Known as a serious artist who underscores social inequities in his paintings of Philippine urban life, Jaime Gubaton now takes less somber routes as he maps Manila’s suburban cityscapes on canvas.
Gubaton burst into the Manila art scene 12 years ago when as an advertising senior at the University of the East, he won top honors in the PLDT, Petron and Shell art contests. In subsequent years, he went on to score major victories in the Metrobank art contest .
It is therefore quite surprising to note that Gubaton’s exhibition, “Homegrown,” is the artist’s first solo show. “There’s a big difference between competition pieces and works that are meant for private galleries and collectors,” he explained.
Contests require grand pieces with multiple narratives, often about nation, peace, the environment or similar lofty themes. Gallery pieces meant for private consumption, on the other hand, are more personal, subdued and smaller in both scale and vision. Gubaton negotiates both ends of this spectrum.
“The thing about not having solo shows over the years is that I didn’t get the chance to showcase how my style has evolved,” Gubaton said. Perhaps this explains some of the curatorial directions the exhibit takes, showcasing not one, but at least four distinct styles. It’s a rather tricky direction, especially since the exhibit is an austere collection of only twelve paintings.
An older piece titled “In their Hands,” is a throwback to Gubaton’s days in the contest circuit. It’s a busy piece with multiple subjects and stories, all not-so-subtle odes to youth, progress, nature and romantic visions of the future. It’s a grand painting, one worthy of competition gold for technique and execution, but juxtaposed against the artist’s newer works seems more of an oddity, a heuristic piece thrown in the mix as a point of departure.
A second set in the exhibit depict girls and boys at play. Children are among Gubaton’s favorite motifs and in this series he engages them as a showcase of his remarkable gift for portraiture. Rendered in Gubaton’s hand, children’s faces are both unique and universal, pictures of hope, innocence and all that is good in humanity. Here, too, Gubaton abandons the literal in favor of subtle metaphors and ironies. Opting for surrealist modalities, he deploys the visualities of scale as his innocent subjects take journeys on magical creatures, miniature sports cars and jeepneys.
What emerges is a curious reimagining of modernity in transition, captured by one of its more gifted residents who seems to have awakened like a boy in the hood with a new pair of eyes.
In his third set of new works Gubaton abandons squalor for whimsy in his depiction of nouveau riche townhouses that explode in a palette of vibrant hues and odd shapes. Concrete extends upwards and sideways like weeds in summer, empty stairwells and porticos invite questions but offer no answers, and birds roam freely about in the urban jungle. Iconic figures like the Pinoy jeepney and dirty ice cream complete the artist’s vision of Manila’s chaos and beauty.
Having transitioned first from watercolor and, later, to oil, Gubaton now wields acrylic like a graphic artist deploys Photoshop. There’s a strong graphic quality to Gubaton’s new works so much so that his paintings, viewed from a distance, look and feel like billboards on a busy street.
Can this candy-colored veneer and festive visual countenance be nothing more than an act of selling out? “Mukha nang pang-mayaman,” Gubaton, now 32, said of his residential cityscapes, not entirely without a hint of irony.
Cityscape paintings, after all, are futile attempts at capturing transient moments. Spaces and places, grow, decay and make way for new ones. As the Pet Shop Boys asked in the hit song ‘Suburbia,’ aren’t all these manufactured spaces “the slums of the future” anyway?
The final set in Gubaton’s new oeuvre is, arguably, the most arresting of the lot. The signature piece “Homegrown” and “Reunion,” both sized 3×4 feet, depict faces and foliage morphed onto the foreground of geometric figures that resemble a single-story house making for a strong visual articulation of the dynamic between the organic/affective and the seemingly inanimate, and vice-versa.
These two pieces, now en route to Seoul as part of the Philippine contingent to the 2014 Korean International Art Fair, are twin signifiers of a pivotal moment for Gubaton as he transitions to new artistic territory with a fresh, contemporary vibe without sacrificing the distinct, critical voice that has come to define his body of work.
“Homegrown” is on extended run until Sept. 30 at Gallery Big, 2/F LRI Design Plaza, Reposo Street, Bel-air, Makati. Call tel. 6667755. For feedback on this article, e-mail the author at [email protected]