PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST, NAKED

“Flexible Nerves” by Arel Zambarrano
Hulot Gallery, Iloilo Museum of Contemporary Art (Ilomoca)
Iloilo Business Park, Mandurriao, Iloilo City

By Rex Legayada Aguado

(The author is a former journalist who is now into business, arts, and all the finer things in life)

THERE is a moment, after one enters the Hulot Gallery at the Iloilo Museum of Contemporary Art (Ilomoca), when something lifts and shifts.

This perceptual, emotional and even spiritual lifting and shifting come courtesy of award-winning Ilonggo artist Arel Distor Zambarrano’s literally groundbreaking fourth solo show, “Flexible Nerves”, which ran until March 12, 2020 at the prestigious Iloilo Business Park art venue in the district of Mandurriao.

The 34-year-old artist himself explains his art exhibition title as “the quality of bending easily without breaking”, a sequel to his solo shows since 2016 that were variously held in Iloilo City and Manila.

But seen against Zambarrano’s impressive and prolific oeuvre, “Flexible Nerves” has a long history – perhaps as long as the genesis of his artistic career that “professionally” started with his 2007 student group show.

The exhibition notes describe “Flexible Nerves” as “a portrayal of resilience and grace under pressure through the lens of social realism” and “a form created from the artist’s daily grind”.

The show indeed pays homage to social realism, both in topical and tonal terms, but there are also hints here of conceptual art with confessional undertones that point to mental health and very personal, intimate issues.

Zambarrano says the exhibition is a sequel to his previous solo shows, but there is an undeniable sense of re-ordering here – a re-focusing, a disquieting displacement. Even the upended cast-concrete legs of the 34-piece site-specific installation, “Calm Surface, Intense In The Underneath” (inspired by paddling duck-legs, according to the artist), point to a world turned upside down – of the usual reference points shifting, both in the personal and aesthetic levels.

In terms of visual language, there is continuity here. It can be said that “Calm Surface” was prefigured (but this time in three-dimensional form) in Zambarrano’s earlier works, such as the prize-winning painting “Homecoming” from 2011.

There is also a sense of maturity, of the artist looking back and assessing his place in local, national and even global art history. The most explicit expression of this is in “The Molting Stage Will Soon Be Over”, a haunting piece in oil and burnt leatherette on canvas, overlaid with etched acrylic glass. It honors Ilonggo artist Allain Hablo and, in the process, acknowledges Zambarrano’s debts to his esthetic heroes such as Roedil “Joe” Gerardo, Junjun Duarte, Jeline Laporga, Lindslee, Bernardo Pacquing, Arturo Sanchez Jr and, on the global level, British-Indian sculptor Anish Kapoor and German painter Anselm Kiefer.

In “The Molting Stage”, the artist-model is also undergoing metamorphosis, perhaps echoing the constant change that Zambarrano himself is going through. Hablo, the subject, is shown holding a knife  slicing through the etched acrylic glass – the artist breaking free, cutting through the confusion of artistic inspiration? An etched skull is superimposed on his face. Is it an acknowledgement of mortality? Or is the artist heroically struggling against death and decay?

“I still perceive my works as if they are arising from the vastness of harsh conditions,” Zambarrano says.

Indeed, harshness is on show here, bluntly and bleedingly so. In “Post Inner Torment”, used blades collected by the artist from his barber friends form the backdrop to “signify constant pain”, Zambarrano says. This audacious and menacing work can literally trigger a headache. And yet, a rainbow shimmers through the layer of blades, shining through the anatomical eyeballs etched on the superimposed acrylic glass – the artistic vision triumphant, breaking through personal pain and familial sacrifice?

“My pieces in ‘Flexible Nerves’ are still a demonstration of my positivity prior to change, an inevitable transition from the shadows of pessimism and resentment into the light of possibilities,” Zambarrano says.

This quiet heroism is also evident in “Magnanimous Grip”, a nine-piece series of oil on canvas, spirit levels used by builders, etched acrylic glass and bullet slugs. Here, the architecture-trained artist sings his own hymn to labor, revealing his compassion for the working class, of which Zambarrano himself is a part.

“In this series, I expressively painted each figure allowing them to stand out against obscurity. It portrays courage beyond social injustice,” Zambarrano says.

The cry for social justice screams through the deceptively placid “Purya Usog”,  a huge oil on canvas overlaid with talismans (karmin that the artist collected from Quiapo) and bullet slugs embedded on etched acrylic glass. (For the sake of transparency, the writer declares a personal interest in this art piece.)

“Purya Usog” is actually a triple portrait with the artist revealing his profoundest vulnerabilities. By etching his face and that of his wife on the acrylic glass and superimposing it on the soft and delicate facial flesh of their first-born daughter, Zambarrano declares that deepest love – of parents offering their lives for their child, here literally “taking the bullets” for their daughter – a representation for all those sustaining collateral damage amid social strife.

“I commenced painting this family portrait when my two-year-old unica hija was discharged from the hospital (after a bout of pneumonia),” Zambarrano says. “As neophyte parents, we find it difficult at times especially when we see (our daughter) hurting. But I feel relief and at the same time shrink as I place myself in the realm of those struggling and unfortunate fathers and mothers whose children become victims of injustice, violence, killings and hunger.”

Injustice also runs through “Boy-Boy”, a four-piece series of oil and used spade on canvas, overlaid with etched acrylic glass. Again, the works are a paean to society’s invisible men (and women) – the manual construction workers who become even more anonymous with shirts tied around their heads to shield them from dust, toxic fumes and the sun. Still, there’s hope and resilience here: the tenderest tendrils struggle through dry earth, and whispers of roots reach deep down into the nurturing earthen bosom. Equilibrium is regained, balance is restored, life is affirmed.

Gallery not found.