Time ruptures & Lee Aguinaldo
ARTICIPATION - Clarissa Chikiamco () - January 31, 2011 - 12:00am

The artist Lee Aguinaldo (1933-2007) is well-known in Philippine modern art for his contributions in abstraction, particularly in the minimalist and hard-edge idiom. Yet, from an artist who was constantly challenging himself and using many different styles and methods throughout his career, probably one of Aguinaldo’s most fascinating facets as an artist is his proclivity to rupture a linear progression in time.

He did this for one by “arresting” time through making variations and repetitions of the same images. Making doubles and multiples — in the same vein as Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroes or Campbell Soup Cans but on a smaller scale — Aguinaldo seized time in these repetitions by preventing a chronological flow. As Craig Owens had discussed this in postmodern art’s allegorical impulse, “the result, however, is not dynamic, but static, ritualistic, repetitive. It is thus the epitome of counter-narrative, for it arrests narrative in place….” This can be seen particularly in Aguinaldo’s “The Freeze Freak” (1979) in which a Frisbee player’s frozen image catching a Frisbee is depicted several times in his work.

In his early drawings, done during his high school years at Culver Military Academy (1949-1952), a sense of the counter-narrative can already be distinguished. Several of these drawings show figures and body parts floating in space, with no single point of perspective as well as without a proper orientation. These drawings, forcing one to rotate the sheets of paper or rotate one’s view, withhold one from comprehending these images instantly as in an ordinary picture. It prevents any easy consumption by interrupting any idea that the content presented is an excerpt from a storyline or from the customary horizontal left-to-right vertical form of reading.

In 1979, the art critic Leonidas Benesa had remarked on “a time warp of sorts” in Aguinaldo’s mixed media works. This time warp can be perceived in “Speed” (1979), which joins together two photographs which capture a sense of movement and light of the same place but at different positions and consequently different periods of time. The motion blurs converge but are off-kilter — they do not radiate from the same point of reference though it implies similar origins and diverging movements of travel. Yet, the left and right sides of the street in their separate images narrow and join together as if to form a singular perspective. Its tapering and contraction, though illogical, actually increases this conveyance of the sensation of rapidity.

“Untitled (Stairs)” also transmits a twisted sequence with its stairway, constellation of stars, dark figure and another indefinite image. Initially, the figure with its raised hand seems to imply a narrative, as if viewing a still from a film. Yet, it evades being situated in a narrative in relation to its surrounding images. The images, conjoined together, baffle particularly due to its coherence. That these differing images are visually held so well together, that they have some sense of unity, allow one to perceive it as a whole, in some manner as an arrangement or as a sequence. It is though precisely as a whole that they deny an ordinary comprehension of duration.

In this warping of time, it is critical to turn attention to George Kubler’s 1962 book The Shape of Time, which influenced Western artists like Robert Smithson and was also of great interest to Aguinaldo. The ideas in the book greatly appealed to him, as he even incorporated excerpts from it in a number of his works. In his book, Kubler described grasping the shape of time in “a sea of history” though a “mesh” which Kubler called a “formal sequence.” The formal sequence was one Kubler explained as being “a historical network of gradually altered repetitions of the same trait.” Each altered repetition or rather, variation, of the same trait would, in its addition to the network, alter one’s perspective of the preceding altered repetitions of artworks which had the same characteristics. Each variation, in other words, would cause one to re-evaluate prior works in art which related to it. Rather than a linear forward progression, history was a network of artworks which could relay its signals forward and back across through time and diagonally across its web of different cross sections of shared characteristics.

This mesh of sequencing can be seen particularly well in one of Aguinaldo’s artworks done in 1978. Using the reproduction of Pieter de Hooch’s painting from an art book, Aguinaldo erased portions of the image made by the Dutch master active in the 17th century. He left some parts erased and other parts he made an outline in pencil which retrace the initial image. This retracing literally underlines his making of his own altered repetition of this work of art. He also further varied the image by, also in pencil and with line and shading, adding and emphasizing geometric elements which resonate with his own hard-edge abstract paintings. From the original painting in the 17th century to Aguinaldo’s appropriation in the late 20th, the artworks signal back to each other across time in their shared traits and differences. Aguinaldo’s artwork was also simultaneously an appropriation and variation of Robert Rauschenberg’s famous “Erased Willem de Kooning” (1953) in which Rauschenberg had painstakingly erased an ink and crayon drawing of the famous Dutch-American abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning. Aguinaldo had concurrently interwoven these two other artists in his de Hooch variation. This disrupted sequence of relays is perceptible where, below the reproduction’s caption of “PIETER DE HOOCH. A Dutch Courtyard. About 1656,” Aguinaldo had inscribed his variant title “Erased Pieter de Hooch about 1978.” Aguinaldo, in addition to his usual signature, had also spelled out “By Lee Aguinaldo II,” to seemingly accentuate his role in this bringing together of four artists from different contexts, places and time.

In the same work, the image of the window on the upper right — in which Aguinaldo had placed an outline on its top and left side for emphasis and which he must have also observed — strongly recalls or “doubles” his own hard-edge paintings. Aguinaldo had, after all, described these minimalist paintings of his as being of light, windows and doorways. His interest in these things though surely extended beyond their purely formalist or visual properties. Not limited to his hard-edge series, Aguinaldo also made several frottages and mixed media works of windows, doorways and interiors. His interest in light manifested in works like “Illuminated Interior” (1968) and in works which paid tribute to masters of this element like in his Rembrandt series and his “Homage to Vermeer” (1983), a photo-collage with images sourced from Wig Tysmans.

“Untitled (Stairs),” 1979, mixed media on fiberboard, 26 x 34.3 cm, Galleria Duemila Inc.

 In his preoccupation with these themes, Aguinaldo’s interest in them was considerably due to their art historical significance. Light, windows, doorways and interiors are constant and repetitive fixtures throughout centuries of works of art. By revisiting and highlighting these components, Aguinaldo is able to invoke a rich history, a conveyance back to past innumerable artworks which featured their own altered repetitions of these elements throughout time.

This importance placed on history is also evident in Aguinaldo’s numerous appropriations in its wide range of styles, period, places and artists. From borrowing artistic methods as in his 1953 action painting “Homage to Pollock” to works inspired by other artists such as Aguinaldo’s “Linear No. 72 (Homage to Fray Sanchez de Cotan No. 2)” to using images from known and unknown sources in his image transfers and collages like from magazines Life and Harper’s Bazaar, Aguinaldo clearly subscribed to a skepticism of originality, believing he could do variations of other peoples’ work.

Constantly moving throughout a multiplicity of references and surprising people with his own output, Aguinaldo believed in rupturing conventional chronological progression. Time was not simply to move forward but could hold still and go back, forth and across. His belief in these multiple directions illuminates an understanding of his art and the conviction by which Aguinaldo saw himself in this sea of history — signaling, appropriating, varying and, in this, being his own.

* * *

The exhibition Lee Aguinaldo: In Retrospect, curated by the author and Ma. Victoria Herrera, is ongoing at the Ateneo Art Gallery until Feb. 5. A book The Life and Art of Lee Aguinaldo, of which an edited excerpt forms this column, will be launched on Feb. 3, published by Vibal Foundation and the Ateneo Art Gallery. The museum is open Mondays to Fridays, 8 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., Saturdays, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., closed Sundays and Holidays. Call 426-6488. The author may be e-mailed at letterstolisa@gmail.com. Her art writings are at http://writelisawrite.blogspot.com.

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