A figurative artist’s dilemma—when her art is no longer ‘cool’
When punk rock reared its spiky head in the late 1970s, with its do-it-yourself populist credo, many people believed it was the final dagger in the heart of “classic” rock.
Almost overnight, all those musicians practising scales and working on their tone in their bedrooms, aspiring to be the next Eric Clapton or Jimmy Page, seemed hopelessly passé.
Punk stood for the primacy of passion over polish, of conception over chops, and in the initial euphoria that embraced the likes of the Dead Boys and the Buzzcocks, musicianship suddenly wasn’t enough.
Visual arts dilemma
Filipino artists face a similar dilemma in the postmodern era.
Conceptual and pop art, genres which first emerged in the ’80s and ’90s, are enjoying a local renaissance. Conceptualists have increasingly abandoned traditional media in favor of assemblage, installation and video art.
In its current incarnation as pop surrealism, the latter promiscuously mixes grafitti, lowbrow and street art in an electric, eclectic spew.
If they play their cards right—that is to say, exhibit in the “right” galleries, garner decent reviews, plug into the global art network, and don’t forget social media—young Filipino artists working in these idioms could be exhibiting in Singapore or Berlin within a relatively short period.
In contrast, working in a more traditional, figurative vein is clearly the less-traveled path. Unless their name happens to be Elmer Borlongan or BenCab, figurative artists can’t even get arrested these days.
“When I applied abroad for a master’s program in fine arts, they told me my work was ‘illustrative’ and my application was rejected,” recalls Jackie Hontiveros Lozano, an artist who rather defiantly identifies herself as a “figurative painter” on her Instagram page.
Until last year, when she took the plunge and decided to focus on painting full-time, Lozano had been teaching technique, figure drawing and advanced figure drawing at the University of the Philippines College of Fine Arts. These are courses usually taught by veteran artists, but Lozano’s excellent draftsmanship and technical mastery earned her an invitation to lecture at the college, even though she herself had graduated only in 2009.
In the interim, she had spent a few years working as a graphic designer for Campaigns & Grey, Ace Saatchi & Saatchi, and photographer Neal Oshima’s studio.
These days, Lozano pays her bills with commissions for portraits, for which there has been a steady demand. Working in her signature “Anonymous” style, layering pigment on canvas with deft strokes of a palette knife, she builds up distinctive character studies.
The painter Betsy Westendorp, perhaps best known for her portraits of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, once said that portrait painters are born, not made. You either have the knack for capturing faces, or you don’t.
Lozano clearly has “it” (whatever “it” is), judging from her work. Quoting Claudio
Bravo, another celebrated portrait painter, Westendorp also cautioned that portrait painters only have so many portraits in them, and that eventually they’ll run out of “it.”
While she hasn’t reached that point yet, Lozano has felt the urge to expand her horizons. In her upcoming solo exhibit, titled “Heroes,” Lozano explores a kind of universal spirituality as embodied in the permutations of the human figure. The paintings are markers on her personal journey of self-exploration.
Pressure to conform
Like many emerging artists, Lozano has experienced some pressure to conform to the trendy. A number of her fellow artists and gallery owners have hinted that, maybe she should be less, well, figurative. She actually gave abstraction a go before deciding that figurative art was what felt right to her.
“Painting figures/people is what I love doing,” she says. “To keep up with the times, I try to tweak my style to make it look more contemporary, like the color palette and the poses and concept.
“I’ve actually avoided talking to anyone in the ‘art scene’ since last year because it depresses me too much,” she adds. “I’ve met with a few gallerists and curators over the years, those interested in representing me, but they are either not interested in my figurative paintings, or think I price too high for what I do.”
Price to pay
There’s a price to be paid for being so unfashionable. With no gallery representation, Lozano has had to do things on her own. Being less than comfortable with the incessant self-promotion that is the stock-in-trade of many successful contemporary artists also means she has flown largely under the radar.
She might take comfort in the knowledge that, post-punk, audiences realized that musicianship does matter after all, and that the best bands are those that have something to say, and the technical ability to bring it across.
The same ought to go for visual artists.
Jackie Hontiveros Lozano opens “Heroes,” her first solo exhibit runs until March 25 at Manila House Private Club, 8/F Net Park, 5th Ave., Bonifacio Global City.
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