Being world-class is a slippery designation, and one has to ask who's doing the designating. To be called 'Sir' or 'Dame' means the Royal We have spoken and have given you their nod of approval—the Royal We have also sealed their praise, with a sword tip air-kissing the new Sir's shoulders, as if even the air around him were expensive. To be conferred a Knight of the Legion of Honor is to have one's civil merits praised by stalwarts who can be traced to Napoleon Bonaparte.
But being "world-class" is another thing altogether. It's not so easy to pin down, and royalty or heads of state are not the ones to decide. Ronald Ventura, one of the most eminent Filipino visual artists of our time, has been called just that: world-class. One who ranks among the best in the world. This would put him in the same class as Michelangelo or Picasso—two of his favorite artists—and Shakespeare and Cervantes, who, by any standard would be considered the best in the world. Critics, scholars, historians, and fans across centuries have said so, but Ventura hasn't had the luxury of time. He's world-class here and now, and that's all any artist can really hope for. He's gone big, while most of us have gone home.
If you ask international impresarios what makes Ronald Ventura world-class, they would likely mention that winning bid at that famous auction house. To add to that kind of prestige, his work was also reviewed by The New York Times—which is almost like the Royal We wielding a long blade that barely grazes your shoulders; Ventura's work has also been curated by contemporary art experts abroad, and he doesn't want for international attention or acclaim.
We would say that he's made it, and we've only said the same in recent years of less than a handful of Filipinos. Lea Salonga comes to mind. Before his foray into politics and his demotion to welter-weight winner, we said the same about Pacquiao. Ventura's career trajectory was straight, narrow, and stratospheric. There are the awards won in his early 20s to his early 30s. There are the sundry exhibitions here and abroad; there's the work itself that has the distinction of being both commercially and critically acclaimed. Despite his early career triumphs, Ventura cites Human Study as his breakthrough work—it's a treatise on human survival during dark times. It won the Ateneo Art Award in 2005, and catapulted Ventura into the international circuit. "It was a career break-through," Ventura says, "because the award granted me a residency and allowed me to travel to Australia. The experience opened up a new visual experience for me as I was able to visit museums and galleries and see works of art that I used to see only in books." Young artists are impressionable, and one expects to see a little western daub and stroke in his earlier work, but Ventura is known as a Filipino painter—one whose work is entirely his own. In 2009, his work showed in Tyler Rollins Fine Art, a contemporary art gallery in Chelsea, New York. It was called Metaphysics of Skin, a lush interrogation of skin as surface—written on, etched with tattoos, layered with cartoons, and rebelliously splashed with graffiti. For the curators of the show, the paintings had a "complex layering" that married sundry images and moods. This layering process was also taken as a metaphor for the many faces and facets of Filipino identity—a true smorgasbord of Western and Eastern influences given our history with Spain, America, and—for a blink in time—Japan. These influences were said to have contributed to a "complex and at times uneasy sense of identity." It's this sense of identity many of his admirers find compelling, but it's hardly uneasy.
Despite all its layering, the work is assured of its identity. It's splintered and post-colonial, but sure of itself. Sitting with Ventura one rainy Tuesday, we attempted to peel away the layers and see what was underneath all the strokes and wrecked figurations. A quick scan of his studio revealed paintings in various stages of finishedness—canvases that are coveted even before the artist has laid out their last strokes. Notes are scrawled on a board like sundry flecks from his imagination, the writing urgent as a sudden thought, or a struck spark. The word " Manila," for example, and under it, the word "Animal," its growling anagram. It's a clever trick of the mind, but it's also something we've known for a long time now: Manila is an animal. It's wild, it bares its teeth, it growls at you, but it's not without its dark charms.
The artist is soft-spoken, but you hang on to every word because you weigh them against the largeness of his art. He doesn't talk at you—his voice sounds like he's letting you in on a secret, something only you are privy to. Even his yet-unfinished canvases whisper a kind of confidence—they're an unfinished vernissage of sorts; they let you in on his process and are equal parts seed and possibility—to coin a phrase from the artist himself, he's in the middle of the creation of endless visual possibilities. "My artistic process is very much similar to the learning process," he says. "It is a never-ending quest for a solution or improvement." Soon, one finds that Ventura is as complex as his paintings—his stories are rich and multilayered. He thinks diagonally, tangentially—as though his thoughts have had a brief layover in an exotic city; they sit in rich lounges, while waiting for the next flight. The result is always a lusher and layered picture—much like his paintings.
Our shop talk takes a short a hiatus as he's gently led to his photo shoot. He's prepped, styled, and game for anything. He's tested for angles, given wardrobe changes. He leaves the photography to the experts and doesn't impose any kind of artistic direction. The lights flash, quick as heartbeats, and sharp as lightning, but there's no change in his composure. He's a celebrity in his own right, but he doesn't show it.
After the last setup, he serves us pizza, which we happily wash down with Coke. And then he gives us the rundown. "Reality is multi-layered," he says in Tagalog. "Media, for example, only tell you one message, so you don't see the whole picture. But let's say there's a person wearing '80s or '90s clothes, his hair styled in the manner of the 2000s. His shoes are from the '90s, but he's one person, carrying the weight of all of that. If you look at it, the eras he belongs to are different, but he's alive now, and not in all those other eras. On that level alone, there are already layers." His paintings, he says, embody all those simultaneous realities. "I put all those layers in my paintings." We could be sharing a meal, he continues, but in an alternate reality, there are those with nothing to eat. "It's like that—ours isn't the only reality." Strip away all the complexities of Ventura, the artist, and Ventura, the person, quietly emerges.
