T he sense of what is beautiful has gone through, as a metaphorical survivor of revisions, the ups and downs of art history. And through the rigors of incessant scrutiny, beauty, as a criterion that estimates any artwork to being a valuable object of contemplative worth, remains both as a defined and undefined constant. What lies beneath the visible spectrum (or optical registry) are shape-shifting factors residing in the different realms of ontology, epistemology and in the pervading philosophy shared collectively in a given milieu. This idea suggests that an invisible mind and hand directed by the spirit of the times have a degree of aesthetic direction over the art process aside from the volitional wielding of talent applied by the artist on a project. This may mean that what may be seen in a painting, sculpture or in an installation mirrors the worldview tied to the perceptual trait of an era.
The way we look at things and translate it to an art form is further determined by the influences circulating in a particular socio-cultural context. This is to say that not only does art become pliable in the hands crafting a medium towards its quantifiable realization, but by the overarching history, knowledge, attitude and personal idiosyncrasies within a contextual locality of the artists. Other factors that are often non-artistic in nature hold crucial sway for a thing of beauty to appear before our naked eyes. Admittedly, as much as we try to fathom meaning from painted pictures, we all know in its barest denominator, for any seven or 70-year-old audience, what is sensibly beautiful or not.
With fresh eyes lent to us by art triumvirate Jonathan Rañola, Joseph Villamar and Janice Luison-Young of the exhibit “Trilogy,” we can best understand their art categorization as provided by professor emeritus Terry Barrett of Ohio State University. In his 2012 book Why Is That Art?, Barrett categorized the art we view today into five considerations: Realist, Expressionist, Formalist, Postmodern Pluralist and Instrumentalist.
The Realist Consideration for Barrett pertains to any physical observation and phenomenon deemed from the physical world to be perceptively real in time and space. Reality can be tested as empirically factual by scientific methods, and in art what is optically calibrated and compared to its material equivalent in the external, visible world comprises the scope of Realism. For an artwork to contain Realism requires, then, the closest approximation of the subject matter to be represented as an illusionary copy of a reality. Through imagination, a narrative is woven into it, thereby attributing to it empathy to communicate a relatable idiom using imagery. Specifically, “Trilogy’s” consideration maximized with a novel treatment is Realism with all its magical illusion and its traditional narrative abilities.
Realism, according to Rañola, Villamar and Luison-Young, is comfortably situated in a position as “eye candy” to lure our sight to awe, and by such allurement lead the onlooker to an affectation of sentimental warmth. To copy reality and turn it beautiful hails from the notion of Aristotle about art as an embodiment of truth and beauty in representational imitations of nature. Art theorists held this distinctive operating in actual reality, past and present, as its point of creative origin: Mimesis includes the possibility of beautifying, improving and generalizing qualities found in nature, as said by Barrett. Alongside the Greek complex concept of beauty, adjectives like wonderful, excellent, good, harmonious, symmetrical and proportional refer to the visible equivalents of what that are simply pleasant to look at.
Aspects of form, harmony and unity were clearly articulated by the artists of “Trilogy.” Luison-Young in depicting flowers in full bloom delicately unraveled the peculiar fold, tinge of softness, tone of refracted light and supple hue of each petal radiating from their center. These lovely series may bring in nuances from Georgia O’Keefe’s series of floral oil paintings. O’Keefe gained notoriety in romancing a bucolic episode she spent years in her hideaway studio in Santa Fe, New Mexico, when she rendered on several canvases a number of desert blooms magnified in large formats. For Luison-Young, taking the flower theme and using its radial formation as an image to entice the viewer act as a perception valve to switch one’s focus to a mode of visual contemplation — to simply attend on what is visibly and directly attractive and natural. To O’Keeffe, the delicate blooms stood as some of the most overlooked pieces of naturally occurring beauty, objects that the bustling contemporary world ignored. So, she made it her mission to highlight their complex structures, explaining, “When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it is your world for the moment. I want to give that world to someone else. Most people in the city rush around so they have no time to look at a flower. I want them to see it whether they want to or not.”
O’Keeffe believed that due to the fast-paced lives of people, they merely glance at flowers, but never really observe their exquisiteness. She wished to give such people the feel of the true beauty of flowers. In her words,“If I could paint the flower exactly as I see it, no one would see what I see because I would paint it small like the flower is small. So I said to myself, I will paint what I see, what the flower is to me, but I will paint it big, and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it — I will make even busy New Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers.”
