Monday, December 28, 2009

Conversations on Philippine Art by Cid Reyes

Cid Re
yes is one of the top art critics of the Philippines. He has won the "Art Critic of the Year Award" and has written various articles, art reviews and criticism on Philippine Art, books on Malang, Bencab, and publications for the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP). This interview is from his book "Conversations on Philippine Art" published in 1989 by the CCP (available at CCP bookstore). The book includes interviews with several Philippine National Artists for the Arts including sculptor Abueva and painters Luz, Manansala, Edades, Joya, Kiukok, Legaspi, H.R. Ocampo and Bencab. The interview was conducted by correspondence with Samonte who lives in Los Angeles. See review of this book by art critic Eric Torres immediately after this posting.
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------The interview - pages 135 to 142 in the book:

CID REYES: You are one artist who is essentially a graphic artist. Some painters try their hand at the graphic arts merely as a diversion. What attracted you to graphic arts in the first place?

RODOLFO SAMONTE: I prefer to be called simply an artist. I have been stereotyped as a printmaker for two obvious reasons: I first made my mark in Philippine art by winning prizes in printmaking and my first two one-man exhibitions were in the print medium. The art world's controlling interest are constantly trying to fit us into categories, to pin us down and make things more manageable. This doesn't really bother me that much, but while it is true that some of my best works are prints, I think I have done equally well with my lacquered relief paintings.
What attracted me to printmaking is what I call that element of "surprise." You really cannot tell what's going to happen between the plate and paper in your first proof. Of course, this was when I was starting out and the whole print process was still something of a novelty to me. I was also attracted to printmaking because it allowed me to put plenty of information in a very compact space. Recently, however, I have been trying to purge my work of all extraneous details, leaving only the essentials. But I still maintain that prints should be small and handy, to be read and scrutinized like a book or magazine. Now that I have gained complete control of my medium, it has become less of challenge. Thar's why I keep on innovating, as shown by my lacquered paintings and my recent paper reliefs. I have gone into photography too.

CR: Is there such a thing as having the right "sensibility" for the graphic arts? I mean I don't think it's just a matter of an artist changing Media, say, from painting to printmaking? One should have a "feel" for the medium shouldn't one?

RS: I suppose that's true. My work has always been experimental. I just don't have the patience for more conventional media like oil. Oil dries up too slowly. I want to see what's going on in my work right away. This is another reason why I went into silkscreen; I've done lacquer and acrylic paintings too. So you might say that I'm at home with the medium when I use fast-drying colors like acrylic, lacquer or silkscreen paint.
CR: I know of painters who have purposely shied away from the graphic arts because "they're too messy and too complicated." Are they referring to the tedium of going through all the various steps of printmaking?RS: Printmaking is an exciting world in itself -- the possibilities are infinite! Yet it would take a lifetime to master one or two techniques at the most. There's so much work involved, but that is one of its virtues. This is why printmaking is more interesting. Here at home, one has to go into all these processes. Abroad, say, in the United States, they have workshops run by expert printers who will do the work for you. The artist need never have to dirty his hand.

CR: This sounds rather academic, but could you describe to us the various media in the graphic arts? How do they differ from one another? What is a woodcut? A lithograph? An etching? A silkscreen?RS: Printmaking is basically the transferring of an image from one surface, usually metal, wood, or stone to another surface, usually paper. The problem of how to separate the printing areas from the non-printing areas create the different media of the graphic arts. First there is the relief process, so called because all the printing areas are retained as an upstanding surface which receives the ink. Woodcuts and linocuts fall into this category. Second, there is the intaglio process, the exact opposite of the relief process in that the printing areas are cut away, using tools or acid. Ink is forced into the crevices, excess ink is wiped off the upper surface and is printed on paper with the use of a press. Examples are etchings and engravings. Third, there is the planographic process wherein the separation of the printing and non-printing areas is achieved by the natural antipathy of oil and water. The image is drawn with a grease pencil on limestone, which is then dampened with water during the application of ink; thus only the greased portion receives the ink, which is rejected by the wet portions. Fourth, there is the stencil process in which ink is made to pass through holes or perforations onto the printing surface. Silkscreen is the best example of this. Then there are mixed media techniques which combine two or more processes.

Which of these various media do you prefer to work in? Why? What qualities do you get out of it?
RS: Silkscreen. I suppose it lends itself well to some of my concerns: color, shape and sculptural qualities.

