Distorting Some More in a Cooler Place

By Jay Bautista

As it is now, as it was evident then, the 1906 plan of American architect and urban planner Daniel Burnham (who also did the plan for Manila after designing Washington DC in 1902 before San Francisco in 1907 and Chicago in 1909) for Baguio did not fully materialize because there was just too many people increasingly occupying the city. For whatever their reasons may be, personal or economic, historical figures would show that from having 489 residents in 1903, it ballooned to 30,000 in 1948. To date, Baguio’s population is easy 300,000.

More than just the statistics, unmindful of the city’s centennial year, Ricky V. Ambagan’s creative task was to spend an early summer there and capture the images of the city for his second solo exhibition, Mga Langgam Sa Baguio. A collective body of 27 works of various sizes with the biggest at 3 x 8 ft and mostly 3 x 4 ft resulted from this endeavor.

Tanaw 2, 3x4ft

Continuing his signature style of distorting realism as an imaginative manner of justifying a particular approach to life for a multitude of assemblies, for Ambagan, it is the place and not the throng that dictates such phenomena like Quiapo, Monumento, Kapasigan, and this time Baguio (named after the indigenous plant bigiw).

“More than the numbers” as he would put it, “by physically rubbing elbows and sweating it out with them, I could feel their pulse which is very significant if you are serious with the context of your craft.” Quite close to his heart, Ambagan has always been fascinated with Baguio and its Cordillera culture: “I have always gone back and painted Baguio and its nearby communities like Sagada and Mayuyao on my mind. It is the nearest place you could go and be in touch with our pre-colonial soul. It keeps me grounded.”

Baguio’s Oil

Typical of an artist bred by his milieu, the influence is obvious. All his life Ambagan has been living in crowded places — he grew up in a compound with an extended family of relatives; he has lived in Pasig — one of the most densely populated cities in the metropolis; he has studied at the largest high school in the world. Even this show is exhibited at the heart of one of the most crowded public places you could find.

Like an obsessed chronicler of his time, Ambagan frequents to wherever a huge amount of people gather. He has gone to various places sometimes aboard the Metro Railway Transit (MRT) for a different perspective. Meticulously documenting the amassing of our populace, he follows where they are and why or how they are there. He wanted to grasp the “interplay” of the real and symbolic in their desperate yet dignified lives.

Silong, 3×4 ft

For Ambagan, there is more tension in Baguio than most of the sites down here. Giving more texture in the pieces paving them with a more rustic finish, Ambagan does not want you to be a passive viewer. In Higante 2, from where you are standing in the gallery, the painting unsettles you, as the strong current of paints perturbs the jeep just by the mere viewing of it.

“Distortion really depends on how I see the image I chose. Minsan sa pagpinta na doon ko na dinedesisyunan. Kaya may degrees ang distortion, Nakabatay sa eksena.” This premise is evident in the works Humahangos 2, Kalaro, and Hikayat.

Conscious of how he paints, Ambagan wants his pieces thick, dirty and rough as seen in Wen Manang, May Pag-asa, and Suke 2 where his sense of perspective pervades. At close range one can observe only extreme layers of paints on top of each other however as the viewer steps back, one sees “the forest from the trees,” a better and grander view greets you. Ambagan feels that his canvas is not finished unless he fills it up with texture, so a simple bicycle scene on a Sunday morning could be embedded with hostility as well.

All is not dark and grim with Ambagan who may have been affected by the cool climate of Baguio this time. In fact in this show he introduces one light source in most of the pieces as a way of paying homage to Philippine old masters like Fernando Amorsolo and Fabian dela Rosa. In Suke, Pagbabalik, Pila, and Dagsa ever the sentimentalist that he is, he rediscovers the Philippine sun. Our painting must be created outside the as western mold for us to claim it as our own and it was Amorsolo who set the rules in his/our own terms.

Except for one late afternoon scene, you have to note that all the works have the same time of day, as Ambagan captured them somewhere in between 8 to 10 in the morning. With the side by side layering of black and blue, notice how the shadows in Humahangos, Silong, and Tanaw had become violet when reflected as shades from their varied tints. For this he had the impressionists in mind particularly Claude Monet who made a dent in his artistry.

