Art Fair Philippines is reintroducing an artist to the scene. His name is Galicano Perry Argel. Being his first high-profile exhibition in years, it can be assumed most of the fair’s visitors, including art world insiders, probably don’t know Perry or his found objects.
In a small sample survey (just via Facebook Messenger and Instagram, really) we asked some artists and aficionados if they know Perry. Maya Muñoz answered “sounds familiar” while Pablo Capati said they met but “I don’t really ‘know’ him.” Eric Paras did know something about Perry—“Oh, he’s Bacolodian pala,” after a quick Google Search. For the rest, his name doesn’t ring a bell at all. Ling Quisimbing: “Huh?,” Gerry Tan: “Sorry, I dunno . . . who is he?” Jun-jun Sta. Ana: “Fred Perry kilala ko.” Lynyrd Paras: “Sino siya?” Ged Merino: “I don’t think I do [know him]. Porque?” Rock Drilon: “Perry Mamaril from New York?” And finally, Romeo Lee: “Super Perry lang kilala ko eh.”
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For sure Perry Argel has a following in Boracay where he was based for a long time, and his home province of Negros. Perry says he has artist friends in Manila too — people obviously not in your immediate circles — attending the opening of his first solo exhibition after a long hiatus from the scene.
Perry’s relative obscurity is partly due to his uneasy relationship with galleries, though he did make the rounds — except for one gallery that exhibits only “fine art,” more on that later — and even traveled abroad for international exhibitions and symposiums when he was younger. Maybe things would have turned out differently if he hired a manager or a handler. “Tinatamad na ako pag ako pag mag-aayos ng kung ano-ano para sa exhibit,” the 63-year old artist admits. “Tsaka nuon, hanggang mag-o-open na ang show, sige pa ako ng pag-gawa; mga title at price, hindi ko maayos, kaya duon din ako parang nasira sa mga galleries.”
Ano ba talaga ang fine art?
In a phone interview, Perry recounts a conversation that somehow made him realize not everyone is ready for him, or at least not in the mid-90s when the incident happened. “Ano ba talaga ang fine art?,” he asked a gallerist in Manila who rejected his works, telling Perry that he only shows fine art. Perry pressed on, “Ano sa tingin mo ito’ng gawa ko?” Obviously, to the gallerist, it was anything but.
Looking back on that conversation, the artist claims he wasn’t really offended. “Yung work na dala ko nuon, mga found objects. Naintindihan ko din na, kasi rough siguro tingin niya [sa works ko]. Pero di niya tinignan yung tali [na ginamit] ko, fine yon . . . hahaha! Syempre alam ko ano ang tinatawag na fine art, at alam ko naman ang works ko eh. Term lang sa akin yon.”
He cleaves close to the views of American abstractionist, Mark Rothko, who eschewed explanations of his work and struggled to break free from tutorings to give way to impulse and intuition. According to Perry, explanations, and even titles, give cues that limit the viewer’s appreciation. “Pag binigyan mo ng title o definition, nadi-disturb yung utak ng viewer, masa-stuck sila sa explanation.”
Art Temple of Bacolod
But Perry is long past caring about dismissive appraisals of his works. He merely continues to make art — prodigiously, it must be said — out of his own Art Temple in Bacolod, a mesmerizing space that is also his home. It has become a repository for Perry’s massive oeuvre, including drawings, large works on canvas, and of course his beloved found objects.
“I like his built environments,” artist Norberto “PeeWee” Roldan says, referring to Perry’s Art Temple and the surrounding garden. “He could have been a great architect,” PeeWee continued. “Perry’s handling of certain materials is superb. And he’s also a practicing environmentalist who’s great with recycling and upcycling.”
Perry is busy preparing for his show at Art Fair Philippines when we visit him in his Art Temple last January 23. The man who welcomes us looks ascetic — sporting a contemplative, scholarly mien —and at the same time bohemian, in his loose, olive cropped pants and a casual shirt. There are two strands of colored stones on his wrist, and his hair is in a loose man-bun. The look and outlook, we found out later, are pretty much one and the same.
“Wala talaga akong plano sa buhay, parang go with the flow lang ako,” he tells us. “Walang desire kung ano dapat, walang hinahabol basta contented lang ako sa gawa ko. Tsaka hindi ako natatakot. Yon lang, minsan hirap ako sa responsibilities ko kasi may pamilya ako.”
Even before starting a family, Perry was exposed to hardship. His father died right after his graduation from high school. But he was determined to finish his studies. “Nag-hanap talaga ako ng paraan. Pinuntahan ko mga friends ng parents ko, tapos patulong-tulong ako sa bahay nila hanggang naka-ipon ako.”
Eventually, Perry was able to find work in different schools, like Colegio de San Agustin and University of Negros, where he continued his studies in architecture before shifting to fine arts.
“Kain-tulog talaga ako,” Perry says of his life after dropping out of school to focus on art full time. “Naka-focus lang ako sa pag-gawa.”
The late eighties was pivotal, a time when he couldn’t sell his paintings. Perry started to explore other ways of earning a living, traveling to Boracay where he discovered a market for fashion accessories and other handcrafted items. In the early 90s, he moved to the island with his family in tow. There, the enterprising artist was able to open his own bar, BomBom, as well as an alternative gallery in his home. He crafted one-of-a-kind jewelry, musical instruments, souvenirs, while continuing to paint, carve and assemble found objects.
Life was good, but after more than a decade in Boracay, Perry felt it was time to go home. He settled in the Argel ancestral house in Bacolod, now known as the Art Temple.
Kilalanin muna nila ako
While walking us through his Art Temple, Perry described his process in making found objects: “Itong mga ginagawa ko, [pointing to his works] products yan ng rituals ko sa araw-araw. Yung pag-walis, ritual ko yan; yung broom parang pointer o brush ko. Minsan may object dyan na magbibigay ng simula, tapos i-develop ko kung saan man siya papunta, pero di mo alam san siya papunta. Ang importante, yung moment na yon na-grab mo siya, at na-grab ka niya.”
With a nylon string, he weaves various objects together in a method described by Perry as a dance. “Para kang nagco-conduct habang nagwi-weave. Dapat graceful ang pagtali eh. Mahirap kung hindi mo makita yung dance ng tali.”
His found objects can take days or even years to finish. “Kung saan ako nanduon, nagco-connect yung mga bagay na napupulot ko. Kung minsan, may gawa ako na galing sa travel ko mula dito, tapos takbo ako ng Iloilo, tapos Palawan, tapos Maynila. From Manila, punta ako ng Quezon, bago balik na naman ng Maynila. Isang object lang yan na maliit.”
It’s no wonder Perry is so attached to his found objects. Apart from the time he’s put into them, the artist is also concerned about their next life. “Hindi ko din kasi basta-basta binebenta kung kanino. Yung approach [ng buyer o collector] importante din sa akin. Kilalanin muna nila ako.”
So is Perry’s works fine art? Is a label I important? Perry’s work may appear crude and untutored in the ways of the art world. And it would help to approach his found objects with the innocence and curiosity of a child. Only then can you see and feel the joy he experienced in the making of each piece. Your connection to it is what ultimately matters.
Photographs by Charley Sta. Maria