CR: Is it also because the silkscreen medium lends itself well to your hard-edge designs?RS: Yes, Also, it has gotten so that now that I have complete control over this medium and I can do almost anything I want with it.

CR: Didn't you work on woodcuts at first?

RS: Yes, my first one-man show in 1969 was an exhibition of colored woodcuts. I had been doing woodcuts long before that however; ever since my student days.

CR: Do you think it right that people should consider, say, a woodblock print as inferior to an oil painting.
RS: No. but it really depends on a lot of variables. If you're talking about archival qualities, certainly an oil painting, would outlast, say, a woodcut on newsprint. However, an etching on 100% rag paper printed with excellent inks would definitely be superior to painting done with tinting colors on plywood as many of our painters are doing. If you're talking about form or artistic content, then the only limiting factor would be the mind itself.

CR: Perhaps, it's the idea that you can make a hundred editions of a woodblock print whereas an oil painting is always an "original."

RS: The notion that prints are not "original" is wrong. All fine prints, are original in that the artist has complete control over the final image as opposed to a reproduction which is done entirely by photo-mechanical means. Recently, however, it has become even more difficult to distinguish one from the other, especially with the breaking up of traditional boundaries between the two. But then that is all part of the aesthetic mobility that has come upon the art world in the last decade.

CR: But to counter this argument, would it not be going against the nature of the graphic arts if you were to pull out, say, just one copy of a print.
RS: Yes. Plurality of image is the basic concept of printmaking. Art is made more inexpensive, thus accessible to more art lovers especially in the wake of the recent awareness in art.

CR: How would you describe your early attempts at printmaking? Would y
ou describe your early prints like "Love Garden?"

RS: My earlier prints were made while I was still a student and they were mostly woodcuts with images influenced by the then popular " modern primitivism" or what I have always referred to as the University of Santo Tomas School because the practitioners where mostly students from U.S.T. This type of primitivist art was influenced by Tamayo's sombre figures, Paul Klee's child-like drawings, Gauguin's primitive figures and Expressionist colors. This group was composed of Noel Manalo, Raymundo Valencia, Boy Rodriguez, Angelito Antonio, Norma Belleza, Mario Parial, Francis Yap, Ramon Dellosa, Prudencio Lamarossa and myself. All of us shared the same stylistic concerns. All were from U.S.T., with the exception of Francis Yap who was from the University of the East. We dominated both the Shell Art Competition and the Traveller's Life Religious Art competitions in the early 1960's. I did two important works during this period. One was titled "Mother and Child," which I entered in the AAP contest in 1965. It didn't win any prize, but it was noticed by Arturo Luz, who sent me a letter expressing the desire to see more of my works, possibly to show them in his gallery. The other, titled "The Love Garden, " won the the first prize in the First AAP Graphic Art Competition in 1966. This was the last print I did in that style before I eventually moved into abstraction.

CR: Is there such a thing as influence in the graphic arts? Have you been influence in technique, for instance, by the Japanese woodcut masters, like Munakata, Utamaro, Hiroshige or Hokusai? Or Americans like Leonard Baskin, Rockwell Kent? Who are your influences?
RS: Rod Paras-Perez is said to be the person who influenced me in my early formative years, especially during my "woodcut" period. This is true as far as technique is concerned. I think Paras-Perez's excellent woodcuts set the limits of this art and until now is the oeuvre to reckon with. However, he and I have widely differing sensibilities. I think this became obvious in my subsequent works. I have made only one woodcut which looks like a Perez, a figurative piece called "The Mourners," now in the collection of the National Museum. I exhibited this piece with some 30 abstract pieces in my first one-man show in 1969. I guess it was this one work that directly connected me to Paras-Perez. I was influenced too, in one way or another by such prominent figures in Philippine art as Joya, J. Elizalde Navarro, Chabet and Luz during my transition to abstraction -- which is natural, since my only exposure to art then was the local art scene. I have since then moved into another level of development which is entirely my own. I think nobody else in Philippine art shares my concern for a non-illusionistic art object. This has been evident in my 1978 prints and relief paintings up to the present works. No one has clearly pointed this out, but in the past six years I have been operating at the border line between painting and sculpture. I think apart from prints my other important contribution to contemporary art has been to erase the traditional boundaries between two and three-dimensional art.

