Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Rodolfo Samonte: Color as Shape/Scape. By Leonidas Benesa from "Okir. The Ephipany of Philippine Graphic Art"

nidas V. Benesa first attracted attention when he won the Art Association of the Philippines (AAP) award for art criticism in 1955. An A.B. and M.A. graduate from the Ateneo de Manila, he credits his early development in this field to Fernando Zobel. He has since written numerous articles and studies on Philippine art: Joya Drawings (1973), The Printmakers (1975), Philippinische Malerei (with Paras-Perez), a book on Philippine painting that was published in West Germany in 1970, and many others, including a weekly art review for the Philippines Daily Express. Benesa was a four-time president of the AAP. Benesa was the recipient of of several grants, among them the Fullbright/Smith Mundt, John D. Rockefeller III, Harvard University, and from the German, French and USSR governments. Benesa passed away in 1984 two years after the publication of this book.

As a rule, figuration or the image is vital to the works of Filipino printmakers. The singular exception to this is the geometric abstractionist Rodolfo Samonte (b. 1941). Samonte however first attracted attention with his prize-winning (Art Association of the Philippines Annual, 1966) figurative woodcut entitled Love Garden. There are two or three other graphic abstractionists aside from him, but none of them can match the delicacy of treatment and feeling that invariably invests Samonte's work.

The Love Garden period was when he was still feeling his way around for his proper subject, under the influence not of the Rodriguez workshop with its many adherents, but of the xylographer Paras-Perez.

But he was soon to abandon figurism altogether not only in his paintings but also in his prints under the inspiration of Arturo Luz whose evolution from representation to abstraction, from image to glyph, was and has been an irreversible process.

In the early 1970s Samonte was practically alone in the geometric-abstract field as a printmaker, with the exception of colleague, Romulo Olazo, with whom he was collaborating. When the Sao Paulo authorities asked for Philippine participation in the Bienal of 1973, the Manila authorities sent the works of these two artist, together with those of the woman printmaker Gelvezon-Tequi.

The following year, 1974, Samonte was the only printmaker selected to participate together with painters from the country in the ASEAN Mobile Art Exhibition which toured five capital cities of the region, Manila included. That was because his graphic work was considered at par with the paintings of the other artists by the organizing committee at the Manila end.

Samonte it was who made local art enthusiasts keenly aware of color as shape and scape (one of his exhibits was called "Colorscapes") without any direct reference to nature. When he first showed in 1969 at the Print Gallery of Joy Dayrit's, the linear arabesque of his color woodcuts showed his admiration for the works of Paras-Perez, but he almost immediately went on from there to develop his own style in the field of relief serigraphy, going as far as casting his own paper to get the desired results.

His relief prints resulted from the technique of applying layer upon layer of color on the surface in a transparent fashion reminiscent of the Vietnamese lacquer technique. The Filipino artist's intention, however, was not to achieve depth through transparency, as certain opaque effects were likewise important in his structural laminations.

As always, the color approach in these prints was understated, with the artist depending more on a schematic interplay of tones rather than on outright chromatic statements. This was particularly true of a series of prints he exhibited at the Luz Gallery in which the Leitmotif of Gestalt was the striated binary, a shape with symmetrical halves.

At one point of his development, Samonte even got rid of color completely with his cast paper relief prints, depending on shadows, to provide the tonal qualities. He was one of the first to make his own paper for his graphic use, if we can forget the experiments of the father of Philippine printmaker Rodriguez, in the 1950s. Samonte's own experiments with mashed paper yielded some works in paper sculpture, but this remained peripheral to his central concern which was graphic art.

Another facet of his artistic growth may be seen in the "colorscapes" which were only concessions to the representation of the natural world through the use of color areas allusive of blue skies and green fields; just the same, the shapes were typically geometric-planar in structure. The works were shown at the Galerie Bleue in 1978.

The colorscapes emerged as a result of extensive travels that he undertook in 1976 and 1977 in Japan, the United States, South America and Europe, during which he held exhibitions of his works in Tokyo, Bogota, Cleveland, and Amsterdam. As early as 1974, when his works were exhibited in Tokyo for the first time, certain Japanese qualities were already being noted in his prints in their delicate color nuances. It was probably also in Japan where he was inspired to go into paper-making and -casting for graphic and sculptural purposes.

Completely committed to the aesthetic of international abstraction, Samonte eventually gave up his country altogether to migrate to the United States in 1979. He thus followed in the footsteps of other printmakers who had gone before him and who used to be rather active in the Manila art scene: Hechanova, Lucio Martinez, Marcelino Rodriguez, Restituto Embuscado, Joel Soliven. Even the old guro of Philippine printmaking, Manuel Rodriguez, prefers to stay in New York with his children these days.

Many young printmakers cite Samonte's influence on their development, not so much in the area of style as in the dedication to his craft and art. Samonte's biggest influence was on his colleague Olazo insofar as geometric expressionism is concerned.

Both went into making and casting paper together and even showing their works jointly. It is interesting how Olazo went on from there to develop his own unique abstract style, using his prints as the research material, as it were, for his large paintings.

Samonte has also gone into painting large works but not as successfully, as he is primarily a printmaker. In his particular area -- the layered relief print -- none of his colleagues can come close to him, as mentioned in the beginning, as feeling and reason, craft and art are one in his geometric-planar, curvilinear-rectilinear, color-as-shape, shape-as-color works.