Monday, March 19, 2012

Rodolfo Samonte: Master Digital Artist Comes Home by Filipina Lippi


MANILA, Philippines — Digital art is the apex of modern art. The computer-aided technology does not only help artists attain possibilities never imagined before; it also fast tracks (at dazzling speed) older printmaking techniques – making art more accessible and less elitist.

One Filipino artist who has made his mark in this contemporary medium abroad is Rodolfo “Rod” Samonte, who is based in Burbank, Los Angeles (LA), southern California. Away from the Philippines for 33 years, he is putting on an “energized” exhibit of 30 digital art works Gallery One in LRI Design Plaza, on Nicanor Garcia Street, in Bel-Air, Makati City starting December 7.

Samonte’s computer-aided geometric abstractions are, to say the least, startling and overwhelming. They are 45” x 60” and 80” x 80” in size; printed on cotton duck canvas, mounted with plywood backing; there are only 10 limited editions per work.

What is digital art when shaped by a seasoned wizard like Samonte? His geometric abstraction in the late '60s to the late '70s made him one of the most important abstract Filipino painters in Manila when he was still young.

For Samonte, digital art is like holding on to the horns of modern technology -- not to tame but to match his imagination’s obsession for unlimited forms and possibilities. Craftsmanship, depth and soul must be there while working on photoshop; photoshop is an aid and not the only key to the artist’s creative process in a fast changing world.

“Digital art is the future,” is how Samonte would describe it. “I have been doing it since 2003 in LA. Even there, very few are taking up the challenge of digital art. It should be learned, absolutely,” he declares.

Hiatus and rebirth

Samonte reached Cleveland as an immigrant in 1979 and learned computer graphics when he started working for various advertising agencies in the US. After 19 years, he quit work to become a full-time artist in 1998. Five years after, in 2003, he started feeding colors and geometrical shapes into his computer to experiment on digital art making.

“I started slowly. Then I realized I could really work (fast) on shapes and colours at pwede akong magwala sa kulay,” he recalls. In the next eight years, Samonte’s computer-aided geometric abstraction wowed hundreds of thousands of viewers in the US.

“I am the only one doing digital art in our group called Lanterns of the East,” says Samonte. The LA-based art group owns a gallery in downtown LA where members can hold shows. They also hold yearly exhibits in two other galleries: Barnsdall Art Park on Hollywood Boulevard and Vermont; and at Brand Library’s gallery in Glendale.

US-based Filipino social realist painters Rey Zipagan and Papo de Asis (who died of heart attack in 2007) became members of Samonte’s multi-diversified group.

Digital art’s bigger impact, apart from its dazzling form, says Samonte, comes from the artist’s decision to make his art reach more people at less cost.

Would he ever go back to traditional art-making?

Samonte says, “I am thinking of doing collage, but, again, I want to use it in my digital art.”

True-blooded abstract artist

From his first exhibit in 1968, Samonte was already being branded as a true-blooded modernist. He was never tempted to use oil on canvas. Impatient with traditional art making, he says, “I always liked something that dried faster, something that could reveal faster what I have imagined.”

From 1968 to 1977, he was using ink on woodcut, ink for printmaking, acrylic colors for silkscreen printing, and sprayed automotive lacquer. Ironically, he was fond of thickening his works (and make bas-relief) with these thin-bodied art media.

Samonte finished his art studies at the University of Santos Tomas in 1964, then worked as graphic artist for Advertising and Marketing Associates (AMA) and Ace Campton, among other advertising firms, slowly developing a liking for more contemporary techniques in art-making.

Before embarking on serious art shows, Samonte had been winning first, third, and fourth prizes in the print category of the Art Association of the Philippines’ (AAP’s) yearly competition. One of his award winning pieces suggested a figurative form, but this was the first and last time this abstract painter ever came close to it.

A different woodcut artist

In a show on woodcuts at Joy Dayrit Gallery in 1968, Samonte used round and rectangular wooden chopping boards that were pockmarked with knives, screws, hard objects, including carving tools, the images of which were transferred on paper in black and white. “I used my palm to impress the chopping board on paper,” he says.

