Sunday Lifestyle

The images of Manuel Ocampo

Like wine connoisseurs or lawyers, art critics seem to have their own language that only they can understand. I found this all the more true while researching the literature that has been written about the art of internationally renowned and critically acclaimed Filipino artist Manuel Ocampo who has exhibited in France, Spain, Germany, Italy, Mexico, Canada and all over the United States.

At the risk of sounding overly simplistic, the way I see things, there are two ways to appreciate art: on a purely visual or aesthetic standpoint (which includes the technical skill of the artist) and on an arguably "deeper" level where one can delve into the symbolisms, images or subtleties of the artwork. Take note that there is nothing wrong with art that excels in either one or both criteria. Great art need not be filled with symbolism nor have some deeper social or political message. For example, I do not think that Monet’s paintings of the gardens at Giverny have any pretensions of being anything other than just visually beautiful. What is important however, is that the artist knows exactly where he stands and what he is trying to accomplish when creating his artwork.

The other important aspect, at least for me, is that the work of art should trigger an emotion – fear, joy, calm, happiness, passion or any other emotion. The viewer may not like the emotion – for example there are many individuals who dislike dark, heavy and sad paintings – but the fact that the emotion was triggered means the art has done its job. You will be amazed at how calming a Monet painting is to look at or how disturbing one by Manuel Ocampo can be.

Born in 1965 and having studied at both UP and at the California State University Bakersfield, Manuel Ocampo’s canvases are often composed of unintelligible random collections of images – an omnium-gatherum of sorts! Sausages, crucifixes, syringes, a clenched fist holding a chicken leg in a grotto and the apparently ubiquitous pile of excrement. It is difficult to understand what Ocampo is trying to say in his paintings, if he is trying to say anything at all. As a matter of fact, on the recurring symbols in his 7 x 14 foot painting "Monuments of Art’s Triumph Over Reality," he says: "These are recurring images in my recent paintings. What they mean I have no idea or I wouldn’t want to read them in some pseudo-socio-psychological manner invoking Marx, Freud or the Post-Structuralists. I think art that tries to intellectualize itself like an academic lecture just falls flat when one really looks at it on a critical level because it basically all boils down to the way it looks and the rest is just garnish. There is a ridiculousness about artists trying to be philosophical. Artists nowadays are insecure about their roles in society therefore they concoct all these roles and explanations for themselves in order to be validated. It becomes truly pathetic when artists pretend to be social scientists and try to make art that addresses ‘issues’ or fit them in the guise of discursive objectivity." When asked why he chose those images in particular, he points out that he just likes their "forms, shapes and sculptularity."

So in a sense, there is some truth to the adage that one should not read too much into the art. Although viewers are free – and properly encouraged – to make their own interpretations, Ocampo finds himself "uneasy to justify in words something you are doing visually." He finds that "art needs more autonomy than critics spoon-feeding viewers. People are totally free to interpret art the way they want."

Perhaps one of the most difficult dilemmas facing artists is whether to paint what they really want to or to face the economic reality and paint what will sell. "You can paint for yourself, your audience or the critics. It is hard because sometimes there are too many things to think about. Unlike movies or music you only have one purpose – entertainment. How can you compete with that? How can you compete with Spider-Man? When I have shows in Germany or Spain I have to think about what I have done in the past because I already have a following. Here in Manila there is no need to do that because I don’t really have a market yet so I can just paint for myself."

Ocampo mentions that one of his goals is "to make a powerful work that doesn’t have to succumb to social or political issues for effect" as he half-jokingly points out that the genre of "Social Realism as art must die now!!!"

On the difference between the art market abroad and here in Manila, he says that "many artists in the US are too subservient to academy and certain art theories. Here it is different because artists concentrate too much on the formal – like color and composition – without following discourse and what is happening globally with art. There is a lot of talent here in the Philippines but it falls flat because they lack substance. We are very good in copying but many artists rely too much on their skills and showing how good they are technically. There is also a lack of structure here in the art business. For example you only get a two-week show. Even if you work on your art for months or years, you only get two weeks to exhibit. There are also not enough critics. There are very few of them. And the other problem is that galleries cannot properly nurture talent because there is not enough loyalty on the part of the artists to the galleries."

One final observation I do have after spending some time with Manuel is that his art has many more underlying meanings than he lets on. He does not merely place random images on a canvas with neither rhyme nor reason, as there is a lot more depth to his art. For example, in his "Self-Portrait," there are deeper images at work than just the aesthetics of his painting. He has separately pointed out to me that he has this "thing about caves" because a painter’s existence is similar to being in a cave. "An artist’s life is very solitary. You are just in the studio. You cannot go out." Perhaps this is the reason why he chose the image of St. Jerome as the main element in his self-portrait as he was a hermit who worked on the translation of the bible. St. Jerome’s work in isolation parallels Ocampo’s work in many ways as they both work alone and often disconnected from the rest of the world. I think Ocampo shies away from discussing some of his art’s objectives in order to give the viewer the freedom to come to their own conclusions and create their own interpretations.

Make no mistake about it, Manuel Ocampo’s art is not for everyone. Fraught with disturbing images, his paintings are exceedingly unconventional and are not pieces one would expect to find in someone’s living room. But in spite of – or maybe because of – his non-conformity, it is not difficult to see why he has had such tremendous success as an artist whose abounding talent and creativity have been recognized all over the world.
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"The highest product of distraught bourgeois self-consciousness" by Manuel Ocampo runs at the Finale Art Gallery, 4th Floor, SM Megamall A until August 1. Call 634-2411. E-mail me at [email protected].











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