a painting of a flag? On his part, Wilwayco folded the flag in various arrangements, with the sun and stars peeking through, not unlike Cezanne arranging drapery for his apples and oranges. Alas, the disappointing reaction to Wilwayco’s Flag paintings was merely a confirmation of the Johns’ reference. Nonetheless, to Wilwayco’s credit, Manila’s respected critics Eric Torres and Dr. Rod. Paras-Perez gave the works their positive reviews.
ore memorably, to this writer, it was also in that show that I was first introduced to the artist. In 1982, Wilwayco was a recipient of a British Council scholarship for painting. He was enrolled at the West Surrey College of Arts, where he executed, still seemingly under the spell of Pop Art, familiar images such as hangers, clotheslines, and ropes. Upon his return to Manila, they were exhibited at the Hidalgo Gallery. In an interview at the time, Wilwayco remarked, “I did those when I was still in college. We were asked to paint something common but rarely executed on canvas. I chose those and my professor liked them.”
In 1989, Wilwayco presented his Jeepney Fantasia Series. Wrote Dr. Paras-Perez: “If the jeepney captured Wilwayco’s imagination, it is there because it is as insistently a part of life as a flag flapping in the breeze or an ice cream cone on the pavement. It is only incidentally an emblem of the Pinoy ensibility or an indication of our roots.” As with the Flag paintings, there was a liveliness of paint handling, a delectation in the materiality of pigment in its capacity to evoke images and yet remain inert, yielding substance.
In 1992, Wilwayco introduced his Birds of Paradise series. Clearly, the artist invariably worked in terms of themes and subject matter, which, of course, starts with the artist seeking. As critic David ylvester remarked on the difference between Picasso and Giacometti, “Picasso was a quintessential finder, Giacometti, a quintessential seeker, and it seemed more virtuous to be the latter.” Providentially, Wilwayco has a gift for seeking and eventually finding subjects with which he finds an emotionally charged connection. With the Bird of Paradise (or Heliconia) paintings, Wilwayco was both internally connected to nature, as well as challenged by its uniquely flaring forms.
Eventually he executed the subject in the three-dimensional via the divider screens, as in the Oriental biombo, comprised of interlocking panels, which can be arranged or rearranged depending on the practical or aesthetic need of the interior space.
In 1998, the Vine Series emerged, the visual stimulus provided by the creeping, clinging vines that shrouded and climbed up the rafters of his Parañaque studio overlooking the garden. As the new millennium rolled in, so it seemed, did the artist. A succession of themes hovered into view: the intimate correlatives between color, nature and spirituality, as exemplified by the series titled Blues, Excelsis, Whispering Winds, Moving Mountains, Benedictus, and Gaudeamus. Like most artists who paint to the strains of music in the background, Wilwayco found inspiration in musical qualities that aspire to merge both
aurally and visually in the series titled Homage to Vivaldi and Scherzo. expressing the most universal, and thus the most vague, thing there is in Nature: its intrinsic force.”). Thence followed the nature-driven series such as River Circles, Second Nature, In Nature’s Realm, all redolent of Abstract Expressionists whose works owed heir magnificence through the force of nature: Hans Hoffman (“I bring the andscape home with me.”), Joan Mitchell (“I carry the landscapes around with me.”) and the master of them all, Jackson Pollock (“I am Nature!”).
On his return visit to Manila in the last quarter of 2015, Wilwayco presents yet another series, Fractals, exhibited under the aegis of Altro Mondo Gallery. What intriguing assertions and articulations of form, what visual vitality and sensation have been engendered by the stimulus of the fractal concept, is what Wilwayco has in the offing. He is obviously determined to uplift Abstract Expressionism in the country to the level of a Grand Manner, the idiom having been so bastardized to decorate countless hotel interiors. The Fractal Foundation defines the subject as “a never-ending pattern. Fractal patterns are extremely familiar since nature is full of fractals. For instance: trees, rivers, coastlines, mountains, clouds, seashells, hurricanes, etc.” Put simply, the pineapple, with its endlessly repeated “eyes,” is a fractal fruit.
When once you view Wilwayco’s Fractals, pray, do not expect to see screaming mouths as beautiful as a sunrise, or a water lily pond, but this writer will certainly wager that Bacon and Monet will approve of the show.
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