Stewards of the sacred

KRIPOTKIN - Alfred A. Yuson () - October 9, 2006 - 12:00am
With certain friends, one enjoys special relations not only owing to longevity, but also to some quaint commonality of awareness or interest.

On this space today I must spiritedly promote the art of a couple of artist-friends with whom I go a long way back: John Altomonte and Jaime de Guzman.

By some happy quirk of fate, together they launch a comeback bid for aesthetic attention and appreciation with a two-man exhibit titled "Sacred Spaces," which opens at 6:30 p.m. this Thursday, Oct. 12, at the Art Lane, third floor of Glorietta 4 in Makati. Organized by ceramist Jon Pettyjohn and Pettyjohn Pottery, also located at the Art Lane, the exhibit will run until Oct. 21.

John (or Jon or Johnny) Altomonte has come to Manila from Sydney where he’s been based for the past two decades, bringing with him luminous/numinous canvases for the exhibit.

Last June I managed to visit with him at his Sydney studio, and ooh-ed and ahh-ed as usual over his latest works, which included "Daragang Mag-ayon" – a large, vertical oil portrait of his fellow expat and our common friend Merlinda Bobis, poet-writer-dramatist, with a seething Mayon Volcano in the background. That painting has been featured in this space.

Another work that quickly caught my eye was a horizontal canvas hanging on the main wall facing a Zen-minimalist space with a floor mattress. That was where Jon’s clientele, mostly ravishing-looking women, lay prostate thence supine for his professional application of body-mind therapy.

Fittingly, the painting admired daily, nightly, by his therapy subjects, who all say that it helps lull them to an out-of-body experience, is titled "Durungawan" – or "Viewpoint." It references a specific site, a vantage point, on Mt. Banahaw.

Set on the floor, against a side wall in his studio’s anteroom, was a breathtaking set of three vertical canvases that composed what Jon calls "Banahaw Triptych" – featuring a native lass, freshly plucked daisies in her hand, on the middle panel, a church belfry on the left panel, and a single representative tree from deep in the forest of the artist’s recollections of his kinship with our sacred mountain.

That was how our own friendship became strong, at the turn of the 1970s, when early communion with spiritual elements in Ermita Malate, often ingested, was complemented by forays into the siren-call wilds of Laguna and Quezon, thence Negros Island, the Zamboanga peninsula, and the Cordilleras.

In Liliw, Laguna, we would visit Jaime de Guzman, who had just returned from Mexico where he had apprenticed under the great muralist David Siquieros, and also found the love of his life, Anne. In Jaime and Anne, and their consequential brood of adventurous boys and Mutya la unica hija, we found – dare I say it? – soulmates in peripatetic serendipity.

Their art would prosper, betoken to nature, the great outdoors, the lore born of mountains, lush valleys, waterfalls. By Liliw’s streams, on Banahaw’s and Mt. Cristobal’s trails, Palawan’s islands and jungles (with Jon’s sister Emily and bro-in-law Caloy Abrera), Dumaguete’s peripheral seascapes and soggy paths up Cuernos de Negros, and in Sagada’s safe haven ("cloud-hidden, whereabouts unknown"), Johnny Altomonte and Jaime de Guzman (and preacher non pareil Pepito Bosch) often intersected and played patintero (or tag) with the spirit of the times (read: forever).

For Jaime and Anne, painting would seasonally give way to pottery, whether in Liliw, Sagada or Candelaria in Quezon.

Jon would leave for Australia in 1985, there to settle and accomplish book illustrations for Australia publisher Hodder & Stoughton and Australia Geographic. He specialized in producing illustrations for historical essays, poetry and children’s books, while continuing to contribute illustrations to Philippine publications.