For Rañola’s variations on the theme of innocent playfulness, what can be perceived right away is a language of visual opulence teeming with life, ostensibly unfolding a lush weaving of nature forms in a manner Art Nouveau interlaces pictorial elements. Movement, suggested here by the undulating lines and ink stipples, also adds to the dynamics of emotions in relationship to its idyllic fount of inspiration. Aside from this, Rañola’s intricately rendered works may connect with an audience well-disposed to Pop Art which accentuates images commonly used in popular culture and immerses them in almost unnatural colorations. He successfully accomplished this by combining the directness of illustration and the timelessness of the Muse, though it may be referential to a pastoral ingénue as a portrait of beauty itself.
As an accomplished book illustrator, Rañola took long hours to patiently tell a familiar story (also taken by Amorsolo) about a child’s wonder, and about a devotional cuddle of a mother-babe embrace. Inventively presented in embellished frames, the works of Rañola ultimately speak about billows of imagination engulfing the young lost in fantasy, represented repeatedly as intertwining foliage and as windblown hair locks (among other compositional cues). Thus, his picture-making ventures created scenes and portraits that float like thought emblems caught in past memories of childhood glee. Likewise, Rañola’s combination of stylistic lineages can be comparable to the style of French Magic Realist painter Henri Rousseau of mid-19th century. “Influenced by a combination of high and low sources — academic sculpture, postcards, tabloid illustrations and trips to the Paris public zoo and gardens — Rousseau created modern, unconventional renderings of traditional genres such as landscape, portraiture and allegory,” says The Art Story website. If one happens to stumble upon the dreamlike captivation of Surprised! Tiger in a Tropical Storm in 1891, and The Snake Charmer in 1907 by Rousseau, one will no doubt remember Rañola.
Masterly. Timeless. Perfect. Filipino. Nothing comes close to a description of the works of Joseph Villamar than approximating with these four words. Masterly because many art enthusiasts may liken Villamar’s rendition of the country lass motif to the manner Amorsolo created it as his own trademark figure, and his invention of the Filipina archetypal model, i.e., the dalagang bukid of yesteryears. Timeless because any artist who successfully plugged into the genre of the Madonna and child motif is like charging an iPhone to an electric outlet, and expect it to work efficiently. Perfect because Villamar applied all the admonitions of a stalwart Realist — that subject, line, color, composition and interpretation must be set on the observable matrix of the physical world and the canons of art. Filipino because the distinct facial expression, complexion, poise and earth swatch of pigments applied on each painting had appealed to the full regalia of image and sentiment characteristic to iconic Filipino. Every constituting factor above was effortlessly translated by oil paint, canvas, by the adept hands and vision of Villamar. No less than the masterful approach of figuration of a Vicente Manansala and of a Burne Hogarth (renown for Tarzan) did Villamar, with utter confidence, take the age-old genre in skillful rendition to offer viewers this cherished image of maternal bond. In his propensity to make countless editions of the mother-child motif, Villamar continues to raise the counter-argument to the postmodernist’s belief that anything traditional is passé, and stress further that art from the past continues to be cogently traditional and traditionally cogent. In other words, ageless motifs are inexhaustible wells of inspiration.
Where do we go from here with regards to estimating “Trilogy” in factoring the genius of beauty? Notwithstanding the fragile balance between the idea of beauty as crafted verisimilitude, as interpreted truth or as social statement, art on its entry level can be taken legitimately in a commonsensical fashion. Assuming the status of an art bystander driven by curiosity to enter a gallery, anyone may share the pragmatic and accessible mindset of St. Thomas Aquinas when he stipulated this: Id quod visum placet (in Latin language) or “Whenever I see this, I am pleased; therefore it must be beautiful.”
Taste nowadays has become political, as if saying, “If you like this current art form, you are ‘cool,’ and if you prefer traditional stuff, you do not belong to the ‘in’ crowd.”
Art profiling has proffered in-fighting or camp hysterics, thus marginalizing groups into widening divides of taste and elitism. Whenever one finds his or her strategic position in the art scene, it is good to carry along nonchalantly some “embedded assumptions” about art.
Art viewing by in itself is also a work in progress. As we continue to look at different types of art, brilliant or shoddy it is better to treat the process as an educational excursion. In this process, we absorb all versions of beauty, accumulating data visually, editing them with a knowledgeable eye and attaining aesthetic discernment.
On this basis, Rañola, Villamar and Luison-Young continue to cement on the institutional pedestal the long-held status of art as unashamedly recognizable, instantaneously appreciated and unabashedly enjoyable, unafraid of trite labels like “nice,” “pretty” or “cute” that could be thrown at them dismissively. “Trilogy” could be one of those opportune times when viewers, artistically steeped or not, get initiated to time-tested Realist genres now imbued with a fresh palette of Filipino contemporaneity.
“Trilogy” is on view at the ArtistSpace until 7 January. For more information, call or e-mail Jane Salvador at (02) 759-8288, email@example.com, or Jonathan Rañola at firstname.lastname@example.org.