The artist whose back is turned to the world
“Cold Coffee” by Renato Barja Jr

The artist whose back is turned to the world

SUBLIMINAL - Carlomar Arcangel Daoana (The Philippine Star) - April 13, 2020 - 12:00am

One of the results of what is essentially a Luzon-wide lockdown is the abrupt conclusion of many art exhibitions whose fate hangs in a balance. Will they be continued, given a couple more days, or quietly ended just like the countless events cancelled in the wake of the new coronavirus as people, dazed and confused from a still-ongoing quarantine, grapple with the new normal?

A remarkable exhibition whose duration was prematurely cut because of the lockdown is Renato Barja’s “Through My Improved Binoculars,” shown at Blanc Gallery in Quezon City. It’s disheartening, considering that the show, one of Barja’s strongest, presents the emotional and psychological state that comes from a self-imposed isolation and solitude, which people have to suddenly confront in the past few days (and still coming weeks). The works may offer familiarity — if solace — on the reduced scale of ordinary life, usually confined within the four walls of one’s home. 

“For the Heart with No Companion (The Sleep Walker)”

Barja, as the title states, trains his “improved binoculars” on the desolate corners of the commonplace: a cup of coffee on a stool, a bouquet of whittled flowers, an exit sign, a pair of socks presumably worn before sleeping. A tone of melancholy hums through these works as these ordinary objects represent the tedium and repetition of everyday life, the constant, ever-nagging need to cohere yesterday’s broken pieces into the space of the present as soon as one wakes up.

These objects, painted in Barja’s notably somber and desaturated palette, seem to be part of a much larger narrative, expanding from within the tight area of the canvas into the roomier field of domesticity and the ceaseless expectations of the world. They appear to be anchors to a film’s establishing shot, before it pans out to unfold the ghost of a plot. Cinematic and synechodochic, the abandoned letter on a chair, for instance, conveys a great sense of premonition; the wall, painted with graffiti and overgrown with vines, suggests neglect, abandonment, and loss.

Unlike the impersonal lens of a camera, the gaze of Barja’s “binoculars” is suffused with a tender feeling toward his preferred subjects, as if considering them in their final moments before they disappear and are irrecoverable forever. A fecund awareness and acceptance of the impermanence of things pervades through the haunting atmosphere of these works, tinged with the solemn — but no less valiant — attempt to capture their residual, persistent beauty.

This is the human element in Barja’s paintings, though the appearance of human subjects is minimal: the subjective focus on the objects that reveals not only the hand that painted them but, more importantly, the artist’s heart and its tender affinities. His metaphorical binoculars are improved in such a way that they offer startling clarity on the nature of objects that accompany us, all part of the human tribe, in this world.   

“Mirror in the Bathroom”

Barja’s works are at once odes and elegies, celebrating the subjects’ trailing presence and at the same time lamenting its impending disappearance. Possibly, the objects that have inspired the works are long gone. In this light, these painting act as memento mori, the sense of evocative sadness actually a species of nostalgia, in which the past, long gone and inaccessible, may only be recovered through the benevolence of art.

In “Through My Improved Binoculars,” Barja reconsiders the possibility of the still life not merely as an ode to the ordinary, but a vehicle for grander contemplations: the suggestion that the world’s plentiful but perishable objects are but starting points to a human story. The cup, at once point, was held by human hands.

“The Saddest Part (While I Stay Secluded III)”

The flowers, in their former blush of health, were once acknowledged, if not delightfully received. Barja’s subjects are the particulars on which we hinge our sense of meaning. Framed in a kind of organic symmetry, these paintings are a result of devoted, unadorned attention, which, as the French philosopher Simone Weil put it, “is prayer.”

RENATO BARJA
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