Orley Ypon: When Realism Still Matters


Flesh was the reason why oil paint was invented.
                                               Willem de Kooning
Bidlisiw (sun rays in Visayan) may yet be an appropriate title for a first solo exhibition of a painter whose artistic sunlight has highly basked us for more than 15 years now. Realists like Cebu-based Ypon have often been taken down for being too literal in expressing their paints on canvases that they are often been relegated to the just confines of a commodified art. In Bidlisiw, Ypon escapes from this strangle laying claim as probably the last heir to this great tradition in Philippine figurative painting.     
It was from a water buffalo plowing in the mud in the ricefields of Toledo that Ypon first conceptualized Ahon. In fact his first Ahonpainting won for him 2nd place at GSIS National Painting Competition. Another Ahon-inspired piece The Searchers would eventually win for Ypon the Art Renewal Residency in New York a few years after. Compared to the first ones this current Ahon series has matured further and aesthetically expanded creating more movement and depth. Maybe in a less formal manner (some are even laughing at the satire they are into) but more forceful in his rendition, Ypon’s images show more vulnerability in prowess representing our collective struggle for that so-called genuine emancipation. Although they outwit, outdo and outscore one another as the fittest survive, certain individuals corrupt the community spirit for personal greed and selfish interests.

Ypon laments: Tayo yung nasa putikan, gusto natin makaahon. Dapat malampasan ang krisis. Tumitibay tayo sa bawat  trahedyang napagdadaanan. As a painter di ka pwedeng hindi masaktan. Di ka dapat matakot. Dapat harapin mo dahil yun din magpapatibay sa’yo. Yung wisdom mo dito papasok.

The nature of Ypon’s brushstrokes almost reaches fever pitch that the people throw mud at each other including the viewer looking in. Enclosed in a gallery enclave the viewer may even take a step back as splashes of mud come off the canvas and might just stain him. They are ethereal in actuality, ephemeral in posterity. The way an Ypon piece makes you feel in being part of the Philippine quagmire that as you squint in his toiling figures one witnesses a realism that is seldom replete these days. This comes at a time when much of art being produced is emotion-ridden feng shui-enthused or arguably auction bound. As the in-your-face-bodies have often been celebrated in nudes, portraits, and anatomical fixtures the validity of Ypon’s figures does not hark on the usual celebration of the physical skin and bountiful muscles but how the prowess of collective bodies can portray a people wallowing too long and too deep in a marsh, a political entanglement of their own making. A lieu of how brute and superficial we can almost be. How Ypon combined them in sequential and consequential movement with an enduring and endearing light that warmly embraces them are indices of that long arduous practice of his true craftsmanship.

Tall Toledo Tales

If one were are to paint the life of Orley Ypon it will be an impressionist painting he is now known for. He was always trying to capture the movement, the drama of the moment that came his way.

The second in a brood of eight, Ypon has always dreamed of being an artist. He would envy illustrations from the sari sari store komiks or characters on wall calendars of his hometown Toledo in Cebu.
He says: I have to credit also my parents who unlike other parents did have faith and courage in their children to have a career in the arts. Some parents will not have their sons to be artists. Ako, walo kami but they trusted me.
Toledo, however, will be too small for Ypon’s eagerness to learn art. At 17, he took his chance to go to Manila responding to a newspaper ad for production artists in a crafts shop for export.
The experience will prove to have a double purpose. As he was coloring baskets, he was learning the process of mixing colors and drawing in detail. With much fire in his belly, he rose from being an apprentice to be the head of production staff. Perfectionist as he is, he relied on his doing sample works that would be sent to investors abroad interested in his company’s products.
After a few years of working however the call to be an artist heeded more intensely. What little amount he saved in working he invested in his dream of becoming a painter. He quit work and went back to Cebu. Taking up Architecture at the Cebu Institute of Technology, he heeded upon the advice of some artist-friends as having a fall back for an artist if he was an architect. Ypon, however, found the subjects too technical for his fancy. He was just too eager to paint he took up fine arts at UP Cebu to have the proper academic training in art. Here he mastered the rudiments that would guide him where is today.

Ypon had always been a realist in life as well as in art. He emphasizes: Gusto ko kasi realism para madaling maintindihan ng lahat. Parang may sense ka sa tao. Hindi biro ang realism kasi you have to consider many things like technique, depth, color, and most importantly composition. You have to be an observer, kaya mahalaga lahat ng experience ko dahil I have to feel my work when I’m painting.

The cost of being a fine arts student was too much to carry. Upon the invitation from a relative he went to Davao and immerses himself with the rich and diverse culture the province had to offer. It was here that he tasted his first win, in a mural contest. A social realist by nature, Ypon painted what was around him like the many refugees that were prevalent there.

He later joined an on-the-spot painting in Carcar when he came back to Cebu. Earning him confidence from this, he learned there was a new contest for students in ArtPetron, he enrolled in Casa Gorordo Museum and in a week’s time painted what would be his masterpiece, Ober-Ober.
Ober-Ober, 2001
The story of Ober-ober is a tale worth re-telling. The popular slipper game, the topic of his painting, was played everyday by young boys just outside his tiny studio in Toledo where he painted daily.
What makes this painting so special is how Ypon instead of rolling up his canvas, he chose to hand carry it and endure a 21-hour boat ride from Toledo to Manila.
In the book Brushstrokes from the Heart: The First Five Years of ArtPetron, author and art critic Alice Guillermo commented that Ober-Ober for its “strong sense of humanity and fellow-feeling for the masa or children of common people. Ypon seems to intimately know them well. Even the light that underlines their contours is not harsh but is kind and insightful.”

It is this same bright rays of the sun that National Artist Napoleon Abueva, chair of the board of judges, to “he has Fernando Amorsolo’s light.”
Light on Water, Later on Mud
Ypon mentions that his happiest moments is when he is with water. He has lots of fond childhood memories at sea. He remembers he would tag along with his grandfather who was a fisherman in the morning and be enthralled by the colors of the sky and the sea. It was in this that he wanted his paintings to have movement. It is no surprise that most of Ypon’s works have water as background or revolves around it.
Ypon dreams that “someday to paint masterpieces like Juan Luna and Felix Resurrecion Hidalgo those large works like Spoliarium with themes dealing with history. I want to make a statement about the Philippines.”
Truly the light in Ypon’s paintings continues to shine in the high noon of his life. 
Bidlisiw by Orley Ypon is ongoing at Altro Mondo in Greenbelt 5.