MARKING a departure from an earlier style of art production, Ernest Concepcion seems to remove the vestiges of the past in order to break new ground in a more mature phase of painting. And yet, as we read these words, the artist has begun another exciting series under wraps. The present art show is a group show where he only contributes three paintings, but how great this contribution is, secondary only to his best work.
Years ago, Concepcion made a splash in the New York art scene, landing him numerous spots in the lifestyle and art pages of various media worldwide. Back then, he was fond of painting a slew of praying mantises, aliens and a whole pantheon of war machinery either positioned normally on the ground, like Rommel’s Panzer battle tanks on the Sahara, or floating in the air in the act of rapture or descent. Those were hot times.
But like a displaced Filipino in the East Coast, the struggling artist also felt the pain of missing home and facing an unsure future in New York’s embattled art scene. The product of many sleepless nights’ ruminations gave birth to his best work: A series of oils and enamels featuring imaginary Western cities and landscapes overrun and conquered by those levitating extraterrestrials.
The series did not live long and had a few buyers, but nevertheless he sold. Perhaps, he was not too successful because he was an outsider. Here was another Asian kid brought up on American video games and Japanese manga, translating his champagne dreams as hoary, flat-style versions of alien disaster movies like War of the Worlds or Independence Day, now “streaming live” from second- and third-tier art galleries in Manhattan and Brooklyn. This did not go down well with a largely American audience. But for all his efforts, he made entry to at least two museums in the US. The Met and the Guggenheim had to wait. Was his ethnicity wrong? Was the branding of the Filipino as artist not right? Or maybe the art market back then had not yet realized something? The answer is simply, that’s the life you have to face as an artist. Go through the flame.
But I consider that series to be his very best work. Sadly, only a few will agree with an acquired taste for aliens—and the different—in the unheard-of venture of conquering this planet. (In this regard, wish us success in the long term.) What is Concepcion up to now?
The exhibit World’s Apart at Altro Mondo Arte Contemporanea Gallery at Greenbelt V in Makati City runs till May 10 and, as earlier mentioned, this group show features only three of the artist’s latest additions to the lifetime oeuvre. It seems that Concepcion has dropped his boxing gloves and surrendered to more mainstream tastes. Wither the battle for the supremacy of all things underground, alien, illegal, immoral, pornographic, liberal, contentious?
He isn’t a champion of all these, but the latest series shows portraits. Now it’s wonderful how Asian artists have been streaming once again to the lost art of portraiture, perhaps following my crushes among the Chinese, whom I’d explicate further if this was a Chinese paper. But not withstanding Concepcion’s “Chineseness”—notice the yellow facial traits of the Middle Kingdom written all over him—portraiture may be a better way for the artist to regain that lost ground and lost time given up to those imperturbable aliens. There’s nothing wrong about the mainstream as long as it isn’t too mainstream, or else forget about it and go back to the aliens. Luckily, Concepcion seems to be able to read our minds. “The latest works,” he said, “come from my Melty Series.” Now, what in consternation are you up to, Eggnest?
The answers can be found on the walls. Alluding to a newer style is an error; this isn’t an entirely new style at all. If you kept your eyes open to the movements 10 or so years ago, you would have noted a series of encaustic paintings done by a certain wide-eyed student named Ernest Concepcion at the College of Fine Arts, University of the Philippines in Diliman. Those very early works were not as “melty” as the present, but the ongoing style is suspect to have germinated from that period. Now, what’s up for grabs? Top of the list at Altro Mondo is Untitled (Self-Portrait), a rudimentary self-portrait done ID-style, and perfect for the collector who loves artist self-portraits. Aside from that, the technique is fabulous; notice the strokes that look uncontrolled, yet are examples of how to control material, then seemingly giving up that control for more control.
In the Melty Series, Concepcion lifts the weight out of portraiture as a genre where it was said by certain New York critics two decades ago that no new nuances can be found. But these “melty” pictures imbue new life by imagining and making real how dried-up pigment would look if made liquid again.
The same virtuoso paint handling can be found in the two other works: Jungle Pants, which is another self-portrait; and Blue, a representation of a female. Why does one make things “melty”?
In these late works, the artist questions the immortality of the image by churning up the ingredients that comprise the whole by exposing them to the fire, like how gold is refined through heat. By melting the image, the artist returns to an earlier exploration of what makes a picture not redundant.
His answer is through difference, through the flame, a figurative flame but still capable of melting your esteemed selves like wax in order to find your deeper structure. What lies underneath these sinews, this flesh, these ligaments? What do you find after years of interment? Are we just bones?
Some say there is a thing called the human spirit or the soul. In the quest for what lies underneath, Concepcion reminds us to go through the fire, subject yourself to heat, and, perhaps, find out where all your various deeds are leading you to. Concepcion has been there, done that. Now it’s your turn.