Elusive Edge: Philippine Abstract Forms
By Sean Carballo
Elusive Edge: Philippine Abstract Forms
Metropolitan Museum of Manila
Jun 13–Aug 31, 2023
What purpose does lineage serve with regard to understanding abstract art? One might reasonably argue that any artistic lineage is fraught, given how it institutes a trajectory that often parcels complex, thorny movements and counter-movements into tidy, simplistic compartments. Others might argue that abstract art struggles against such direct historical framing. To abstract, after all, is to excise. It is the work of distillation, the process of extracting the material of lived experience until what endures is a flash of feeling, an energy beyond imagery.
Taken on these terms, it is no surprise that some consider abstract art as an evasive, slippery art, prone to antagonisms across cultures and political orientations. “Abstract art is attacked as the enemy with such a passionate urgency,” art historian Alice Guillermo wrote in a 1983 essay, alluding to accusations of escapism and conservatism allegedly inherent to the practice. To couple lineage and abstraction, then, at least on the surface, seems like a thankless task.
“Elusive Edge: Philippine Abstract Forms,” curated by critic and professor Patrick D. Flores, alerted audiences to abstract art’s traits but only as a foundation for scrutinizing what exactly constitutes this broad concept. Displaying a loose genealogy of works from the 1960s to the present day, the exhibition served as an appraisal of abstract art in the Philippines, bringing into focus its manifold configurations—from Arturo Luz’s relief carvings on plywood and Ramon Orlina’s glass sculptures to Gary-Ross Pastrana’s sharply defined collages and Maria Taniguchi’s brick wall installation—as a tactic for encountering a new abstraction’s historical, though assuredly not linear, trajectories. The sweeping scope on display suggested that Filipino artists, deploying abstraction to sift through their own artistic preoccupations, have always been attentive to the effort of mediation, or, as Flores put it, “how the Philippine artistic ecology and intelligence decisively responded to the abstract aesthetic, conversing in both its international and vernacular registers.” Lineage, as the show understood it, does not tread a straight line but teeters, falls back on itself, reorganizes, and shuffles back to its feet again.
Flores’s attitude to curation in “Elusive Edge” was speculative rather than
prescriptive. And despite the exhibition’s formidable framework, encompassing 85
works organized into five clusters, Flores offset this intricacy by
undergirding the show with questions that catalyzed his thinking. Why is
abstract art so often pitted against figurative art? How have artists unsettled
such rigidities? Can abstract art acquire an ethical position? What does a
Filipino expression of abstraction look like? These inquiries, sparked by
Flores’s probing intellect, became the generative ground for the
Such extensive inquiry gave the works a chance to converse with one another in unexpected ways. There was a fidgety spirit animating the show, providing thrust and physicality as we were shuttled through one piece after another. The show asked—no, demanded—that we confront color as a snarl of energy, transfiguring and shapeshifting into forms bounded and unbounded. Jess Ayco’s sensually apocalyptic reds in Untitled (1970) came into fierce contact with the much more geometric and stable variations in Lamberto Hechanova’s Homage to Julie (1968). Likewise, repetitions of black emerged as either unsettlingly pensive, as in Nice Buenaventura’s charcoal triptych Ditto Studies 1–3 (2017), or tranquil to the point of hypnosis, as in Maria Taniguchi’s brick painting Untitled (2018).
In one section of the show, which tracked the development of hard edge and color field approaches, jolts of color were sublimated into monochromatic, razor-like forms, such as in Leo Valledor’s A.I.R. (Artist in Residence) (1981). Altering the Philippine flag’s shape until it is transformed into a sharpened structure, making no distinguishable hierarchy between the blues and reds (symbols for peace and war respectively), Valledor, a Filipino born in San Francisco, grafts questions of national history and diaspora onto the very activity of abstraction. A mediator himself, Flores showcased throughout “Elusive Edge” the instances in which practitioners of the abstract form have either clung to tradition or chosen to deviate from it. Conveying this dynamic of hold and release, the exhibition was an encompassing and purposeful feat, a remarkable proposition of abstraction and its decisive fusions.