Ricky V. Ambagan: Distorting As If Life Depended On It

By Jay Bautista

“The whole point of Social Realism (SR) is to get away from orthodoxy. To us (artists) that has always been the challenge. It’s been a constant reinvention. It is SR in the Age of SM.”

Jose Tence Ruiz
Sunday Inquirer Magazine

November 8, 2009

You have to admit there are some pockets in the city where the concentration of the people is just too unbearable — Quiapo, Monumento, and Kapasigan to name a few. Either for deep religiosity, sheer commerce or mere plain wandering (and wondering) around its streets, it is here that you come across some of the most anarchic and unaccommodating people as subjects. These are spaces your mother constantly nags you not to traverse. In fact, for the most sensitive in us, these may be altars of your darkest fears. Filth, theft, or badly designed billboards on neglected historical landmarks, all abound on them. Like a short kindergarten field trip, all that you need — and not need to know — in our country are all here. Like the MMDA-inspired aqua and fuchsia signage that served as invites for this show, one is alerted not to trespass or as translated to nakamamatay.

It was while walking in these same sordid streets, among the nameless throng, that Ricky V. Ambagan deeply reflected on his own individuality as to his directions as an artist. Collectively entitled, Mga Langgam Sa Syudad, these fresh fifteen oil on burlap paintings are the result of that walk and intension for Ambagan’s first solo exhibition. In a country where the arts get little attention outside the art gallery system, discriminating collectors and in the midst of artists who only understand themselves, Ambagan wanted to “capture a moment or freeze an instance” in the lives of this multitude whom he believes will not ever to see his artworks. If they don’t see the show then they will be his show. In honoring them he is the one being honored.

The allegory in which our desperate people in the city to being compared to a mass of ants first come about in the piece entitled Unahan. Here all is not positive with ants as Ambagan is referring to them as people have their own kind of “sweetness” to thrive upon – money, fame, lust – and Manila is one big sugar-coated mecca that they all troop to. Despite their hardworking and patient nature, however once you disturb these ants with their preoccupation with sweetness, they immediately bite back even if it will be like suicide.

The Filipino dream is plain and simple — to go to Manila to work in order to buy a land in their hometown to retire to. In Luwas, where the ant-like virtues in many of us are attracted in the “sweetness” that is Manila. Notice how people in this painting may band together but are alienated from one another. Everybody seems to be too preoccupied on where to find a more decent job or get the next meal. Or simply how to survive the day. Despite being overcrowded, Ambagan paints you hope as evident in the vast clear clouds in between vendors and buyers.

Unang Paglalakbay 2
You are Watching Me Watching Them Watching You

What excites Ambagan is his penchant for impermanence in these mass-based sites he frequents to. More than 99 channels in a cable television, the streets scenes changes from the last time he was there. The streets resist order, closure and even still moments.

To further feel this urge to document the raging pulse of these city dwellers, with an open mind and a digital camera in tow, Ambagan, felt it natural to photograph these locations which always had heavy concentration of scoundrels, thugs, rogues, and urban denizens generations after generations. His mission was to document the sign of the times not only “with warts and all” but to detail “even the warts and all.” Whether he violated his subjects who don’t know they are being photographed, with the prevalent art practice using in hyper realist mode, its use for painting from photographs has been a long and ongoing debate. Although nobody told him, it wasn’t an easy time every time, as he would be scolded, laughed at lampooned, however a few were delighted.

With the help of modern technology, he unloads the images at home, which he will use as reference in painting and eventually distorting. Like the digital camera, the computer is another tool as to how he would want the image to look like. With a few tweaking and conscious manipulation using the mouse, the image serves as his guide for the actual painting to commence. Whether the spontaneous process is legal, he rises above the controversy in the quality of his execution. Like the paint brush, the camera his palette knife are all part of the multi-media act.

From photographing to the imaging in the computer down to the choice of material for painting, Ambagan is painstakingly meticulous. Even the choice of burlap (peanut sack) more than canvas is commendable as he desires to achieve the texture and the rawness of his subjects. How he adores roughness by his thick smears of paint in disjointed vivacity is very much evident on the pieces. He likes the images to move in a grace-like manner while he busily sketches them futher. He also wants to follow the lines and curves wherever it leads him adding more lines and colors could be a possibility.