Silkscreen guru

Samonte created a niche for himself when he started silkscreen printing. To create geometric abstraction, he would layer up colors up to 1/8 of an inch thick. “With silkscreen, I could make colorful abstract images; I could achieve depth and sculptural qualities. The process allowed me to achieve the effects I wanted in my art. It was closest to my sensibility at the time,” he explains. His passion for the technique lasted until 1977.

American artist Andy Warhol used silkscreen to create pop art (Campbell soup, portraits of Hollywood stars); the content of Warhol’s art, however, never attracted Samonte, who used the same method but created geometric abstraction, which was popular among his colleagues then. Worried to innovate on more contemporary content while elevating a newer method as a valid medium for high art, critics eventually dubbed Samonte a pioneer of silkscreen art in the Philippines.

Not really for printmaking

Although he was active at the Philippine Association of Printmakers which was spearheaded by Adiel Arevalo in the '70s, and despite a good number of excellent prints he made (using stencil and lithograph), Samonte says printmaking was a mere “passing fancy”. “I didn’t want to become dependent on a big machine (press) to create art. I liked doing woodcut and silk screen printing at home,” he says. When he said good-bye to printmaking, he sold his etching press to bosom friend Romulo Olazo, an artist he often collaborated with.

Master of sprayed automotive lacquer paint

When he discovered the technique of sprayed automotive lacquer paint, his geometric abstractions became even more colorful, glossy, and its bas relief, stronger. His next canvas was his second hand Vauxhall, which he spray-painted with khaki green, red, and yellow. “I changed its colors every year. Maraming kulay ang pinagdaanan ang kotse ko. It was yellow when I sold it,” he chuckles.

Samonte would use the glossy lacquer paint in creating minimalist pieces that “avoided (as humanly possible) gradations”. Soon he used one color per canvas; he used to assemble an array of even-toned canvases to create gradations of colors.

Gallery owners who were mesmerized by his works (especially those where he innovated with automotive lacquer paint) at Luz Gallery invited him for exhibits in Bogota, Colombia; Holland; and Japan.

Before he went abroad in 1977, he was teaching advertising at the Philippine Women’s University and printmaking/silkscreen style at the University of the Philippines between 1975 and 1976.

In 1977, after his art shows abroad, he also went to Cleveland where his sister worked with an insurance company and his brother, with a printing firm.

After a gallery scheduled him for a show in Cleveland, Samonte used brush (for the first time) on acrylic to create geometric abstractions “manually” (as opposed to his gestural silkscreen printing). “My works became smaller, 15” x 20”. Mahilig ako sa blue nuon. Then my colors became increasingly minimalist also because of the space constraint where I worked….walang masyadong magalawan.”

Abroad, Samonte reunited with many Filipino printmakers who were self-exiles in the US and in Europe: Aro Soriano in Paris; Restituto Embuscado, Lamberto Hechanova, Lucio Martinez, Marcelino Rodriguez, Manuel Rodriguez (father of printmaking in the Philippines), and Joel Soliven in the US. Soon, he would be an exiled artist like them.

Paper sculpture, interim art

In Japan, he learned how to make paper. In Paris, he purchased rag-paper (made of linen and cotton), which became useful in making his own cast paper sculpture for an interim show when he came back to Manila. In his workshop in his house in Sampaloc district, he osteorized the rag-paper, poured it on 1/8-- inch giant rubber sheets he sculpted with several layers of geometric shapes (that served as reverse image of a mold). ”I used sponge to dry it up. I could not lift the mold until the molded paper sculpture was totally dry, otherwise it would crumble,” he explains his early experiments on this medium.

When he came back to the Philippines in 1978, he also married Michaela, an artist he met at the Design Center of the Philippines. Their son, Rodolfo Jr., was born when he had returned to the US as an immigrant in 1979; his family joined him in the US only in 1984. A second son, Samuel, was born there in 1992. While his artist wife became an accountant, his eldest son, a graduate of animation art, has shown interest in digital art; his youngest, still a student, is aiming early to be an artist.

“I am happy with my life,” confesses this self-exiled multi-faceted artist, his face mirroring the dazzling joy of his digital art in his homecoming show.


Samonte : New Work opens on December 7, 2011, 6:30pm at GalerieOne Workshop LRI Design Plaza Nicanor Garcia St Bel Air II Makati City. The show will run until December 31, 2011. For more details call 8368799 or email