I have never been influenced by those printmakers you mentioned, although I greatly admire those Japanese artist. I am not keen on Baskin's work especially his recent ones. He had a one-man show in New York when I was there, but I didn't even bother to see it. Yet I don't know how many times I went to Castelli's to see Smithson's salt/mirror pieces and Robert Morris' sculptures, and before that Rauschenberg's Jammer pieces and Judd's plywood constructions. I admire Ellsworth Kelly's work and share his concern for shape and color.

CR: Did you have any formal training in art? Again, what school d
id you attend?RS: University of Santo Tomas. I also took a course in printmaking at the School of Visual Arts in New York in 1976 and also commercial lithography in Cleveland.
CR: I wonder if I could ask you a few biographical questions like where you took up your early studies and whether you came from an "artistic" family?RS: I first discovered I could draw when I took up machine drawing at the Philippine College of Arts & Trades in 1958. The next year, I took up drafting, but the measurements involved were too restrictive for me and so I quit in favor of the freedom of the Fine Arts. As far as I know I am the only artist in our family.

CR: What kind of art were you attracted to as a student?

RS: Art to me then was comic-book illustration. My ambition was to be a famous illustrator like my idol then, Francisco V. Coching. I think to a certain extent this was an important phase in my development as an artist. It helped develop my powers of perception as well as manual dexterity with brush and pencil. But I developed my talent for design and invention from two great teachers, Cenon Rivera and Galo Ocampo. Incidentally, I learned silkscreen and other print media from Cenon Rivera.CR: How important do you think is formal training for someone who wants to go into printmaking? Printmaking, being a very "techical" medium, would necesarily involve a great amount of experimentation. don't you think so?

RS: Quite important. Although I don't think our schools offer a bachelor's degree in printmaking as they do in sculpture or in painting. And then too, we don't have many good teachers in this field. However, one can learn the technical complexities of printmaking by self-study, experimentation and hard work. Tthere are workshops too that offer lessons in printmaking like those given by the Philippine Association of Printmakers and Print Collections.

CR: Do you approach your printmaking in what I call a "painterly" sense?

RS: As a matter of fact that's how I did my early silkscreen. I wanted to approximate painting. I used brush and lacquer for blocking-out my stencils, and I was able to achieve an effect much like the abstract expressionists. Then as now, I was already using a rectangular grid system which I relate to my present "structural" work.
CR: Your prints are, I believe, based strictly on preliminary designs?

RS: No. I work directly on the silkscreen without reference to a preliminary design, but I already know more or less what I'm going to do. I do make sketches, though, usually a series of drawings crystallizing a single fixed idea. But when I start to work on the screen I don't look at the sketches; I find this tends to somehow restrict me. This system makes for a more spontaneous design typical of my early screen prints. My recent prints, however, are more calculated, more impersonal, relying quite heavily on a grid pattern of design. This relates directly of course, to my transition to a reductive, non-compositional art.
CR: Do you know from the beginning what the print is going to look like?

RS: Not exactly what it's going to look like, but a vague idea. I usually make decisions on the various elements like color, shape or texture spontaneously. In fact you might say I am actually "painting" with silkscreen. But let me tell you how I do it: I use what is called the "block-out" method. First I determine the shape or format of the print, whether it's going to be a square or a rectangle or some other shape. So, initially, I already have a concrete idea of what the shape will be. I then cut this shape out in stencil, attach it to the silkscreen frame, and print a whole edition of the background color. I then make a stencil for the next color by blocking-out certain portions right on the first stencil using paper tape and lacquer. These blocked-out portions represent areas wherein the background color will be retained. By making the next stencil for the new color, I am actually destroying the stencil of the last color. This makes it difficult to go back to the last color in case I make a mistake. In this method one has to finish the whole edition right away. Sometimes when the print doesn't come out the way I want it to be, I'd have to throw away the whole edition.CR: Is there much chance of your taking advantage of "accidents?" Do you like accidents at all?RS: Sure. In my earlier serigraphs, I played with a lot of accidents, which I later learned to control. After that they're not accidents anymore. This is one of the joys of printmaking. The is the element of "surprise" that I was telling you about, the accidents that happen between plate and paper. But it takes an artist to recognize their beauty and control them. Now it is difficult to control accidents, and control is needed in order to repeat the accident. Printing is basically a process of repetiiton. This is what frustrates a lot of would-be printmakers.CR: Do some of your prints give you ideas for other prints.
RS: Yes. That's why I work in series -- one print leads to another.

