Instructive Survey: The Real H. R. Ocampo exhibition

Excerpts from a review of The Real H.R. Ocampo exhibition, on view until November 2013 at the Ayala Museum, Makati City.

A copy of the full article may be requested by leaving a note and forwarding email in the comments section.

The exhibition foregrounds the acute relevance of art historical knowledge especially provenance. This article argues for the pedantic ends of a well-planned and timely survey of an artist’s body of works. It discusses in this albeit, brief space a rethinking of modernism through H. R. Ocampo’s highly ‘original’ approach to the visual language. By doing so, it attempts to think through the rubrics of influence and imitation. It also re-situates H. R. Ocampo’s body of works within contemporary contexts, specifically within art world spheres seemingly overran by market forces whose pendulum swings encompass both informed collection and mindless acquisition. Corollary to these tendencies is the system of validation such practices require, as well as the network of actors and agents implicated in such exchanges.

The Ayala Museum exhibition comprised works by H. R. Ocampo between the early thirties to the late seventies. They show a wide array of subject matter, mediums and styles. More important, they reprise through chronology, shifts in Ocampo’s artistic vision. The  works include pen and ink drawings from when he was associate editor of the Herald Midweek Magazine, numerous other sketches and drawings that chronicled days of incarceration in a Muntinlupa prison, oil paintings that reworked traditional iconography and those that documented the drudgery of life in post-war Manila.

15 ina at anak 1951
Ina at Anak, 1951 Image courtesy Ayala Museum

Madonna of the Well (1939) can be placed alongside Vicente Manansala’s Madonna of the Slums and Galo Ocampo’s Brown Madonna. All three paintings reworked the Virgin and Child icon. H. R. Ocampo’s Madonna while rendered in bright, unalloyed hues evince gloomy resignation. There is apparent foreshortening in the elements that make the landscape, a nipa hut’s thatched roof and a carabao’s languid form. The ground on which the Madonna stands is drawn in verdant dip and swell, as do the purple arcs of the morning sky. Thus, the mother and child figure, the well beside them, the hay stacks afar, and the forest in the deep background anchor the rendering to a naturalistic scene.

The sober air of the piece is also discerned in Plantsadora (1945), a woman whose figure is strained by the effort of straightening creases in a man’s undergarment. The glowing coal embers inside the iron are echoed by the smouldering flesh and clenched muscles of her arms. This scene of domestic labor is insightfully contrasted with towering buildings beyond a window. The vista conjured for us by Ocampo speaks to faceless labor that modernity exploits.

5 plantsadora 1945
Plantsadora, 1945 Image courtesy of the Ayala Museum

These and other pieces adequately document the artist’s deep interest in the expressive qualities of surface through meticulous study of pattern, technique and color. Some depict landscapes of amoeba-shaped forms, sinuous lengths curiously opening up the picture plane while suturing forms and patterns within. These tight, undulating compositions include studies in color relationships by way of near-abstract landscapes or scenes of meditation and prayer. Equally striking are still life in the Cubist mode, defined through chroma and texture.

intribio 1951
Intribio 1951, Image courtesy of the Ayala Museum

In eloquent and poetic manner, H. R. Ocampo likewise defines the sources for his art including “the things he sees everyday”, objects of nature, images from “television, films and movies”. The many objects in his immediate environment aid him in his “search for significant form”, objects in his house and surroundings, the elements, “the effects of the wind, sun, and rain on the terrain of the Philippines”.

This quest for ‘significant form’ would lead to eliminating recognizable subject matter in painting, denuded of conventional associations by way of emotion or sentiment. The artist wrote of such exercise as “an interest in how shapes, hues, values, textures and line interact with one another in space”, writing of “creating new realities in terms of stress and strain”. Thus, we discern in Ocampo’s ideas a condensation of locale into ‘significant form’. Informed by what he terms “visceral reactions to varied stimuli of an artist’s time and clime”.

The backdrop provided by the exhibition The Real H. R. Ocampo proves useful in sifting grain from chaff. By making these privately owned pieces accessible through a public exhibition, we are immersed in aspects of the artist’s world, where we become acquainted with his motivations for making art. Whether enthusiasts, historians, critics, students or collectors of art, such encounters ground us not only in the intentions of the artist but roots us well to the motivations we bring to art, the same desires that frame our understanding of art and its place in our lives.

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