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Art and the pursuit of happiness

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“WALANG Pakialamanan,” by Jun Balasbas

“DOON sa Probinsya Namin”

The Power Plant Mall in Rockwell, Makati City, seems serious in its commitment to showcase art for public consumption.

Last month, it hosted an impressive collection of Ramon Orlina’s glass sculptures at the Archaeology Hall.  Now on view in this commodious art space are works by artists Jun Balasbas and Kelly Sonio, in an engaging exhibit that looks into the Filipino’s everyday search for happiness.

It seems that the pursuit of happiness has now become a global obsession.  Pharmaceutical companies push happy pills, adventure tourism promises thrills of every assortment, and advertisements market unrealistic aspirations based on endless consumerism.

The question of happiness, especially those couched in superlative reductionist measures, is a tricky one.  But for Balasbas and Sonio, the Pinoy sense of happiness is best captured in the everyday communal rituals of the streets, soundtracked by the charivari of gossip, intoxicated banter and laughter.

“Tsya o Tsyub,” by Balasbas

“We are happy no matter what or wherever we are,” says Balasbas. “Kahit sa mga lamay, masaya tayo.”

Balasbas, 36, started his career as an illustrator for a company that sold black and white greeting cards popular in the days before e-mail and SMS.

Transitioning to broad canvases and full color as a painter proved to be a profoundly liberating experience for the artist, whose works exhibit a precise graphic aesthetic that recalls the era of Funny Komiks and the other juvenile pleasures of old mixed with a keen eye for the narratives that shape our daily lives.

His is an assemblage of seemingly familiar characters, carefully rendered in a multilayered discourse of communion and spatiality.  A pregnant woman contemplates the purchase of a fruit even as her rotund belly echoes the duality of hope and uncertainty.  Commuting strangers share the intimacy of a cramped jeepney.  Farmers, bound together by the earth, toil the soil with joyful countenance.

“PAKWANSeries” II

In all these, Balasbas locates Pinoy happiness in the realm of the familial and social, in the geographies of shared experience and being, oblivious to quantification.  Sociologist Randy David himself situates Filipino happiness in our “culture of conviviality.”

“Tabatsoy,” by Sonio

More subdued

Sonio’s contribution to the exhibit, although limited in number, makes for a meaningful dialogue between both artists.  His terra-cotta sculptures, while echoing Balasbas’ folksy appeal, is more subdued and contemplative, focusing instead on quiet and mundane pleasures.

In Sonio’s gifted hands, the Filipino subject is made larger than life. Blessed with the mythical proportions of the kapre, Sonio’s sculptures possess a marked corporeal aesthetic that embodies the earthy and primordial.

Sonio, 34, a Grand Prize winner for sculpture of the Metrobank Foundation Art Competition, frames happiness as a transactional dynamic, a negotiation of gift-giving and acceptance.

“MAMANG Sorbetero,” by Kelly Sonio

In choosing the humble street vendor as the primary subject for his compositions, the sculptor equates happiness not with what is purchased but with the experience that is shared in the moment.

The magbubuko and the mamang sorbetero, along with the pakwan and pinya vendor peddle more than just refreshments; they offer the gift of happy childhood memories, priceless and eternal.

In this ritual of transaction, the client also honors the vendor not with what is paid but with the gift of acceptance and gratitude. Happiness once given is always received in return.

Lack of pretense

Both Balasbas and Sonio admit to being “unschooled” in the arts and speak of their individual styles as “works in progress.”

Sonio, who once worked as a security guard at a construction site, still bakes his clay sculptures in a makeshift kiln dug in a rented backyard.  Balasbas, the former graphic artist, paints in the old greeting-card warehouse, emptied now of its former incarnation.

In their shared humility and lack of any artistic pretense, both artists map out for us a path to unencumbered happiness in the virtues of contentment and simplicity.

“Hapi Noypi” is on view at the Archaeology Hall, Power Plant Mall, Rockwell, Makati City, until July 26.  For more information, call Gallery Big at 6667755 or 0922-8064005.  E-mail the author at nathrondina@gmail.com.


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