Digesting the art of Manuel Ocampo


The painter: Art that provokes. Photo: Topaz Arts

By Oscar A. Laluyan

The Filipino diet is the best and worst. It is a mix of everything fried, super sweet, and all the calories crammed in every bite. It’s a miracle when you don’t get indigestion with every Filipino meal.

So when I got wind of this show entitled, “The View Through the Bull of a Manual Laborer of Menagerie Gussied Over White Ground: 20 Years of Self-Loathing and Intestinal Mishaps,” I approached with trepidation as I assumed that long titles for an art show mean the artist must be confused therefore any “what the hell does that mean?” is deliberate.

But fortunately, Manila-based Manuel Ocampo had his November 8th opening at Tyler Rollins Fine Art in Chelsea with a distinct and notable vision of what he tries to express in the latest oeuvre.

This current series has been percolating for 20 years as every artist can attest with the entire saga of being a tortured creative soul. Ocampo provided various sized panels of paintings, mixed media and pseudo-collage that cleverly espoused that last four words of the show: self-loathing and intestinal mishaps. He represented himself symbolically as the buzzard or vulture in several works, which is a scavenger bird that feeds on leftover carcasses. The entrails or intestines providing a background for some of the work and nails exposed on the picture walls or smack on the canvas itself proved to be a mishap. Can this be literal? Yes and no. It is not that simple to denote Ocampo’s artistic license to ill with literal and symbolic elements. He was notably included in the 1992 group show “Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s” organized by Paul Schimmel at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

It has been 20 years since then and Ocampo has ruminated long enough on this subject. His approach is still fearless, honest and exposing the absurdity of what prevails in society and the art world. There was a piece with an actual sock and the words “Poetry My Ass” written and integrated into the canvas. I found that humorous but at the same time on point. As an art writer that hits the bull’s eye because what I think as fluid words in motion can be a clunker of nonsense making me look like a jackass. The whole foot-in-my-mouth or gag-me-with-a-sock comes to mind. Personally that was the most intriguing and ingenious of his pieces but inherently you can see his classical composition of still life. He adds a more roughhewn and raw texture to them. The wilting and harsh flowers can be a subtle homage to Van Gogh. There are statements and iconography of religion as well with crucifixes and saintly figures. But that is unavoidable since Filipinos are Catholics – lapsed or devout. All these things are clear statements of revulsion with amusement in its execution. The dichotomy is what keeps his work nuanced and interesting.

For my part, art needs to have the handiwork of the artist clearly imprinted and sometimes they don’t have to be pretty or executed perfectly. It can be messy, chaotic, full of conflict, and like the insides of intestines – can be quite disgusting at first glance.

But there is one thing you can’t deny of Ocampo’s art. It is chock full of stuff, and you have to carefully keep looking and observing to really get a sense of it. For that, he is successful in making me re-evaluate what I think about art and unmistakably he had his imprint on this one.

However, he balances it with a wicked sense of humor and wit that makes it palatable. Ergo – easier to digest but he respects that you’ll take parts of it at your own leisure.

Here’s the beauty of art as it can mean differently from one person to the next. Like the sock with “Poetry My Ass” – I get it in so many levels and others may dismiss it as frivolous gimmickry or a total head scratcher (‘Ano ba yan?’).

Call it whatever but at least Ocampo dares to go there and will keep unabashedly throwing it at you. For it is the function of art to provoke an emotion or thought otherwise it’s just another picture you’ll overlook.

Just like the dietary character of Filipino food – it may not be good for your intestinal tract and too much of one good thing – yet Ocampo’s work is proof that with his art you can digest it at your own terms even if it’s a veritable feast you’d hesitate to indulge in. As with any “fiesta” if it’s too painful towards the end then go grab the Pepto-Bismol and you’ll be just fine.

Oscar A. Laluyan is the editor of Arte Fuse, a website for established and emerging artists.

‘Pudendal Gravitas In Abstracta’

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