Thursday, February 22, 2007
SAMONTE by Nancy Rocamora, Manila Paper, January, 1975
Several years ago, when Rodolfo Samonte exhibited a silk screen print with a P300 price tag, his friends and colleagues told him politely that such things weren't done. Silk-screen or serigraphy, was the tool of the commercial artist or the poster-maker, not a medium for the serious artist. Samonte, in his humble manner (He refreshingly does not play the part of the lofty, creative genius) nodded politely and resolved at that point to raise the level of technical control and subtlety in his serigraphs to such a high degree that no one would make such a comment gain -- either about his work or his chosen medium. After four years of exposure to Samonte's patiently crafted oeuvre, anyone who chose to denounce serigraphy as an insufficiently elevated medium would have to be a fool.
A graduate of the University of Santo Tomas in commercial art and a practicing commercial artist for several years, Samonte too once regarded the serigraph as a commercial tool. In fact, for his first one-man show at Joy T. Dayrit's Print Gallery in 1969, he displayed only woodcuts. Since that time, in succeeding one-man shows, both prints and paintings have figured prominently. Yet Samonte considers himself first and foremost a printmaker. In a world dominated by passionate individualists, such a choice reflects particular devotion to one's work. Artists, critics and aficionados have always half-snubbed the print as an art form because it is duplicable and therefore cheaper than painting. Printmaking also requires training in pure technique than painting and it has long been fashionable to condemn anything that smacks of mere craft. discipline per se is not particularly admired in the art world. In fact it is downright unfashionable. Yet an art form in which rigid technical requirements must be met and discipline observed at all times requires an Even higher level of creativity than a more pliable medium if craft is to be transcended and art to result.
In Samonte's work, one is immediately struck by its technical perfection and subtlety, both a product of long and oftentimes frustrating exploration and experimentation with the possibilities of his medium. Silk-screen printing traditionally involves the use of a number of cloth screens into which holes have been cut where the artist wants the pigment to pass onto the paper. For each application of color, the artist places the screen against the paper, applies his pigment, then passes a squeegee across the screen and paper to insure an even distribution of color. For every color, he needs a different screen with holes in different places.
The technique which Samonte has developed requires only a single screen which is cut to the size of the entire composition. After an initial application of a single color, for example, yellow, the artist then blocks out whatever area he wishes to remain yellow. He then applies a second layer of pigment, sometimes the same color, sometimes a different one. If he chooses to apply a different color, for example, blue, the result of the mixed yellow and blue appears green. He then blocks out the entire area he wishes to remain green and proceeds with another application of color. If he continues with blue, the result will now be blue-green. He continues the process, sometimes using only one color, sometimes several, until he has blocked out practically the whole screen for the final application. The result is not just gradual and subtle transition from color to color, tone to tone, most visible in "Rectangular No. 16," but a relief-like surface of varying projections which relieves the often severe geometry of the composition with fascinating textural effects. "Shaping IV" most clearly reveals the process. The central band and light-colored side segments are the only portions of the composition which retain the color of the first application. Each band moving out from the center contains one more layer of color, until finally the outer edges project the farthest.
One result of this technique is that the artist has to print the entire edition at once. He can't print up a sample to see if he likes because the screen will be permanently altered by the time he finishes. "At times," he says, "I would have to throw away an entire edition which just didn't work the way I had hoped it would."
The mathematical precision of the hard-edge forms with which Samonte has been expressing himself over the past several years represents a radical departure from his woodcuts of 1969 with the complex organic shapes played off against wood-grained masses and cut across by fine swirling lines. The early woodcuts, though, totally abstract, communicate a sense of life, motion, action, as opposed to the hushed geometry of the artist's later works. The only concern that the earlier and the more recent work share is a fascination for textures. Yet even within the confines of the newer hard edge vocabulary, one detects a trend and an effort to break away from the confining disciplines of straight lines.
