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Joey Manlapaz and the art of reality

“Bagels” by Joey Manlapaz`

MANILA, Philippines - My mother always told me, “Joey, you should paint flowers. People like flowers.”

Had Washington, DC-based, Filipino-born artist Joey Manlapaz been struck with filial obedience and heeded her mother’s suggestions, we wouldn’t have any of her numerous vivid and life-like renderings of the world’s most powerful urban sprawl. Her architectural flourish caught on painterly canvases would have been sorely amiss. Former First Lady Laura Bush’s 2004 National Book Festival painting commission would have been signed by a different fine artist. And all the state-owned libraries in the US would have looked duller devoid of her festive rendition of the US Library of Congress. If there is anything to credit for Manlapaz’s well-renowned photorealist work, it would have been her hard-headedness, her unbridled passion for her own technique and thoughts that brought to light some of the most painterly slice of the American city life.

This was what Joey Manlapaz fondly recalled in a captivated audience of the Southern belles and beaus of the Families in Art and Culture, Inc. (FIAT), an organization founded by professionals from Muntinlupa and Parañaque cities united in advocating art and its values in promoting a better Filipino family life. Today, in the Ayala Alabang home of member Merle Basco, the ladies and gents of FIAT enjoyed their first dose of photorealism, as well as the rare homecoming of a highly praised Fil-Am artist, through the words and private exhibition of Joey Manlapaz.

Manlapaz started her three-decade-long artistic career as a teen setting forth the US capital of Washington, DC. Under the mentorship of landscape artist Frank Wright, at the George Washington University, Manlapaz mustered her penchant and fascination for the stately architectures of the capitol, in the decade when the Rothkos and the Pollocks were the golden standard.

“I got to a point when I could finish an impressionist painting in 40 minutes. It didn’t challenge me anymore. Impressionism is easy, much more abstract expressionism!” Manlapaz quips, trading her modesty for the wit of honesty, just like she traded her dynamic swishes for the more uncompromising, largely controlled brush strokes of photorealism.

In the discipline of New York realists Tom Blackwell and Richard Estes, Manlapaz harnessed her craft in what would have been a male-dominated domain, yet, being no stranger to gender-defiance (she answers to Joey, after all), Manlapaz had successfully built a range all her own. She explains, “My subject matter is a little bit out of the ordinary. It’s the city where I live, and I like these artworks. I find them very interesting. Architecture does tend to be a bit masculine, yes, but I don’t see them in terms of gender. I see it in terms of the intensity of color, in shape, in structure and form.”

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By adding what could seem as an “outside-looking-in” perspective to photorealism, inspired by the psychological sensibilities of painter Edward Hopper, Manlapaz’s body of work, while brimming with lush color ways, contrasting hues, and to-the-detail technical precision, offers a visceral meaning to what could be perceived as the mundane.

Her “Monument” series captures the white calming stillness of plaster monuments that generously abound in the dignified DC streets, yet at once, also offers a silent stroke of sensuality with every curve and contour. Manlapaz’s “Reflections” series, on the other hand, ingeniously details storefronts and the images that get caught in their shop windows; their neon signs, quirky advertising, and sometimes less than essential products offer a refreshing view to the American brand of capitalism and consumerism. And yet, her latest series, “Cycles, Bikes, and Bins” showcases the excitement of revving engines and rolling wheels while parked on a standstill. These play at opposing themes and quirky ironies transform Manlapaz’s technical prowess into one that is subjugated by deep, defining thought.

“In everything you paint, there’s always a concept involved, otherwise, it wouldn’t be a meaningful work. In my own work, technique is probably 85 to 90 percent, for without technique, I don’t care how much concept you have, it’s just not going to work,” she explains. This rather systematic balance between skill and substance has taken Manlapaz to critical commendation, showing in the London Bridge Art Fair in 2007, the Miami Red Dot Art Fair in 2010, and the New York Affordable Art Fair in 2011.

Yet her most valued work is one that is seen across greater America, in the halls of each and every State-owned library, the 2003 National Book Festival painting commissioned by the US Library of Congress and then First Lady Laura Bush. But, if Manlapaz has her way, she’d rather shy away from such prestigious commissions. “Everyone thinks I’m a photographer. Commissions are quite pressuring because they seem to want it right away,“ she laughingly shares.

Manlapaz also shares her creative time with the students of the Corcoran College of Art & Design and the Georgetown University, as a member of their Fine Arts faculty. While she enjoys the shaping of the young, artistic minds and talents, Manlapaz also maintains a certain regret for the rise of digital arts. “A lot of young people nowadays are quite practical. They get into digital arts, and it is a lucrative job. It is very much in demand. But it is unfortunate that we are not graduating fine artists anymore.”

Yet, despite the reign of pixel, pop, and postmodern arts, Manlapaz is proud to proclaim the reemergence of realism. “In America, there is a movement that goes back to the more technical ability of the artist, rather than that of the more conceptual stuff. I’m not saying that conceptual art is on the wane, it’s still there, but alongside it is a return to technical ability in photorealism,” she says.    

Amid acclaim, appointments and accolades, Joey Manlapaz maintains a rather modest, yet sincere view of her greatest achievement. “My greatest achievement is that I get to do my work. There are artists out there who can’t do their work because they have to provide for their families first. I’m quite lucky that I am still well and alive as an artist,” shares Manlapaz.

And now that she is on her third homecoming since migrating to the United States, Manlapaz maintains the wide-eyed view of a balikbayan coming back to her home country. “It seems like every time I come back here, it’s because some big personality has invited me, so there’s always this sort of a big comeback.” In 1981, she went back as a guest speaker for then First Lady Imelda Marcos’s foundation, in 1997, she came as the guest of honor for then US Ambassador to the Philippines Thomas Hubbard’s unveiling of the consulate’s private art collection, and now, she gives valuable advice to the illustrious members of the FIAT.       

“My advice is, go after your heart. Be true to your heart, and you will be successful,” Manlapaz shares after the audience of budding artists and art aficionados, who all maintain the value of creativity in the compassion of everyday life. And for this, Joey Manlapaz and the Families in Art and Culture maintain an optimistic look to a colorful future ahead.

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