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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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Tuesday, January 05, 2016

entry arrow4:03 PM | Notes on a Festival of Abstraction

In a 2013 essay on contemporary trends in abstract art ["The Golden Age of Abstraction: Right Now," ArtNews] Pepe Karmel, an associate professor of art history at New York University, considered the common acknowledgment that the height of abstraction as a major movement in art has already occurred -- between 1912–25 and between 1947–70 -- and what there is to be had in the present is a mere shadow of what came before. In other words, a silver epilogue to a golden era. Karmel, however, begged to differ, and proclaims new ascendancy in abstract art today -- but how exactly to put into the context what's happening now to the newness and the abundance of what had been?

He wrote, and begins with a query: "How do we make sense of all this activity in a type of art that was declared dead 40 years ago? I believe the most useful way to understand abstraction is not in terms of its formal evolution (which does not, in any case, fit the linear models beloved of theoreticians) but in terms of thematic content. The formal qualities of an abstract painting or sculpture are significant not in themselves but as part of the work’s expressive message. Artists work by reviving and transforming archetypes from the unconscious of modern culture. Therefore, the most useful questions to ask about contemporary abstract painting or sculpture are: What themes and forms does it retrieve from the tradition of modern art? How have they been changed? And how has the artist used them to express the social, political, and spiritual experience of our own time?"

All in all, Karmel classifies the tendencies for abstraction as falling into six basic categories, all of which respond to two specific things. Three tendencies respond to nature: cosmologies, landscapes, and anatomies. And another three respond to culture: fabrics, architecture, and signs. What then is the expressive message in Hersley-Ven Casero and Anna Koosman's collaborative series, Parade and Props, now gracing the walls of KRI? And where does it fall in the tradition of abstraction, and has it advanced considerably the art?

Ostensibly, the series -- which constitute both painting and sculpture -- is inspired by the colourful festivals of Dumaguete City, which puts the works squarely in the realm of landscape. To my knowledge, there is only one such festival in Dumaguete -- the Sandurot, an  annual orgy of colour and costume held every November set to much dancing and music, and purports to be a celebration of the interweaving influences of Spanish and American cultures in Dumagueteño culture -- but one can also add the Buglasan, the provincial festival of festivals held every October, which is a concentrated amalgam of all the other festivals of the various towns and cities of Negros Oriental. Except for a unique conceit ("scarecrows" for Bayawan's tawo-tawo festival, or "crabs" for Sibulan's yagyag festival) these ritualised merriments don't differ much from each other or from the other festivals found yearlong all over the Philippines; the Sinulog of Cebu has set a definitive template everyone has followed -- percussive beats that hint of tribal air, an array of accoutrements that signal Spanish or American flavours. In my mind, they all become a blur of sameness -- the same dance steps, the same dance beats, the same props and costumes and headgears and manners of make-up.

It is interesting thus to see these festivals through the lens of abstraction, and for Koosman and Casero, festival revelry is suffused in soft pink, at least with the paintings, with splashes of bold colour -- circles of dark orange, shapes in deep brown, dashes of supreme gold -- bursting here and there inviting an easy contrast. In the best reiteration of the series, the shapes and colour come together as if transformed into clouds, or billowy soft textile, that merge and break way. The colours are a rain of emotive expression, and the only means with which to understand all these is to surrender to their billowing grandeur. They reminded me somehow of those floating wispy white curtains that engulf, sensually, Daisy Buchanan the first time Nick Carraway sees her in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby -- a figure of dreams, or a dreamful figure, whichever permutation you want to have.

Are we supposed to think of our local festivals as being this dreamy, this wistful? But while beautiful to look at, the paintings exhibit a significant remove that I can feel in their iteration of their inspiration. I just don't see it.

At best, they are masterful impressions that remind me of the works of Dan Parry Jones, or Lucian Freud, or Evelyn Hamilton, three artists who have gone through the same phase of colour and command. But contextualizing the paintings of Parades and Props with their inspiration, however, begs the validity of the connection -- but does that really matter? We often take the inspiration for abstract art as unnecessary anchors (I remember Yve-Alain Bois' complaint upon learning that Ellsworth Kelly's Train Landscape, a work of pure abstraction composed of three horizontal bands -- one bright yellow and the rest of two different shades of green -- in fact “referred” to the colours of fields seen from a passing train), and so be it in this case. The inspiration is unnecessary, an unhelpful distraction. I wish I was never told about it. Divorced from that, I can take them for the fluffy teddy bears of paintings that they are. I like them, although they do fall short of their expressive message.

