Covering the Underground

By Jonathan Olazo


Taking on a hefty and veritable name, Underground (UG) has thrived as a proverbial shelter from the storm, a habitué for artists and art enthusiasts in a meeting of minds that look for something beyond the usual fare of a painting and into the brave and unconventional, extraordinary and vanguard. In a fortuitous setting albeit brought on by hard work and entrepreneurial savvy, owner Manny de Castro has UG in a host of defining circumstances that only sees his endeavor progress – finding a space for exhibitions in the below ground level of a landmark Makati building, and deciding on a gallery name taken from the spirited and iconic song by The Jam with a battle cry that goes, “but I want nothing this society’s got.” The advocacy just spills over.

At the time of writing, UG marked its inaugural calendar of exhibitions that saw critically memorable exhibitions straddling various points of the spectrum.  Artists of various ranks and pedigrees were brought together working toward a common goal in thematic exhibitions organized and conceptualized by artist-curators. “Babel”, organized by Nice Buenaventura, was participatory in nature as wooden blocks were handed to artists to be worked on as one saw it fit and necessary, according to personal artistic dispositions and viewpoints. It gave credence to a probable view of how we respond to the urbanization of our times, chronicling its pitfalls and triumphs. In “Bangkal Paintings”, conceptual artist and curator Nilo Ilarde brought in a cornucopia of seemingly “anonymous” paintings bought from the thrift market district of Bangkal in Makati and gave license to painters and artists to choose and/or assigned paintings for each to interact on the given and existing painting image. The initiative challenged many levels of art making in terms of its inherent processes and up to its receiving end in being accepted by a collecting market.

UG has taken pride in launching first solo exhibitions by protégé artists in James Esguerra and Potti Lesaguis. In the same vein, a two-person exhibition by Nicole Tee and Gale Encarnacion focused on the intricacies of the dialogue between object, material and idea that tapped on the impetus of questioning and addressing the inherent stories of art making.

Perhaps indicative of fostering contrasting attitudes, UG held an exhibition of photographs by Luis Martinez that portrayed musicians and singers of the celebrity caliber as the artist took their portraits while watching in their live concert performances. In a positively controversial outing, artist Felix Bacolor somewhat crucified himself on the gallery’s walls using only duck tape and allowed himself to be on sensational display for a relative marathon duration of time that elicited opinions and enthrallments from the gallery passerby.

The norm of painting was given its due spotlight. Alvin Villaruel gave rendition to his signature style of blurred images that referenced the great Gerhard and paints chosen scenes on aluminum surfaces that explore the ambient quality of these and its resulting effect on the depicted scene. Japanese artist Atsuko Yamagata had a suite of luminous non-representational works on paper that are delivered using traditional inks and cutouts that plotted the psychological and poetic structures of perceived space. Gino Bueza, Zean Cabangis and Don Dalmacio sought to pursue painting formats in lieu of its past tense and understanding its significance through its reconstruction and reconfigured formations.

In another artistically difficult exhibition by a classy artist in his mid-career years, Juan Alcazaren’s paintings cum assemblages seem to define the aesthetic path the gallery is taking. This is about the endorsement and recombining of painting mediums, found objects and manipulated materials. These juxtapositions shed light on recent past histories and lineages, therefore defining influences and beliefs. This is a base for a pursuit that can only be about serious art making in its purest, and its arbitrated public appreciation.

With all of these as the tip of the iceberg of the banquet table, Underground espouses an interesting mix of aesthetic works that limber toward giving artists their due leeway to explore riskier ideas and concepts. Underground has concluded a brilliant year with a roster of almost a double dozen shows, a prolific resume for any upstart or even established gallery to follow. On an offbeat day, a visitor can walk into the gallery and catch owner de Castro and close colleagues listening to vinyls on hi-fi turntables and amps, talking about the recesses of the liner notes that go with these records. Then in a flash bit, the art biz is on the agenda. It is easy to call the Underground home.