For three-hundred years, ships regularly sailed between Acapulco and Manila because the Spanish East Indies were under the jurisdiction of New Spain. Crews native to one terminus married women native to the other. Can that intermingling be seen today in the art of first- or second-generation Americans with Filipino or Mexican ancestry? This exhibition explores this shared history by displaying works by artists of Filipino and Mexican heritage.
Most of the shared history that I see involves a contemporary art education that addresses issues either more universal or more personal than ethnic background. Distinctive form is less important than the novel use of materials or signifiers. The Baroque pictorialism that Spain introduced to her colonies is nearly absent. The social realism that once united them against their ruling classes is just as scarce.
The show was curated by two artists, and includes a single painting from each on display. Both deliver a passionate message with a confrontational human figure, front and center. Sergio Gomez (Mexican) presents a gentle, faceless human torso, hollow but for its warm glowing heart. With its full-body halo, it might even represent Saint Francis standing in an overgrown field. Cesar Conde (Filipino) presents a parody on a biblical theme. One fierce person is holding the severed head of another, but instead of “Judith with the Head of Holofernes,” it’s called “Decolonizing the Colonizer.” The Gomez piece is as pleasant as a greeting card while the Conde scene is as aggressive as agitprop. Both might suggest the Spanish tradition of Christian art though they both appear distant from its aesthetics.
Regarding the rest of the work in the show, it does not appear that a serious attempt was made to gather works of high aesthetic value or typical of any ethnicity. Not all of the artists are emerging, but the show does recall the MFA shows that Gomez used to curate in this same space. It feels like a grab-bag of artists who were willing to participate.
About two-thirds of those artists are Filipino—and that’s what makes the show interesting. Not that the Mexicans are less worthy but I’ve never seen this many Filipino artists in one show. Despite their shared history with Mexico, the Filipino artists appear to have a different aesthetic—less connected to the earth and more excited about light. My favorite painting is “The Easternization of America” by Eulalio Fabie de Silva. I cannot comprehend the narrative—something about a tall man who might be some kind of guru or spiritual teacher. It’s the light-filled space that compels my attention. I feel overwhelmed by its glory, like coming out of a dark movie theater into the glare of a midday sun. The two calligraphic, nearly monochromatic abstract paintings by Kennan del Mar are also impressive. He presents a world that feels well-ordered as well as spontaneous and arbitrary, much closer to Chinese Taoism or American abstract expression than anything from the Spanish empire. A professional web designer, he’s like many young professionals who have come to American cities like Chicago to move up in the hi-tech world economy. His work feels just as Filipino as it does Greek, Brazilian or Norwegian.
The strangeness of the art is enjoyable. But the life stories of the creative, risk-taking, multicultural, border-crossing artists who made it are probably even more fascinating. (Chris Miller)
“Synergy: From Manila to Acapulco,” Zhou B Art Center, 1029 West Thirty-Fifth Street, through September 13.