Ricky Ambagan as Chance Passenger


Amidst a very flourishing Philippine art scene brought about by favorable regional auction results and recent participation in glitzy global art fairs, Ricky Ambagan still paints, mixing oils as it done so traditionally. Eschewing anything scientific, futuristic or mythological, this might sound archaic even medieval to some. His works are void of anything mixed with his favorite medium. No black smear over pastel, etching on mirrors or gold inks with candy-colored patina for this UP Fine Arts graduate.
Alaga ni Ama
With bold dabs of color and dirt, Ambagan continues to paint filth and squalor in Larga, his fourth offing at the Gallery Anna in SM Megamall. Seeing no gap between perception and response in Larga, it is not just “going in haste,” it is leaving on time, with a purpose and one direction. It is about being above the throng in the very context of its contentions, be it in Malabon, Binondo, Baguio City or lately Tagaytay. A behind-the-scenes approach, for Ambagan, who probably belongs to the last generation to play on the streets, Larga is to depart — prepared to accomplish (or even conquer with abandon) what one has intended to — with his hand in heart, armed with a paint brush.
Nasa Dyos Ang Awa

As the image of a stoic Christ looms, obviously sensing in his reflexes, one can almost smell humanity in the perspiring driver in focus in Nasa Dyos ang Awa and how Malabon reeks of fish and what have you. Here Ambagan wants viewer participation as close as possible, to the point of being handed the metal maneuver for driving. As the title suggests, Ambagan does not leave everything to himself, as he encourages audience to finish the phrase (Nasa Dyos ang Awa…) and enjoy a vantage point view, as if one is on a special ride from behind the subject like a VIP passenger. 

His eye for beauty maybe naked but it is sharply raw such as he sees a certain kind of aesthetics in the way Filipinos adapt with life. Unique perspectives have always played with many of his pieces like Baka Sakali, which could also be entitled Man on a Bicycle with a Prayer. Ambagan readily employs the viewer as next to the prowling vendor. As if one is a step on the street and not in the cool breeze of an art gallery.  
Kumpuni deserves a long hard second look. Ordinarily one does not want to be caught in “the moment” such as this driver fixing a flat tire. As Filipinos are wont with religiosity in their work, their pedicabs are extensions of their bodies. Thus, it hurts their daily sustenance in both ways. Like the rusty yet sturdy two-wheeled vehicle, so is this guy’s faith in emerging with a few cash to feed a waiting family back home. 

Isang Umagang Kay Saya is another humble tribute to the Philippine pedicab. The pajak as everyone knows it was created out of necessity. Tracing its roots to Tondo, out of poverty, the first pedicabs were made of pvc roofs and celofane front covering in the early ‘80s. It was easier to maintain the pedicab than the tricycle. Though there is no law creating them, they were the transport of choice not only of people but for plying goods, wares, or produce. Pedicabs are honest, environment-friendly, always available 24/7 and are considered “taxis without an attitude.”
And like the pedicab drivers Ambagan depict in many of his canvases, he too works tirelessly the same man-hours, profusely behind his canvases like this slipper-shod collective who punishingly pedals for most of the day. Stopping only when he has to eat or has an immediate errand that can’t wait. Ambagan considers himself among the working class he has chosen to paint and like a daily-wage earner he has no illusion of glamour as an artist not even resting nor taking a break on a holiday except on Sundays. 

Bagong Simula

For the impermanent urban dweller, the pedicab is safe, noiseless, and immediate. Much like how one leaves a city for another city, as fleetingly seen in the hopeful piece Bagong Simula. Shown here how one’s life can be summed up in three used balikbayan boxes. Notice how Ambagan puts details such as an omnipresent Jesus in the abused shirt and the number 30, which could mean an eminent death or a perfect figure completing the cycle of the month, thus time to start anew.

Boundary Na perfectly completes the circle with respite and triumph — that meaningful pause before the second wind to finish the day. Sometimes we alone cannot finish our work and our dreams complete it. Parallel to his struggle as a visual artist is his command to showcase the simplicity of our folk, those who subsist half-cup viands with double servings of rice, or a family that daily subsist on packed noodles with their blood shot eyes. Boundary Na is a subject’s own survival for the day: that extra cash after one’s boundary to buy a kilo of rice and canned goods; that bonus tip to finally replace that rusty roof with a hole that drips every rainy season; that extra trip after the boundary as final payment in owning your own pedicab. 

Boundary Na is Filipino concept that whatever gets them through their solitary existence. 


Boundary Na

Ambagan’s sources have always been with the bustling multitude in the streets. His strength is this sense of continuity to his subjects – the downtrodden, the dirt-poor pedal-pushing pedicab drivers, the vendors who buy whatever they earn for the day – longing for his art to uplift them and his constancy to their underground economic struggle are evident in these fourteen works that comprise Larga. It is his prayer that when he comes back to these places his subjects will not be there where he first glimpsed them.
Depicting the moment at hand, he displays their angst from shrewd customers — their boring expressions brought by the impatience of the delayed arrival of the next available passenger. Not that Ambagan is apathetic or apolitical but he neither concerns himself with grand narrative painterly style nor instilling historical or post modernist tendencies. It is the daily living of the tale that fascinates him. Some pedicabs he literally sat and paid his own fares, some he paid off for their “talent fee” as his models. Sometimes his injecting of humor is his ploy for us not to pity their daily grind. Being poor is not a sin but staying one might be.

Taking almost half a year of critical thinking, careful planning and creative executing from the streets to his camera to his canvases on his studio, with this current trove plus the paintings in the three previous exhibitions, Ambagan can now claim a significant body of works. However, Ambagan considers himself just another worker who earns from what he is only capable of doing.