Samonte's latest works are in fact painted reliefs. He pours liquid plastic over pre-designed cardboard molds, and then sprays the whole surface in acrylic. To soften the hard edges of the relief and at the same time strengthen the relationships among the forms, he uses low-key color combinations in neutral tones for the most part, the colors are often breathtakingly lovely.
It is color which sets apart the best paintings in the Samonte exhibit -- the blue-and-gray Stone Harbor, Bone Vessels, Stone Frescoes, and the stunning purple-gray-light-purple Feast of Ashes. The one "construction" in the show Courtyard Frieze, is in monochromatic white; it has an architectural feel and it is stately and formal. The paradox is that despite the vivacity of the forms, the whole manages to achieve a dignity which is nearly hierarchical.
Samonte's leap into painting was probably inevitable. The direct ancestor of the new paintings is the series of four serigraphs first seen in group shows last year, and of which the best known is Crystal Casements. In this richly-textured print, the forms are lighter and more closely knit together, but there is no mistaking the similarity to the new paintings.
There is another sense in which the new paintings are related to graphics. They partake of the character of printed blocks, the same material Samonte uses for woodcuts. One could say the paintings are reversed prints and not be far off the point.
Having gained an enviable reputation in print-making, the thirty-year old Samonte has no plans at present of repeating his successes. "I have not done any woodcuts since 1969, and no serigraphs since 1970." Etching and lithography, however, which he first took up in 1969, continue to fascinate him, except that he thinks both involve harder work than painting.
The artist rents a three-room workshop in Santa Ana. It is sometimes shared by another young artist, Cid Reyes, an articulate boy who is a perfect foil for the shy Samonte. Quiet and soft-spoken, with a distinct trace of a Visayan accent, the painter can shift rather quickly into high gear once he starts talking about his work.
The workshop is the usual artist's mess. Paint drips are all over the floor, and one wall is completely papered over with old newspapers, like an untidy collage, and decorated with great slashes of paint -- the excess when the spray gun misses target. There are two iron ice-cream chairs, and an old crate serves as coffee table when there are guests, many of whom are prospective purchasers. The only other piece of furniture is a massive shelf which holds dozens upon dozens of half-filled paint cans.
In another room, Samonte keeps a complete set of his woodcuts, serigraphs and etchings, piled one on top of the other on a corner table. Under the same table, he stores all his woodblocks, odd and already moldy-looking as though on the point of decay.
"The woodcut was my first love," say Samonte, in a tone of voice which suggests that he will never get over the infatuation. "I think the best thing I ever did in woodcut was Peregrinations, which won second prize in the second PAP (Philippine Association of Printmakers) competion in 1969."
The odd thing about Peregrinations is that only one print was ever produced, "As hard as I tried," says the painter, "I never could get the blocks to register perfectly. I had planned on an edition of 25, but I was forced to withhold the rest."
The year Peregrinations won a second prize was Samonte's most successful. In the language of athletics, he scored a near-sweep, winning not only the second prize but also the first and fourth prizes. Success sometimes breeds surfeit, and in Samonte's case this was probably true. He resolved to drop the woodcut, after having produced some thirty pieces since he started exploiting the medium in 1964.
Mixed among the pints is a series of odd drawings which look for all the world like topographical maps. "Those are patterns," explains the painter. "You know, like a tailor's. I wouldn't remember where each block should go if I din not keep patterns. I sometimes use as many as 20 blocks in making a single woodcut, and that could cause a lot of confusion in the printing."
Samonte's love for the woodcut is entirely explicable. Not a few observers think that it is in the woodcut where has has made his unique contribution. Abstract for the most part, and many in black-and-white, the woodcuts combine austere forms and textures of near-Baroque complexity and opulence. They are a high point in the development of the graphic art in the country.
By comparison, the new paintings are more easily accessible. Decorative like most abstract art, and visually seductive, they provide the kind of of instant experience that seldom requires extended thought, or causes deep emotional reverberations.
But to ask more of the painter at this stage is probably unfair. He has the craft and the imagination. In any case, the problem he has to face in the future is one that he has confronted before in his woodcuts, and over which he has triumphed with conspicuous success.
The painter and the graphic artist is Manila-born, but spent ten years in Estancia, Iloilo. A pupil of Galo B. Ocampo and Cenon Rivera at the UST School of Fine Arts, Samonte studied painting. Before his one-man show at the Luz Gallery however, he had completed only one oil, which he had entered in a competition while still a student. It won a prize but he deserted the medium for the graphic arts anyway. For him printmaking became a reliable source of income. "If you are not an addict of the high life, you can live fairly well on the sales of prints. Graphics in this country is a young art, and the demand is steady. My most expensive print is priced at P500, which is reasonable. I feel I should not charge more. Over $500 is already the price of a painting. At that price people would probably prefer to purchase a canvas."
Samonte leads a somewhat strenuous life. A full-time junior executive at the ACE-Compton Advertising, where he is an assistant art director, he works on his paintings after hours and on weekends. Painting is not only his artistic occupation however. He owns two cameras and an enlarger, all of which he keeps in a bedroom, and is busy trying to develop a photographer's touch.
"I rented this workshop eight months ago in order to prepare for my one-man exhibit. But I have improvised a dark-room where I can putter around at night. But only at night. I can't use it in the daytime -- too light."
He spares himself some of the drudgery of painting by hiring an assistant, a luxury for most painters and certainly for one who, though already established, is a relative newcomer. "I have to save some of my energy," he explains, in obvious fear of being "burned-out" by excessive physical labor.
"My assistant sprays the paint and pours the plastic, but I am always around. He works according to my specifications. If I don't think a thing is right, we repeat."
The hiring of the assistant is in some ways a mark of confidence. Though voluble on his graphics, Samonte refuses to talk about his new paintings. But it is clear he is pleased by the reception of his one-man show. Eight of the 18 have been sold and more are bound to be purchased as the word spreads around.
It is not the sales, however, so much as the recognition in a highly competitive league that buoys up his spirit. In gaining popular and critical acceptance, he feels he has justified himself to himself. He can therefore face the next challenge -- the difficult and often trauma-producing show -- with renewed confidence in his growing powers.