At worst -- and this has to be said -- these paintings are fantastic hotel room art. This is where I take issue, because I have seen what Koosman and Casero can do, especially in their best HA Experiment mode. They can indeed do better -- but nonetheless, the paintings are beautiful enough.

Commentary from W Don Flores:

The small sculptures are much better than the paintings, much more visually surprising, and more dense in meaning than what’s going in the paintings. The way they’re placed just so—framed, if you will—in those niches at the restaurant is interesting because it allows us the opportunity to consider the differences between painting and sculpture and challenge our assumptions about those. They are like sketches of vases, or decorative ceramic pieces, or perhaps little candy-colored idols, little “santos” to pleasure. They make us ask about the materials and processes involved in a way that that paintings don’t. They also allude much more strongly to the backgrounds of the artists involved and proceed to play with that as a kind of conceptual material: architecture vs decoration, painting vs sculpture, 2d vs 3d, that sort of thing.

In comparison, the paintings in the show come across as anemic appeals to class rather than to pleasure. Partly, I think this is because the processes involved in their making seem to be completely opaque. One wishes for more information here, more context other than just “inspired by the festivals”. Given that that’s all we have to work with, then their fluffiness seems, to me, an adequate reflection of the source material: vacuous celebration of touristy spectacle designed not so much to express local culture but to stimulate local capital through marketing display.

But I was thinking it really wouldn’t be fair or productive to anyone to dismiss the paintings outright (as I’ve done above) without much explanation. So, in the spirit of being helpful, here are some more notes on the paintings:

They have a gravity—a sense of up and down—in their formal structure. This is, to my eye, what makes then relate best to “landscape” than any other historical, established, Western painting genre.

(An aside: I am altogether against genre-building. This is because it often occludes from us how the real work we make butts up against the real world we live in; it tends to cede our powers of observation, and thus our self-determination, to powers other than ourselves.)

So landscapes then—as intimated, too, by the exhibition title. As landscapes, they address the world from which they come (and of which they are also part of) from the point of view of a person upright, perhaps standing—gravity: the expansive sky above, the anchoring ground below—perhaps moving through a throng, or watching the same move by; watching a parade, themselves parading, or caught in a parade...

A similar sense of gravity is in Koosman’s balloon paintings (which I’ve only had the chance to view online) and in Casero’s parade photographs (again, I’ve only viewed these online). The latter articulates the same kind of spatial sense that these paintings work with, work from: the sensation that one is inside a something, inside a something with gravity, inside a something that is very much not empty, that threatens somehow to burst apart from a surfeit of pastel lightness.

They are not, for example, the kind of address in, say, Casero’s work at the just-ended Bentabols exhibition. There the method in the four small pieces implies not the upright person caught in some kind of on-the-ground-spiraling-to-and-fro-and-upwards spectacle but someone hunched over a flatbed picture plane—as in, perhaps, Man Ray’s Rayographs; assembling a picture, rather than painterly gesturing it, in front of an easel, into fact.

If we’re going to be art historical about it: considering the threadbare statement that they come with, the implied ancestor is Monet and Renoir, then, extending through context, Amorsolo’s pastorals and Jose Joya’s abstractions. But these paintings are not Granadean Arabesque and Impression: Sunrise; the place they come from isn’t Normandy, France or Granada, Spain...

(Nor do I feel that they wish to be.)

To my eye, what really brings them down—that final, wrenching tug of gravity that makes them crash unceremoniously into the ground—is really the signature, the branding. This is where they turn into hotel lobby paintings. The dream-inside-a-parade that they reach towards, that they desire to articulate, immediately dissipates and we are left—despite whatever richness that the collaborative making process held—with objects for sale, hung upon a restaurant wall.

Which perhaps, in a roundabout and unintended way, is profound commentary about the parades. Be mindful of history: abstract expresionist painting was (and remains) a big part of America’s Imperialist identity and played (continues to play) a profound part in the colonial exports by which our elite nurtured cultural capital. It seems fitting that they end up as hotel lobby collectibles. Koosman and Casero’s work—particularly their community-inspired/directed partnerships, the interplay of their individual practices and identies, all those rich and rooted things—deserve so much more.

(Yes. Art is hard. And beauty is a harsh mistress.)

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