Manuel Ocampo: The Painter’s Equipment

Beware of those guys who appear to paint the stuff of (mostly the Christian) religion.

Often accompanying the gilded visual tales of Virgin and Child in various mediums are irresistible moral invectives, sexual innuendos and didactic spiritual laws, implicit political commentary and socio-cultural critique, which of course, make them loads of fun to look at. Yet these powerful undercurrents only emerge quite prominently if these works of art are appraised under the purported directives of the so-called “New Art History”; they are entities located within social power structures, and specific cultural and historical contexts.

Trawl through Filipino artist Manuel Ocampo’s earlier works in the past 2 decades and much of his visual language exemplifies what one might expect a “New Art History” artist to possess: highly referential and pluralistic in his craft, propped by an artistic vision that carries the burden of history, consciously producing works within ideological frameworks and perhaps more importantly, one whose exhibitions demand some sort of contextual understanding of culture, art and political struggles.

Manuel Ocampo, Burnt Out Europe, oil paint and decal on canvas, 1992.

When Ocampo burst onto the international art scene in the 1990s, his stylistic tendencies were described as “Baroque religious iconography fused with secular and serious political narrative.” Some vague memories of what I’ve read about Baroque art and Gianlorenzo Bernini’s (1598–1680) St. Theresa in Ecstasy (1645–52) pop up in my mind. Here, an arrow is just not an arrow, particularly when a Cupid-like figure clasps it delicately between thumb and forefinger, and points it like a thin, proud phallus at her breast. Past the tip of the arrow, our gaze is forced upwards – past her near-writhing form – to her exquisitely carved facial expression, alluding to the capability of the mystical experience to encompass the most extreme of feelings simultaneously: the anticipation of pain and onset of intense, orgasmic pleasure. Facing each other, both angel and woman are resolutely caught in a trance encroached upon by the voyeuristic gaze of the viewer.

But unlike Bernini’s arrow, easy metaphors involving straight, erect objects do not appear in Ocampo’s early works. The lavish sensuality and the vortex of intensity of Baroque paintings are absent; instead, an abundance of religiously and politically charged symbols like the cross, the swastika and Ku Klux Klan-like hooded figures – familiar symbols that collectively draw shudders – tilt Ocampo’s oeuvre closer to the iconography of profound dualistic narratives of heaven/hell, sinners/saints of Hieronymus Bosch (1450–1516) and the political commentaries and allegories of Francisco Goya (1746–1828). Like avenging angels, his art is endowed to the brim with cynical allusions of corruption, oppression and overwhelming profanity paradoxically existing amid the sacred.

A giant hand clasps a hulking figure above a pink house floating on turbulent, skull-bobbing waters in Pilipinas (O’Bathala) (1990) while Burnt Out Europe (1991) depicts Christ with swastika-stamped wings hovers atop a death camp – a maelstrom of evil – swamped with silhouettes of demonic figures: visual, moralistic narratives and codes that situate themselves inevitably within an exhausted postcolonial discourse of subjugation, resistance and empowerment.

Installation View, The Painter's Equipment, 2010. Image courtesy of Valentine Willie Fine Art Gallery

Twenty years later, with some measure of Tim Burton’s celebrated sketchy ghoulishness, Ocampo plumbs new depths of decadence and depravity in a deluge of symbols, images and text that vehemently riddle the canvas in a danse macabre that rejoices in the impossibility of deriving any cognitively sensible meaning. Culturally encoded signs and symbols – though now a distilled abstraction – still splatter his canvases, now titled in a lengthy but whimsical fashion that are at times, plain laugh-out-loud. Ocampo returns in The Painter’s Equipment heavily engaged in semiotics, developing highly relativistic narratives based on the distortion of one’s own cultural understandings while questioning conventionally treasured attributes of beauty and desirability in art. Let’s face it, the canvases look rather ugly and seem proud of it. Crosses are now lined up against footprints, upturned candles and sausages, now lacking however, the overt allegories that used to categorise Ocampo’s art as yet another political diatribe.

Installation View, The Painter's Equipment, 2010. Image courtesy of Valentine Willie Fine Art Gallery

A red bowler hat balances precariously atop 2 sunnyside up eggs, which in turn seems to perch quite comfortably on what resembles a hairy toe (yes, smoking a cigar!) whose heels sit on large eyeballs. A horseshoe, a bone, and other random swirls deface this idiosyncratic trophy, after which Manuel Ocampo’s show in the Valentine Willie Fine Art gallery is named. In a pastiche of colors and dismembered bits, it depicts chaos, randomness and a haphazard collision of signs and symbols as aesthetic staples of postmodern art – ideas regularly pulled out from an artist’s toolbox – and with some sort of finality, calls time on Ocampo’s brooding, apocalyptic visions of the 1990s.

A series of untitled ink sketches seem to be an indictment of modern popular culture: we are a disenchanted, disenfranchised and complex lot who, having invested in signs and symbols so exhaustively now live at best, in a flux of semiotic depletion and increasing redundancy. The visual hybridism and the jarring clash of imagery in them seem to clamor for attention. But when looked on up close, the shapes linger, hint and insinuate but never enlighten, insisting on maintaining a silence and suggest that straight-talk is over and done with and so last century. In this mismatched carnival of colours and shapes, the viewer, one might say, is constantly forced to pass through a mosaic of references – contexts of prior work, traditions, codes, and values – only to find Ocampo’s pieces as mere reflectors of his own intertextual experience. His canvases are thus, viewing frames, full of “empty signs”, as Ocampo himself calls them, pushed beyond speech and thought.

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Manuel Ocampo is a Filipino artist who has exhibited in Spain, France and America, as well as in several Biennales. Having lived in Los Angeles and Spain, he returned to Marikina City where he now works and lives. The Painter’s Equipment is Ocampo’s first solo exhibition in Asia outside Manila and will be on view at the Valentine Willie Fine Art Gallery until 30th January 2011.