A solo exhibition by Melvin Culaba
Like a Refrain in a Song
Unlike most artists who prefer utmost solitude when painting, Melvin Culaba wants to be in tune with the teleradyo while mixing three coats of paint on his canvases. With an immediate distance from the urban thoroughfares of the hustle and bustle of Baclaran, he is in sync with the goings-on around him from sunup to sundown. From his second floor vantage point, he could witness vendors being rounded up by the police or be enthralled by the glittering neon lights of City of Dreams, Hyatt and Nobu Hotels. That is how close he is to his subjects, and in all his past exhibitions, his third for Kaida Contemporary, “Re-Current Themes” is his most personal and political show to date.
Culaba is fuming, as noticed in the bolder and harsher strokes, each one with emotional intent and moral undertones. As an artist, this is the only way he knows how to respond to these strange and interesting times. He also deeply reminisces into the milestones of his existence, causing him to pause and reflect while holding his brushes and palette knives in his makeshift studio.
Interiority Complex (Ang Konsencia sa Pagpipinta) is the centerpiece in triptych. Ang Konsencia ng Pintor is his first attempt at portraying himself while thinking long and hard in documenting both what occurred in his personal life, and the recent re-occurrences in his sad republic. For a realist painter like Culaba, nothing delineates the personal from the social. He only paints the way he knows how. Elements of the painting evoke memories of his grandparents, with the haunting presence of a black butterfly on his palette marking their guidance.
Culaba waxes poetic with Bansang-Moro Buchikiik, ik ik ik wherein an abandoned motorcycle refers to recent killings by riding-in-tandem duos. The title is also a take on recent housing projects from armed conflict or calamity-ridden areas built with substandard materials. The artist immortalizes characters he meets and events he experiences as well, the tone of the piece bereft with joy as he includes a stuffed dog with a Thanos tumbler.
Sa Kaharian ng Im-PERYA-l Fukada…Go Bananas is a reference to his sister in an 80s photo with other Filipina entertainers. With the setting cloaked in the familiar violet curtains of a recently-launched Japanese establishment for high rollers, Culaba decries the presence of posh resort hotels which cater to gambling by the presence of dice. Meanwhile, a similar palace acts as background with a crocodile as official symbol of corruption marked by gargoyle-like bulldogs acting as pimps for every kind of patronage. Imperya not only is a play of words for imperial but also for perya or small circus during a town fiesta, complete with roving roulette one aims at the fruits on each head as target which could be in the form of aspirations, dreams, or want for material possessions.
The demonstration of Pandango sa Ilaw pertains to those who apply for cultural dancers abroad. Meanwhile the presence of chicks on top of a coffin call for justice. Additional space fillers are garlic issued by the DFA secretary; microphone in a karaoke set reflecting our penchant for drunken entertainment on the streets; french fries as an ongoing testament to colonial mentality and false diets; the monkey stuffed toy equates the prevalent monkey business and the dinosaur reminds us how age-old and repetitive these concerns are.
The oval-shaped Ang Larawan, Kabayan is his ode to beauty, or the lack of it, that is often exploited. He hints at artists who for the sake of commerce simply repeat what sells. It also takes a pun at the art scene which falsely depicts beauty as a myth, as if we were stuck in the bygone 50s. Culaba also deals with the 3,000 OFWs that migrate everyday hoping for a better future abroad. He paints an airplane sculpture found in his studio which is a token gift from a fellow artist as an emblem for departure and new beginnings.
In Sa Letrang BBB at DDD (Dig Dig Dig) he uses dogs that search for the truth by digging it out. Set on top of a tractor’s tracks, dogs could also mean overworked and underpaid laborers. A kidney-shaped space is for desperate measures of selling body organs in times of dire need despite of health hazards. Speedy Bagal pertains to our chaotic road system—our concrete pavements being fixed and before you know it being torn down again when the rainy days come. A snail is his postmarked for delayed service.
If one seems disillusioned to what is transpiring around us, one finds comfort in the past and prefers to overload in nostalgia. Tipanan ni Undo at Inday sa Luneta….sa Panahong wala pa si Puto-Bomber at si Puta-Shop offers that needed whiff of fresh air when the genteel life was simpler and more basic. Back in the day when there were no malls, one could still take a stroll at Luneta and be photographed at the pristine Rizal statue without the photobomber of a condominium we have for the moment. One can enjoy being carefree and pure fun with the gang or a loved one. Culaba can also eschew romance and is capable of mushiness without the usual angst of an anarchist.
As seen in Culaba’s paintings in “Re-Current Themes,” we continue to confront the same ills and struggles of society spanning five presidential administrations. It seems our national issues just keep on coming back, remaining unresolved. Our problems are systematically bureaucratic, simply because it is the very system that we continue to question. Preferring to be subliminal in his take on the obvious, the artist’s culture-bound iconographies provide politically intense personifications and remind all of us of the quagmire we are stuck in, while still hoping on the power of human capital for redemption which may very well be brought upon by clenched fists.
Words by Jay Bautista