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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Thursday, December 14, 2006

entry arrow5:50 AM | The Poetry of Clay Masks

There is a passage from Byrd Baylor's wonderful book When Clay Sings that seems appropriately -- and properly -- a summary of things for the groundbreaking exhibit that opened more than a month ago in Mariyah Gallery along Larena Drive in Bogo Junction. The passage from the children's book goes this way:

They say that every piece of clay is a piece of someone's life. They even say it has its own small voice and sings in its own way.

That seems evident in the myriad stories that struggle to break free (and do) from the clay masks adorning the exhibition spaces of this pint-size Dumaguete gallery that has, of late, become the virtual melting pot of local visual arts. In many ways, the whole show is a coming to form by most of the artists taking part in the exhibition, some of them formidable names constituting the very life of Oriental Negrense's art scene.

The exhibit, titled Cara y Cruz, features works in terra cotta (and, in one case, in plaster) by Kitty Taniguchi, Dani Sollesta, Hemrod Duran, Jutsze Pamate, Mark Valenzuela, Rene de Guzman, and Cris Byro. In works that vary in terms of stories and themes, the only commonality they have is their individual take on the concept of masks and mask-making. The challenge for each one seems to be to form out of clay their artistic mold on the concept of identity, which the mask is particularly metaphoric for.

"The idea of masks has always intrigued me," says Ms. Taniguchi. "Masks have been utilized throughout history to either hide or enhance our identities, sometimes in serious and sometimes in playful ways."

This take on the inherent contradictions of masks is at the heart of the exhibit. The Spanish term "cara y cruz," of course, pertains to the old betting game among traditional Filipinos involving the gamble of a coin toss, but it is also an old expression to suggest baliktaran or being balimbing, which is to say to change one's behavior for a particular advantage. It is ultimately about contradictions.

In Cara y Cruz, the masks offer a play on the concepts of double identities -- the masked and the unmasked personas in each one of us -- as well as the ultimate goal of transformation which masking finally affords. This is, according to the artists, the ability of masks to render to the wearer a chance "to go beyond one's real self."

Most of the works have been molded out of San Carlos clay, which when finally baked, produces a strong, full texture that can seem almost wooden. That texture helps in setting the tone and the theme of the masks in the exhibit -- there is an earthiness to the works that make them both intimate and off-putting all at the same time.

In a simple diptych "Gargoyles," Ms. Taniguchi sets off the difference between a Venetian ball mask and a traditional Japanese mask, which somehow completes a wider story about East versus West. Here, she is deliberate in her message about intricate contrasts somehow still mirroring each other, and at the same time also devouring each other. One mask is resplendent in its Baroque intricacies -- bulbous eyes set off by a pair of beaded eyebrows, and curlicues that become goat horns; this is versus a smaller mask, set beneath the first one, that is Zen-like in simplicity. It is Buddha versus the Devil.

In "Uwak," Ms. Taniguchi seems to combine her old Babylonian aesthetic with something more native. Here, she takes on the mien of birds, with a mouthless mask featuring a protruded beak and angry eyes. She has created a work that rejoices not in the flightiness of feathered creatures, but in their ferocity. It is an angry work, also haunting, that nevertheless moves forward Ms. Taniguchi's current fascination with crows that populates her more popular later paintings.

Mr. Sollesta, on the other hand, makes a virtual map of his travels by "compiling" in a grid-like manner, his impressions of the countries (and the people) he has visited and encountered, rendering them all as different masks -- some quaint, some horrific, some lovely -- in an outsized work he titles "Images of Travel." The work is a masterpiece of visual art narrative.

The works by the other artists in the collection are equally compelling, but Mr. Valenzuela's "Camouflage 1" and "Camouflage 2" are perhaps the most unsettling in the whole exhibit, and thus may be closest to aesthetic success.

Terra cotta is where Mr. Valenzuela has finally come to finding his mature artistic voice. A young artist known primarily for his conceptual paintings and sketches, he has found a fullness of tone and theme in his sculptural works, starting with this set comprised of masks in varied degrees of disturbing. (In a future collection, he will be tackling dolls in terra cotta, rendering them monstrous and disjointed in what could be a critique of a mechanized and cosmeticized world.) In "Camouflage 2," Mr. Valenzuela lines up in vertical order a series of cut-up faces, some with only eyes darting out stares of accusation, and some with mere mouths all the more disturbing because they leer with stuck out tongues. The whole work is an elongated parade of Frankenstein face parts. What story does it tell? A commentary on societal schizophrenia? Or the murderous and deceitful multiplicity of our everyday masks? Who knows?

Because, in the long run, staring right into the clay eyes of each work, they frighten you with this possibility: that these masks can also be our own autobiographies. We look at them "looking out" at us, and then we can easily imagine slipping them over our faces, becoming whatever common monster -- or saint -- we wish to be for the moment. Masks after all is all about "becoming."


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