"Colorscape VIII," a 1973 work, represents the culmination of trends from 1971-1973. Though the edges of forms are rigidly defined through a combination of textural differential and color separation, straight line mingle with the sweeping curves to create a rich variety of shapes, some of them purely geometric, others, semi-ellipses and ovoids, organic. The result though completely controlled, is an unpredictable mingling of forms as well as colors and textures. The next stage in Samonte's evolution, represented by "Rectangular No. 16," eliminates curves altogether to focus purely on the interaction of smooth, color transitions and the textural effects achieved through the layering of pigment on the surface within the framework of rectangles and straight lines alone. The austerity of the work is relieved slightly by the richness of the color and the sensitivity of the gradual blending tones. Samonte's contribution to the Philippine portion of the 1974 ASEAN Mobile exhibition, products of 1973, were almost all exclusively variations on the purely rectangular format.
But even as early as 1973, the artist seem to have found the rigidity of the schemes overly confining. One attempt to soften the effect, while retaining the format is represented by "Rectangular No. 5," part of an entire series. Here Samonte retains the rectangular grid of varying colors, but in some segments, leaves a ragged edge where some of the final layers have covered only incompletely. In some places, contrasting colors show through; in others, colors from one space spill over into the next. The resulting moth-eaten texture comes across as slightly more humane than the pure rectangles of the "Rectangular No. 16."
In the latest works from 1974, which form the bulk of Samonte's current show at the Luz Gallery (Nov.28-Dec. 17), the artist seems to have recognized the need to reincorporate curved forms in order to create a broader range of compositional possibilities. Retaining, and even exaggerating, the relief-like qualities of the work, he creates much more complex relationships between smooth and textured areas, projection and recession. Contrast is more striking in a work like "Blue Suite V" than in earlier pieces because not only are solid form of differing depths and colors played off against each other, but striated and modulated areas play off against each them with fascinating results.
Unfortunately, not all of the new works are equally successful. "Shaping IV" employs a general shape combining straight and curve lines. Beginning at the center with a white stripe, colors gradually intensify towards the borders, the top moving toward orange, the bottom toward bright green The gradual progression toward different intense colors is typical of a number of works in a show in which Samonte employed a new technique of applying two colors simultaneously on either side of a division. There is something vaguely disturbing and unbalanced about these works. Earlier works always emphasized harmonious relationships. No color was placed on the paper without being in some way related to other colors through gradually shifting and merging tones. The resulting unity in spite of an often amazingly diverse collection of colors is one of the most striking features of these prints. "Shaping IV" seems to pull apart rather than to unit, to emphasize polarity rather than harmony.
Works like "Rectangular No 21" blend the best of the old and the new techniques. Using rectangles within a curve format, Samonte uses the two-color technique, this time uniting the blue and red extremes through an initial undercoating of yellow. Because of the yellow, a number of greens and oranges of varying intensities depending upon the thickness of the overlying pigments are created. The wide variety of intermediate tones create unity and harmony in spite of the two-color technique.
Samonte's paintings which occupy almost one-half of the current show are really relief sculptures which are painted with a glossy lacquer making them almost impossible to photograph. Like some of the prints they tend to be overly pretty. Even the best of Samonte's work, because of the cool geometry of his forms and his tendency to work in a single or related families, makes ideal interior decorator's art. No matter what the color scheme of one's modern Forbes or Dasmarinas home, there's bound to be a Samonte print or painting to complement it. Such is the blessing (financially) and the curse of working withing a materialistic society, where art is a commodity and speaks to the interests and tastes of a well-defined group. It was interesting and a little pathetic to watch the always cordial Samonte being accosted at his opening by an extremely well-appointed young man, who carefully explained the color scheme of his entire living room to the artist and his dilemma over which painting would fit best. Clearly he was hoping for a suggestion from the artist himself. Samonte squirmed away graciously after murmuring his interest and commented, "I like to leave that end of the art business to the art dealer. If people are buying my work for the purpose of interior decoration, I'd really rather not know about it."