Ambagan considers distortion as just another dimension of a painting. At this point, he wants the piece to talk back to him on how it will be finished. The interaction is decisive since the images may opt to be dirty as he found them in the streets or satirically purely clean like what they hope for. How the essential brushstrokes are thickly done will be gut feel by the time he is at work on it. When Ambagan paints it is not frivolity rather a story should be well told, a discourse to be analyzed, or it could simply be a play of technique or illusion to one’s eye. Ambagan is very hefty on the respect between the artist-viewer relationship which makes him even more brilliant. The painter views the subject who one day will view the work of the painter.

When Distortion is Actually Straightening Out

A fine arts graduate of the University of the Philippines and member of the art group Manchados, Ambagan is well-versed with the various styles and approaches to paintings. “If you will just stay in your comfort zone and copy whatever is the trend and sellable, then why is it you paint?” he points out. Call him degenerate, he only wants to elevate the discipline of the art, to raise it on a higher plane.

To paraphrase writer and critic, VS Pritchett, “artists are the most boring people in the world because half the time you are talking to them, they are thinking or even painting already in their mind.” Ambagan confessed there was never a time did not paint, even while watching TV or taking a shower, he is obsessed with “mixing two coats of paint taming a monster of an idea on the canvas.”

It was probably on the Light Railway Transit (LRT) that he first chance upon his initial “hazy but distinct” approach to contemporary visual art. In fact Unang Lakbay 2 won for him one of five juror’s choice at the LRT Art Competition 2009 last June. He likes to think while everything is moving in a wave-like manner, and images are in a trance or being danced away into a different oblivion. Looking at the scenes passing on a speeding train has its benefits for him, it is as if he is being treated with a futurist canvas of abstraction. He then becomes more focused and most creative when there are other activities simultaneously happening and as the train arrives at his destination.

Mga Langgam Sa Syudad
Not only are the pieces in this show well-thought of, even heavenly blessed with having survived Ondoy and Pepeng and the sins that they imparted to us but because only Ambagan could sincerely and purposely come up with such. The culmination is in his biggest work and eventual title of the exhibition, Mga Langgam sa Syudad is a 5ft by 5 ft showcase of living energy of a people waiting the arrival of relief goods to be given to them from a big imposing truck at the same time take them to back to their homes again. What Ambagan lacked in conflict he makes up for his use of proportion. His subject are may seem out of focus but the reference may be the constricted space they share as poverty looms the framed existence of these paintings.

Not to downgrade his sense of nationalism but it was the European masters Edward Munch and Edgar Degas that Ambagan was heavily influenced and inspired him. Munch’s Scream is Ambagan’s Siksikan, Degas’ ballet dancers could be Ambagan’s pedicab and vendors. To view what he calls “the sweetness of my pieces” is how it speaks of the times and how he chronicles their city which is his too.

When Ambagan won ArtPetron on its first offing he bested among the best some of them are now making name in the art scene. Seeing his works now, tension runs in your spine. At a glance one may consider dizziness like that of a hungry and desperate man but after looking hard the works pull you into a suction-like desolation. His titles may seem autobiographical as claims his 11th hour is near. But that’s the beauty of Ambagan’s art, he aims for the unexpected. This alone makes you appreciate him more.

Like a moveable feast, whatever fire that stir him to paint them and hang on the white walls of an art gallery in a commercial Ambagan’s pieces are too much for one viewing, you have to come back as the elements move constantly and you can be enticed by the images and the depth of the works. Like in a pedicab, he has given his viewers a front seat as if being next to the subject, as if you are there with them in Avenida or they are with you in Galerie Anna. The choice is yours.

Ambagan could have painted a series of mother and childs or coy fishes for his first show and it will be immediately sold out. But he mentions this would not enrich himself. Like an old master at 28 years old, Ambagan the challenge for him now is how to continue working up the streets until the images “become beautiful” on canvas and not to be interesting in real life any more.

There’s a saying “around the next corner, a piece of art is going to change your life,” Ambagan literally painted many corners for this show as he has many more streets to chart. He has only just begun the walk.

Mga Langgam sa Syudad is ongoing at the Galerie Anna, The Artwalk, 4/f SM Megamall A, Mandaluyong City.