CR: Let's talk about your serigraphs. If titles are any clues to a work's intention, object or mood, then your titles are indeed revealing. I mean, of course, titles like "Rising" and "Shaping," which are states of movement, modes of action. How do these titles relate to the work themselves? Certainly I do not think of them as arbitrary notations for the mere purpose of cataloguing.

RS: Indeed they are states of movement, not only within the works themselves, but as a strong suggestion of my transition, from a painterly mode to a reductive one. Titles like those you mentioned, "Rising" and "Shaping," mean exactly that. My "Shaping" series are bands of changing tonalities that move downwards and upwards forming into a cloudlike shape. "Rising" is as well, bands of colors moving upward.CR: Your paintings, like your prints, create relief effects. How do you achieve these technically?

RS: They are cut-out or shaped canvases, sanded and painted to a glossy perfection.
CR: A number of your silkscreen prints are made up of succeeding layers, creating relief effect, exploiting the projection and recession of forms. What are your intentions?RS: I have always been interested in sculpture. All my relief works, whether they are prints or paintings, are expressions of my sculptural ideas.
CR: When did you start doing lacquer-spray painting?
RS: In 1972, I embarked on a project that was designed to be "big." In a way I was trying to get away from the strict confines of the print medium and its small format. But I didn't want to make large prints. So I decided to go into painting using lacquer paints. Lacquer seem to be best suited for my purposes at that time, since I wanted to get away from the too "painterly" silkscreens. Also my shapes and forms seemed to come out more from a surface that was smooth and non-textural. Then, too, I was slowly moving into a reductive or minimal style. My paintings were not just paintings, they were sculptures too, since they were in relief with frames actually being part of the whole work. I also started working in monochrome at this time. In fact they were more successfull then the multi-colored ones. All of this I exhibited at the Luz Gallery that year.*
CR: Your color range is mainly within pastel shades. You never, or v
ery rarely use pure primary colors. Why? Are you avoiding a shrill impression?

RS: It is very difficult to reconcile sculptural qualities with bright colors. One can either have bright colors on a flat surface or light colors on a protruding and receding surface. They just won't mix. Sculptural qualities are also heightened by using less color, thus, I have been doing more and more monochrome pieces. Light is also important to my work. They are best seen with ligh coming from above because the works actually reflect light and cast shadows. That's why I have been concerened with horizontality in recent years. My shapes are more pronounced when seen horizontally than vertically. Of course you can achieve the same effect by hanging it vertically and lighting it from one side like window light, but light from above seems more natural.

CR: Do ideas for shapes and forms come to you in an automatic kind of way? To what extent do you depend on drawing to generate ideas?
RS: Drawing is extremely important to crystallize my ideas. I do a lot of sketches sometimes doing nothing but shapes.

CR: What procedure do you follow in your relief paintings?

RS: First, the canvas is "wrapped" around a wooden framework. Acrylic molding paste is then applied to smoothen out the canvas texture. Shapes are then cut from separate pieces of smoothened canvas and pasted as in collage. This is then sanded and sprayed with lacquer primer before the application of lacquer paint.
CR: What qualities do you get out of this medium? It's a very industrial kind of medium which gives th
e impression that the work was not in the least touched by the human hand.RS: It's glossy and somehow it's just perfect for the non-textural, monochromatic, and impersonal qualities I want.

CR: How do you feel about the this mechanical quality, about art based on a blue-print -- as contrasted to a more romantic, traditional way of painting with canvas, easel, brush, palette knife, et cetera?

RS: Duchamp's decision that art must be a matter of choice has left this field wide open. Certainly your own art by mailed instruction, or Luz's sculpture done by his carpenters, is a manifestation of this new freedom. If an artist can achieve the same ends without having to be involved with medium itself, why not do it. If I can find a craftsman who'll be able to do exactly what I want, then I'll let him do it.
CR: Do you have assistants working with you?

RS: Yes. I usually have two assistants. One helps with my silkscreen work, and the other does my spray painting.

CR: Can you tell us something about your working procedure? Do yo
u work continually or only when you're preparing for a show?
RS: That depends on what you mean by the word "work." Working for me includes the signing and cataloguing of my me editions. This is boring work but it can't be helped. Thinking is also work. So I think I work continuously. Of course I have my moods too and don't do any work, but that is unusual. I do more work when preparing for a show.