He had studied painting in the University of the Philippines and also at National Art School in Sydney even before he migrated. In 1970 Jon Altomonte rendered a charcoal mural on a wall of Eman and Lalli Lacaba’s lovenest above Hurri-manna Cafe in Ermita. The central section of that mural served as the front cover of Ermita magazine’s pilot issue in 1976. He had also joined group exhibits at La Solidaridad, Sining Kamalig, Luz Gallery, Rustan Art Gallery and The Ayala Museum. In Sydney, he participated in exhibits with an expatriate group of Filipino painters, including Ding Roces and Edd Aragon.

Jon is presently engaged in producing a large body of works – from oil paintings to charcoal drawings. Re his vibrant portrait of Merlinda Bobis, for which he also sought inspiration from the author’s "Cantata of a Warrior Woman," he articulates:

"This painting is a portrait of the writer as well as a representation of the female archetype undergoing the transformative, integrative process of individuation."

Here’s more from his ars poetica:

"I believe that the artist is also the work, and the fact that I was interacting with the mythological mindscape which existed within this individual and which surfaced in her own work enriched me further as another artist.

"Mythology is central to most of my quasi-allegorical paintings. I find that when we take a closer look at our thought and behavioral processes, we find threads that reach back into the time of our furthest ancestors. In this way we may perhaps reach a better understanding of what makes us ‘tick.’

"I however don’t consciously pick out a myth and attempt to interpret it, but having exposed my mind to various world mythological templates, I allow the symbols to surface in my paintings, whether they be landscapes or male/female forms interacting with landscape.

"I work mostly with concepts of energy, its polarization and the transformative process that occurs within a given space while forces interact with each other.

"Dialogue with the subject is a necessary part of my art. It is this symbiotic exchange of energy that serves as the catalyst in my personal creative alchemical process.

"The common theme throughout my works illustrates an attempt to define the mental route which I have chosen and have been led to as I navigate through an ever deepening experience of something which I can only define as ‘sacred mystery.’ Carl Jung in the latter part of his career as a psychologist named this presence and its experience the ‘numinous’."

It was Jaime de Guzman who came up with the title of "Sacred Spaces" for the two-man exhibit. No doubt the two artists have been gliding along on the same wavelength, peripheral as that may have been of late, vis-à-vis mainstream or commercial success.

Jaime’s been at the top, in those days when Imelda Marcos would snap up his large, dramatic canvases and have them installed on the lobby walls of the Cultural Center. But it’s a different peak of experience that Jaime, ever the pilgrim, has always sought. He does not care much for emoluments attendant to mainstream acceptance. He will go his own way, while continuing to place a premium on family, and seek the spaces he senses he is destined for.

Explains Jon Pettyjohn, the ceramist and gallery proprietor who managed to get these two artists together for this special exhibit:

"While Jaime hasn’t been too articulate about his new works, I can tell you that he is very interested in mysticism and the ‘sacred’; he suggested the title of the show.

"His landscapes like ‘Sagada’ and the ‘Forest’ paintings reveal how he sees the mystical in the ordinary. I can tell you also that Jaime feels very strongly about ‘community’. He has a painting of a Flores De Mayo procession somewhere in a remote barrio in Quezon. Recently he spent time in Cambodia and Indonesia, and he has incorporated symbols and icons of these foreign travels as well.

"I believe his new work has the same power and vision. It’s just that he’s not the same person, he’s older and wiser now, he’s had quite a life. His powers of observation and understanding are undiminished; in fact they are stronger."

Seeing digital copies of Jaime’s new works, I heartily agree. The elegantly swirling minutiae of forest corners and dynamic representation of native folk in his favorite haunts are now joined by mandala-like mazes, lotus-focus, the all-seeing eye and other mythical/mystical semiology.

This same element finds expression in John’s imbedded mantras and prayers on the picture surface of his landscapes. There, too, are significant words in Baybayin script, and symbols familiar to the local folk that have been his subjects.

Jaime de Guzman and John Altomonte continue to undertake a marvelous pilgrimage, and I am elated, as their friend and admirer, that they now come home together for a feast of the intimately, ultimately sacred.

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