Higante, 4×6 ft
True to his purpose, Ambagan’s work uplifts and documents the secret lives of our common folk: the vegetable vendors in the sidewalks, whom you can’t even get a discount if you do not speak the international language of Ilocano; the guys who rent out bicycles for P100 per hour so you could roam around Burnham park. They all come vividly alive in Ambagan’s canvases.

As in his first show, an obvious favorite and consistent representation in Ambagan’s pieces are jeepneys. In Baguio, they are bigger and more functional – the wheels, the passenger seats and even the special ladder that makes you climb and enjoy the double-decker seat, dust-free. Although in Baguio they are even more stoic in color and very accommodating with the minimum sitting capacity of 20 passengers. There are also four checkpoints (of course there is a fee for every pass) to contend with that they have to hurdle on their way to that destined bagsakan in Manila. If they get delayed further, they miss the weekend rush of the people to the market. There goes everything – puhunan and tubo. In this lovely city of pines known for its ukay-ukay or cheap bargain finds, are their dreams included in that as well?

Ambagan may have depicted simple themes, very familiar subject matters in the local genre but not in a typical, commercial kind of way. An in-your-face realist, Ambagan’s sense of proportion is clockwork training marked by years of mural making and painting walls that adorn resorts and interior walls of restaurants. He has an eye for what makes a well-balanced significant feature.

Back to his patriotism, Ambagan likes to paint his inspirational idols on t-shirt making it a canvas within a bigger canvas. A statement within a statement we see Jesus Christ and Jose Rizal in Buena Mano, May-Pagasa, and Harinawa.

Buena Mano, 4×6 ft

Session Road to Distortion
Ambagan’s loosely and broadly-handled color palette creates a sense of immediacy which reflects the contemporariness and active stance of his subjects. Looking at the pieces, Ambagan seems like a badly-behaved poet, one who knows all the right corners and when to make that left turn. Knowing all the thugs, the goons and the whores of the city, he is well-versed with the saints and sinners in the streets.

The actual painting proper is a three layered procedure — base strokes, lightness, pattern or the distortion part. Different layers require different brushstrokes. I have seen him use at least ten different brushes in one of his sessions. Showing his meticulous self, only Ambagan knows when the artwork is appropriately done or if it he still needs ample time to add more details or finishing touches to them.

Starting from a white primed canvas fabric with grounds like gesso and chalk. The absorption of the colors is dependent on how much the canvas is primed on its materiality. Second layer uses the grays and other subsequent colors for the eventual wet-on-wet or wet-on-dry technique (alla prima technique). Marked by Ambagan’s unconventional process, by this time, coats of the colors become indistinguishable. Opting for a natural mat finish, Ambagan has to unlearn academic rules saying he should varnish but Ambagan constantly rebels.

Mga Langgam Sa Baguio, 4x6ft

His art is fleeting in this lively fluid and sketchy technique. You might find him conservative in this aspect as Ambagan’s method somewhat like the style of the impressionists, but it is slow and laborious. Each layer had to be dried before he touches them again. Even more confident this time around, the signature distortion is there but his brushstrokes are thicker. This will give you an idea how long it took him to prepare for this show.

“Distortion is about change in approach in art in my desire to something positive. However distortion is more than technique, the more gravity, the deeper the meaning there will be. Also I don’t like repeating a painting I have already done. Distortion gives me the freedom to say something again in another manner,” explains Ambagan.

Ambagan has celebrated Baguio in a way that he knows — with traffic, wires, filth and all. It may not be ideal to some but it the Baguio nonetheless that he saw at a particular point in time. An aesthetically assertive painter, for Ambagan art is about dialogue. Being one of and with them, the proximity of his imagery on canvas is as if you are next to the crowd he paints. There is a merging of the spectator as we (viewers in the gallery) are part of the spill of people from the artworks. Distinct lines have been blurred, as the characters are all one with the audience as Ambagan is part of the stories he wants to tell.

Mga Langgam Sa Baguio opens on June 11, 6pm at the Galerie Anna, 4/f SM Megamall A, Mandaluyong City.