CR: Are you a disciplined kind of artist? When preparing for a show, for instance, do you set a target date and work yourself toward it, or do you just keep on working until you finish a sizable amount of work for an exhibition?

RS: I am quite disciplined. I usually work eight hours a day, and more. I guess I just keep working. In my last show at the Luz Gallery for instance, I exhibited over a hundred works consisting of screenprints, acrylic and lacquer painting, and cast-paper reliefs -- a prodigious output considering I did all this in six months. Later that same year I had a photography show at Print Collections Gallery. Last year I had three shows consisting mainly of acrylic and drawings.
CR: When preparing for a show, how do you get yourself "warmed up?" By launching yourself into a frenzy of sketching? I know some painters for instance who warm up by browsing through photographs of other people's work. Some get warmed up by going from one gallery to another and gradually building up a competitive desire to do better work. How do you do it?

RS: I like to read biographical books and critical essays ab
out artists. I'm a regular gallery-goer, always keeping up with what's going on in the Manila art scene. Lectures and discussions on art always warm me up. Naturally, I do a lot of sketches.

CR: Do you keep yourself as regards the danger of, say, merely decorative and repetitive?

RS: Well, for one, I am constantly on the move, exploring and innovating by using new materials and techniques and new media. I have gone into
photography, paper-making and sculpture. Right now, I am busy making cast-paper reliefs. I
have done some lead sculptures too. Of course, I may have been guilty of being decorative or repetitive, especially sometime during the development of a certain idea, and since I work in series, I am in fact more susceptible to repetition. I would consider that a virtue rather than a fault, however. Joseph Albers, for example, is known for his square painting, and that is exactly what he has been doing all his life -- squares and variations of his square theme.

CR: Could you say something about your latest innovation, the cast-paper relief? What does the process involve? What are your intentions? Do they relate at all to Japanese origami?

RS: Well, cast-paper relief is a type of sculpture, and like sculpture it can be done in multiples. So it can properly be called cast-paper relief sculpture if done singly, or cast-paper relief print if done in an edition of more than one. Casting is in fact a sculptural term as in cast-bronze scupture wherein bronze is poured into or over a mold. In the case of my cast-paper sculptures, paper pulp is poured over a rubber mold. Rubber is preferable to a harder mold like plaster-of-Paris. Cast-paper is different from papier-mache, where the paper is broken down into filaments of fiber. Glue is not used in cast-paper sculpture; it relies on papermaking. Now the principal difficulty of this process is the pulp-making. In the United States one can buy 100% rag pulp in plastic containers; here in the Philippines abaca pulp is available, but this isn't as good as rag pulp. Rag paper, by the way, is made from cotton or linen fibers and is the paper recommended by Museums for its archival qualities. For my own work I use 100% rag paper from France, so I think I am using the best available. The paper is broken down to pulp consistency by using a regular kitchen blender. The pulp is then poured over a rubber mold which I make in three layers so I can achieve various levels of relief. Excess water is removed by the use of sponges, a tedious process, because it has to be done slowly while still wet; but as more and more water is removed, the fibers seem to cling tighter to each other, and once thoroughly dried, becomes a durable sheet of paper. While still wet, the whole thing is turned over, and removed from the rubber mold by a peeling process, very much like the peeling-off of masking tape from hard-edge paintings. Once everything is removed the result is the finished cast-paper relief. One or two days is needed for the work to dry completely, depending on the thickness of the paper.

CR: Knowing how interested you are in photography, I'd like to hear what you have to say about the relationship between your painting and photography.

RS: I had a one-man photography show at Sining Kamalig in 1977. The photographs I showed are in no way related to my prints and paintings. As of now, photography is an entirely new direction in my artistic career. If ever I can relate photography to my present work, it would have to be only for its documentary aspect.

CR: What future projects do you have in mind?

S: It seems to be an unlikely time to ask me that question. After having had three one-man shows in close succession and group exhibitions one after the other, one would expect me to fold up and retire into oblivion. Yet art has a primacy, in immanence that penetrates into my being; art is my life, my commitment. As to your question, the following seem to be foremost in my mind: (1) To make large scale metal sculptures. I want to do more sculptures using lead and paper. (2) To take up a masters degree, maybe Art History. Also to take up further studies in papermaking and printmaking. I would like to do a body of work using etching or lithograpy process. (3) To do some more art writing or art criticism.
Find a review by art critic Armando Manalo of this exhibit in a posting shown below.