From the hell of train stations during rush hour to the purgatory of bustling crosswalks—a lack of space seems to be the defining characteristic of modern living. How do we dwell and move within it? How do these external goings-on affect our material lives?
These questions are at the heart of Rodel Tapaya’s new show, “On the Benefits of a Crowded Space,” at Artinformal Makati. The writer of the exhibit’s liner notes, Francisco Lee, is right to connect the crowded condition of urban living to the concept of horror vacui. But it wouldn’t be fair to reduce this show to a fear of empty space. A more enriching experience would be to unpack how Rodel Tapaya commands space.
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“On the Benefits of a Crowded Space,” the artist’s first exhibit in the Philippines after ten years, is separated into three parts, each tackling the concept of crowdedness in their own way. The first part is the Burlap Series, which shows acrylic paintings on burlap. This series qualifies as figurative paintings, insofar as the signified subjects are clearly people, but there is a level of abstraction at work. Their faces are disfigured, not necessarily in the most physical sense, but by a condition of living that deprives them of space. Faces and bodies huddle together anxiously, such as in “Eleven in the Rain.” Even lone figures and portraits bristle with nervous energy, their appearance crowded by detail.
There’s a lot that the rough texture does to emphasize all these points. “I like the mesh, the web, the patterns of the burlap. I also like the grit of the material, the texture of it as painting ground,” Tapaya tells me in an email interview. He began using burlap as a canvas in 2004, for his first solo show in Boston Gallery. And while the medium presents its own challenges, and deviates from Tapaya’s usual artworks that make use of grid lines, the grain of the cloth, for Tapaya, “adds so much character in the work.”
In the second part of the exhibit, we see Tapaya return to form with large, chaotic paintings in which the figurative and mythical, the amazing and the miniscule, collide and compete for space in a single plane. Here we see different paintings that explore different slices of life, so to speak, offer proof that crowdedness figures into every little world. “Mother” calls to mind familial tensions in a household stuffy with unease. “One Man’s Trash Is Another Man’s Treasure” reads like the bustle of masses peddling and consuming wares just to get by. The collage studies placed side by side with the paintings make for an interesting intertextual experience, allowing exhibit-goers to see how process and product overlap.
The crowning jewel of this part of the show is the gigantic mural “Going After the Twigs and the Leaves,” which took Tapaya two years to complete. Large paintings are not unusual for Tapaya. At this point he has mastered handling works of such scale, especially considering how comfortably he explains the process.
“Obviously the process to create this kind of work may require a different focus, attention and endurance,” he says. “[Considering] The scale itself, being large panoramic, one doesn't just make a painting but eventually one becomes a part of the landscape of the painting — since it’s bigger than life. The process is organic, navigating the painting, making the painting, not having a definite study, but allowing the painting to tell the story to you, and then you do what the painting ‘tells’ you. There is a basic idea but eventually it grows and grows.”
And “Going After the Twigs and the Leaves” seems to be the kind of work that took a life of its own, became its own entity with agency. Rats litter the plane against a backdrop of blood droplets, while allusions to nature and industrial control duke it out.
The third part of the show is Tapaya’s Scraps Series: collograph prints which make use of cardboard, wood, burlap, and other forms of cloth. Delicately framed, these material collages almost look like prints run rigorously through a copier until fading takes over. At first glance, they seem to be reminders for the role detritus plays in our extremely material lives, but Tapaya uses this series to round out his approach to crowdedness. “This work gives the audience the ‘visual rest’ it needed from viewing the intense works on canvas and burlaps. The work is more intimate than overwhelming. It also gives a sense of introspection, that we as humans should find solace amidst the busy crowds.”
The name of the exhibit is taken from a chapter of a Dan Ariely book, and thematically it ties well into his larger body of work. But an embodied experience of crowdedness also figures into this show. “The themes of Crowds I think came from my upbringing. I grew up in the slums and so there are always many people. It is not necessarily a ‘benefit’ to grow up in these environments but it can also be a take off point of one’s dreams.”
And this show really does resemble a kind of dreaming. To look upon a work by Rodel Tapaya is to feel as though something strange has finally seeped out of a crack in your subconscious, taking life right in front of you.
Rodel Tapaya’s show “On the Benefits of a Crowded Space” runs until October 12 at Artinformal, located at the Karrivin Plaza, Pasong Tamo Extension, Makati. For more information, call 725-8518, or visti their facebook page.