Metamorphic Histories

by Patrick D. Flores


                  It all begins with a fascination with a rock called lapis lazuli that is also color, a certain kind of blue that yields the prohibitive, almost celestial ultramarine. Such intense interest is further layered by a fixation on a museum in London of the collector John Soane. In the intricacy of this idiosyncratic and dense collection of all sorts of things scattered across the rooms, the artist Lui Medina is drawn to a sarcophagus, which like the earlier obsession, is a stone as well. How does this affinity with the inanimate serve as vein, or the vanitas, of painting?

                    It could be about a feel for the material, a bodily response to its potency, its possibility for facture, for the so called build up into something else that is disavowed as reality. But it could also be about value, how lapis lazuli has been prized historically as an exceptional color, which emits an alluringly deep hue. This value has vast implications, ramifying through the making of museums that keep objects, which are precious like stone. In contracts of painters of fifteenth-century Italy, the demand for blue would be so finical, stipulating the proportions of florin to the ounce and reserved for cherished robes and immaculate virgins.

                  Medina proceeds from this condition of the sublime: nature from which rock and color emerge and the museum where object resides. How can the project of painting intuit this fundamental desire of a person for the thing? What does it do with the desire? Does it indulge it? Does it transcend it? These are the fraught questions that importune her.

                  The artist works on large circular surfaces. When gathered, they look like discs whirling in a blue constellation. She paints on wood and explores whatever form transpires from two impulses that steer clear of image, or at least, the condensation of reality that is reduced to what we see via the retina, through eyes that can only objectify. This scene is complicated by modest three-dimensional articulations in plaster, which may or may not bear direct ties with the painting of similar constitution. These might be considered sculptures or maquettes, another suite of renderings, better viewed as tangential. With color and ornament, Medina contrives a system that mutates through instinct and pattern, hovering over “expression” and “object.” Here, she converses with two of Philippine modern art’s incipient abstractionists: Nena Saguil and Hernando Ocampo. The art critic Cid Reyes once asked Saguil how she got started to paint blue cellular paintings of varying tones: “You must have done nearly every possible shade of blue? Why blue?” Saguil, who once lived in Paris, responds: “I did not choose it, I felt it. I am very intuitive, but intuitive only in the sense that the mind has foretold what the hand should do.” Ocampo, who never left his homeland, for his part reveals that the beginning of the painting is the “repetition of shapes – a variation of essentially one shape distributed all over the canvas.” From this springs, in Medina’s own reckoning, a welter of matter, congealing, cosmic, vital source of energy, a void that drains, a vortex that radiates, weathering crust, wear and tear of the core. Thus, the alternation of luminosity and opacity, flatness and excess, dominant scale and granular detail.

                  In her previous exhibition titled Ascent, she references this state called “isostasy,” or the “gravitational equilibrium between the earth’s lithosphere and asthenosphere where the tectonic plates ‘float’ at an elevation.” It is apparent that Medina is keen on the “natural” even as she investigates with equal acuity the materiality of art, the nature of the painting. The strata of her paintings consist of oil, beeswax, and metal leaf. But the accretion of paint is never overinvested. It is only diligent. There is a scrupulous, careful marking of the ground with prudent but circumspect brushwork, sometimes with digressions into impasto as seen in squiggly traces as if to intimate life forms or remains or attritions of substance or excretions of living entities. What kind of real is this? And what kind of realism is enlisted to portray shadow, for instance, or edge? Or is this the wrong question to ask? Are we just seeing things?

                  Medina calls this series in this exhibition “Metamorphic Histories.” The phrase is salient because it mediates history as a trope that is always a mode of turning, a flight of forms. History as an assemblage of time, place, agency, and structure is continually transposed across imaginations, semblances or specters of enchanted, bedeviled visions. Also, it is telling because it may ultimately allude not to the order or stasis of a universe, but to the everyday or recurrent cataclysms (sometimes imperceptible, sometimes devastatingly unerring) to which it is fated. At this point, it becomes uncanny. Days after an overwhelming typhoon, with no precedence in terms of strength on landfall, ravaged the central part of the country, the novelist Ninotchka Rosca took exception to how the media would cast the Philippine spirit as resilient in the face of exceptional adversity, of unimaginable, indescribable wind and water. The tropical archipelago has been shaped by a robust ecology as well as by relentless catastrophe; according to a research on the epidemiology of disasters since 1900, the Philippines has experienced the most number of incidences requiring global relief in the planet.

Rosca thinks of survival in these parts, or better to say, of the Philippine prevailing as metamorphic, and not as resilience: “We break, when the world is just too much, and in the process of breaking, are transformed into something difficult to understand.  Or we take full measure of misfortune, wrestle with it and emerge transformed into something equally terrifying…This is in sync with our indigenous worldview…an understanding of reality, including ourselves, as metamorphic (or, capable of transformation).”

                  So there: the earthy, ethereal sublime is violent, delicate, precious as it is precarious; the world is a figurine like the Philippine: ready to crack, ready to gather like islands.