He grew up in Malabon—one of the most densely populated cities in the Philippines, one prone to frequent flooding, especially during the rainy season. "Whenever it rained and flooded there, it was like there was a flood in the whole world," Ventura says. "There was no access to anything. You didn't have a jeep (to get you through the flood). The only way you could get around was by walking or by styro-pore. You felt hopeless there. But the beauty of that experience was that, because it was so tough, what else could get tougher?"
This environment lent its residents a kind of situational awareness, an acceptance of the precariousness of life. Malabon's residents are used to heavy gusts of wind, angry rain, and high water, but have learned to work their way around it—much like the Japanese with the constant threat of tsunamis and quakes, or Taal, which lives in constant anticipation of the next eruption. One doesn't move localities, one learns to be steadfast; one also learns to accept the circumstances surrounding the place one calls home. It was this kind of environment that shaped Ventura. It would be a stretch to say that this is what made him an artist, but Ventura learned to draw at an early age. "I learned the skill of drawing before I even mastered reading and writing," he says. "I remember, in our old house, I saw my scribbling of the letters of the alphabet, (and I reached) only up to the letter J, but there was already a complete drawing of Voltes V."
Soon after, and also in Malabon, Ventura's artistic talents were discovered. He joined an art workshop when he was in the fifth grade, and his instructors saw his early skill and promise. "At that time, they could already see that I could draw. The problem," he says with some wry amusement, "is that I didn't know how to change a light bulb. I didn't know how to repair pipes. That was the time I should have been learning those skills, but (I didn't get to learn them) because they had me focus only on drawing." "After that, all my other hobbies fell by the wayside," he says. "I didn't know how to play basketball or other sports.
My teachers in high school wouldn't even let me join other industrial arts. They didn't lead me to any other field (of study)." It was as if his early teachers saw his future and nudged him to-ward it. Everything seemed to be crawling toward his art. Ironically, his trajectory as an artist is one without any layers. It's a straight nar-rative—and seems to be the one reality that excludes any others.
His childhood in Malabon also shaped his early art where motifs flirted with religious iconography. Ventura says that he himself isn't religious, but that he believes in a creator. His upbringing and childhood experiences seem to have led to an early fascination with objects of faith. "Poverty is always linked with religion," he says. "If you don't have resources, for example, in terms of money for hospitalization, you run to God, right? Many people stay (in that mindset). A huge part of poverty is religion because you think that God solves everything." This staunch belief in a supreme being can also be linked to life in Malabon, one characterized and shaped by uncertainty and caprice.
Despite what's been said about his work, Ventura doesn't believe in imposing singular interpretations on his audience. Meaning is something he keeps to himself—his work either goes against inter-pretation, or is open to the possibility of many different kinds of interpretation. Again, layers. "Let's say you paint a cross. You paint the color red above it. If you're a Christian, you ask yourself why the color red has been placed there. You ask yourself, 'What does that mean? Is that a sacrifice?' But if you're a mathematician, that's a positive sign. If you were in medi-cine, you'd see it as an emergency. So it means that images or symbols depend on how you use them. If you're riding the same frequency." It seems that the world is attuned to Ventura's frequency—or at least to his importance as a painter, and to his place in what can only be called a world-class milieu. Ventura seems to think that the term itself is slippery.
When he talks about being world-class, he talks in generalizations, and never about himself. He talks about the Filipino, and how even during lean times, we're never really down and out. Throw us a storm, a calamity, and an intemperate season, and we still know how to throw a good party.
Click on the image below for slideshow
Voids and Cages (Hell), 2013
Greatest show, 2012
Voids and Cages (Immortal), 2013
Endless Resurrection (Carne Carnivale), 2014
Air Home, 2016
Color Blinds, 2018
Human Study Series, 2005 - 2017 - 2017
Hyper Beast, 2017
Invitation to Fiest, 2011
Party Animals, 2017
Sculpture shots in Metropolitan Museum, 2017
Territorial crossing installation view
Territorial Terror (Armor), 2017
Territorial Terror 7, 2017
Unsecured Terror, 2017
Wild Out, 2018
Ventura takes pride in this culture, and believes it's a world-class one. "It's like all the feasts we have. In every feast, you see different things. The food is different, the spirit is different, there's a variety to it. Everything is a feast. That's the difference between us and other people. Even when there's a storm, that's still our defense. We're still there, talking, gossiping. It's still a feast, we all still eat." "There's no such thing (in other cultures). They don't have time to spend with their colleagues from work, for example. Or even with their parents. They don't have the time to see them." Ventura believes that the Filipino has the talent, but not the machinery that decides what's world-class or not. "(The term) world-class only happened because there was already a history (of what was world-class). The problem is, our history was ruptured, that's why we have nothing to show for it. But even in the old days, we already had an identity. We've been world-class for ages."
Take the Banaue Rice Terraces, he says—they've been around for centuries. And it's true—it's one of the oldest testaments to Filipino innovation; it's also the eighth wonder of the world. We know it was built largely by hand; we know that it has its own irrigation system, one powered by water from rainforests. That's Filipino in-novation for you, and it's been around for thousands of years. That's a long time for the Filipino to be world-class. More than any artist today, Ventura knows who we are under all the layers—it might even be that he paints those layers in order for the viewer to strip them away one by one. He doesn't pander to a Western audience, he stays true to his—to our—roots: the pre-colonial and essential Filipino before the West happened to us. Perhaps that's what makes him world-class.
Photographs by JC Inocian
Grooming by Patrick Alcober
This story first appeared in Metro Society Magazine Vol 15 No. 8 2018.