Kristoffer Tolentino: Mass Executions


At a time when the President of the Philippines has yet to finally affix his signature to the formal confirmation of a foremost illustrator as a National Artist Buklod Buhay sa Gawang Makulay by award winning visual artist Kristoffer Tolentino is a reprieve, an intervention even, when much local art that is produced are either too emo-ridden or the blatantly Meon canvas. Some paintings these days are even primarily sourced from the internet and are being directly printed on canvas only to be retouched by paints thereafter.

Though only in his late 20s Tolentino is old school—that long, slow and meticulous practice of putting imagination to canvas, from eye to hand with only actual experiences as his references. His media are mixed starting with ballpen for doodling, ink for the outlines, finishing with brushes either with watercolor or acrylic. With painting as his main medium he considers illustration as his primary technique the struggle for Tolentino has always been the consideration that his paintings are not as mere drawings in the legitimate realm of Philippine art.

Kwentong Kalye, 2014, Acrylic on Canvas, 4 x 8 ft.

The easiness of these pieces cannot be evidenced as just interactive throng placed on canvas. Looking closer, like a captured still in a motion picture, one is entertained by its plots and sub plots of the everyday, tugged with comical wit and a deeper humor from viewers who take living seriously.

Kwentong Kalye is the quintessential Tolentino piece if one would like to be immersed with his works. Mind you his scenes evolve in the typical every day, not in a grand or historical manner happening in a typical urban landscape complete with schools, corner eateries, computer shops, hospitals, malls with the tremors of the MRT being felt nearby. Not bound by particular time, eschew of formalities, like a pop-up book everything just happens in one simultaneous movement with Tolentino conducting its public rhythm though not by baton but through his paint brush. As the collective viewer visual claustrophobia could seep in for we too are part of the happening, enjoying the front view adorning from one’s vantage window. Accorded with simplicity as if the everyday was a celebration, to be alive is to breathe and move under the sun. He somehow pauses the moment when all is moving at once. Drawing from a plethora of chance encounters in almost every crowded place he has been to—alleys, aisles, corridors, sidewalks, backstreets–he usually sizes up his canvas for one long and hard look. More picturesque than pictorial, as if we are on a privileged panorama that even drones can’t get this much creative perspective.

With proportion in mind he commences with his trusty ballpen and sketches succinctly. Like in a trance, the process lends itself to organize in more than a hundred caricatures which he never repeats every single one of them. Should there be impermanent ball pen slip-ups he goes through the motion and transforms them with a new one imbibing whatever form that was reborn into. Original in its composition with no focal point, these are not pious scenes. They are raw from ink, organic in evolution without aid of sketch. He does not even know how it will end. He used to finish it off with brownish earth or flesh skin hues, they later evolved into a brightly colored day emanating from a primed white background, with only accents of color that act like curtains of moods.

His titles may be long but they are poetic. Dikit Dikit na Bahay, Kabit Kabit na Buhayproves how community spirit is the highest form of nationalist expression. Inspired by the Badjaos found along the coastlines of Tawi-Tawi, Sulu, and Zamboanga del Sur, Tolentino displays how elevated these houses on stilts to picture how they adapt to live on a different habitat. An informal socialist, Tolentino proudly displays how we all subsequently co-exist in a hustle bustle of a chosen lieu.

Oftentimes the lure of the native is even stronger that Tolentino impresses upon his smaller paintings. He would depict beach or nature scenes where people help one another while they enjoy the exposure of being in the tropics. He captures features idyll destinations as if they were secret places we eager have to find out and go. Fiesta is another habitual cultural tendency for Tolentino where the preparations are uniquely ours and just as important as the event itself. Nothing compares to the experience of being in it, no matter how many times you can go. In a way he has showed how Filipinos should live in the many situations he ushers us in.

Humor is the main faculty of a Tolentino piece–the daily Pinoy-kind, the quick banter we hear from the street or the one beside us at metro trains or public jeepneys. Our three stars and a sun symbol is also a favorite fixture, it should be found somewhere either wrapped on kid’s bag or even juxtaposed as a speeding car. Like the modern Larry Alcala he has often been compared with, one has to eventually look for it, part of the mechanics of enjoying his formations. For good and positive energy, another obvious constant are galore of colorful balloons and hot air balloons of sorts, filled with fancies and fantasies. One imbibes that sensual light feeling of freedom when one is above the clouds, away from the continuous conflict from below.

Technical yet typical for Tolentino is his fondness for lines either from electric posts or strings from kites which is already a lost art he advocates. Ever the sentimentalist he is that kid on the roof who flew his kite to represent his dreams.

It was in ArtPetron National Student Art Competition in 2006 that he first came up with these scenes he has adopted as a style and is now being lauded for. With indigenous arts as a theme, Tolentino won runner up prize when he depicted Filipinos as free and loving craftsmen and artisans.

Experimenting in that popular art form in the late 19thcentury Philippines, Tolentino reclaims the Spanish-influenced letras y figuras into his own. Not wanting to waste life’s precious moments he advocates love for country in the most fun manner–that is who and what makes the Filipino tick. Evident is Pinas where his sense of nation runs high and mighty. Everything best in us are there from industries like fishing, fiestas like the Pahiyas with its Higantes, with warm and friendly folks like us complete the picture.

It was a well-crafted entry to a national art competition that he first came up with his Robotseries. With future of technology as its theme, he came up with Robots as the first signal for modernism in advanced science. This mechanical toy-with pun intended-was the old clunky Japanese-kind. Out of discarded things he recreates these mechanical concoction which challenges him that we can still come up with something beautiful from earth’s refuse. They are another theme that he has perfected through time. They even reincarnate as super heroes immortalized to assist others in their own rising again.

As an artist his most precious credential is his integrity and his task is always to speak for the truth. Oftentimes Tolentino, armed with wit and deep respect for fables he comments on how ill people in our decaying society have behaved, he does this through his own version of that long-nosed character Pinoccio. Like a child’s play, Tolentino does this graphically in fine artistic rendition and profound on satire bordering on the surreal. It was this visual style that won for him at the Tanaw Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas National Painting Competition.  
For its breadth and magnitude Tolentino does not just come up with these scenarios, it drives him to change things for the better one fine canvas at a time. 

By creatively dwelling in the metropolis we should thrive harmoniously, his “mass” blends people all walks of life, regardless of class or gender, paradoxes and all. It is his minute attention to details that are astounding. They are raw, unfazed and oblivious not to be noticed, they even standout.

In Buklod Buhay sa Gawang Makulay each piece is hand earned, innovating performance on canvas, a theatrical tableau even. It is crowded indeed yet no underlying filth or furor around. Mysteriously not even a sad pout from stellar cast. No misery or deprivation in the interaction which seems like a symbiosis. If viewers would glance or even stare on these artworks longer than usual they would reveal the longer hours Tolentino struggled to make their viewing worth their while. One would be tempted to find him somewhere within them as we may even find ourselves literally here.
Ongoing at the SM Megamall Art Center Buklod Buhay sa Gawang Makulay is the first solo exhibition of Kristoffer Tolentino.