In one of the narrow side streets that traverse the scenic town of Lucban, Quezon, Leslie de Chavez puts the finishing touches on four paintings.
A magnificent diptych, almost thirteen feet long, leans against the far wall of this spacious studio. Small-scale sculpture cast in resin sit at the edge of a low table. But what immediately catches the eye— and compels you to take a closer look— are uneven piles of foot-long alphabet letters made from cement. As you walk around these pieces lying on the floor, you realize that they spell out a lament: HAY, TAYONG MGA PILIPINO TALAGA…
This statement makes up part of an installation for Buntong Hininga, Leslie’s homecoming show that opens later this month. For someone who hasn’t had an exhibit in Manila since 2003, Leslie’s pieces stay focused on the socio-political realities of Filipino life. Incredibly, he has found international acceptance. “I would rather stay true in presenting issues that concern us as a people than creating works that would simply make me another version of American and European artists,” Leslie explains. ” I have learned that the more you go global or international, the more you should take a firm hold of your identity. ”
These last four years, Arario—the Korean art powerhouse that has spaces in Seoul, Beijing, and New York— has represented the 32-year-old Leslie. Korean multimillionaire, Kim Chang-Il, who is also one of the world’s biggest collectors of Western contemporary art, owns Arario. He discovered Leslie in 2006 when he came to view Bikini In Winter, a group show of young Southeast Asian artists at the Alternative Space Loop in Seoul. At that time, Leslie had just completed his year with the Goyang Art Studio Asian Art Fellowship Program. Since then, through Arario’s efforts, Leslie has had solo exhibits in Korea, Beijing, and Zurich. His works have been included in art fairs from Miami to Madrid.
Leslie’s mentor, the late Bobi Valenzuela, legendary curator of Hiraya and Boston galleries, instilled the importance of producing art that would respond to issues affecting one’s own community. “I always look for symbols or icons, images, that can represent the Filipino,” Leslie states. “Siyempre, kadikit nun ang politics. We eat, drink, sleep, politics.”
Leslie’s works, especially his paintings, depict unflinching images of corruption, greed, political scandal, murder. Colonialization, especially the American influence on Manila’s street culture, also appears repeatedly in Leslie’s art. He renders his figures in what has become a signature, graphic, style of elongated faces, large, exaggerated hands, swarthy skin tones. Despite the brilliant colors, Leslie’s canvases evince a dark, shadowy patina, an effect he makes possible by using black paint as his base. A serious, somber, even ghoulish, mood permeates over his pieces.
Buntong Hininga translates to sigh, the universal reaction to frustration, helplessness, annoyance. To use Leslie’s words, “… it is what one does when a vehicle cuts you in traffic, or when people rob their neighbors who have suffered the onslaught of flood, or when the president and her entourage enjoy expensive steak while their countrymen are drowning in the ocean, or when politicians possess hundreds of high powered ammunition while their constituents cannot even go to school.”
For this exhibit, Leslie presents paintings, works on paper, sculpture, video, and installation. For the first time, one show fills up all three galleries of the Silverlens Group. The two largest paintings, LSS and Front Acts, are complex compositions, filled to the brim with disparate characters such as the politician running for reelection, the indifferent citizen, the goon. He paints four other pieces purely in black and white. For these, he details individual episodes in arch-shaped canvases. All his paintings serve as multi-layered narratives that give the viewer enough latitude to make their own interpretations.
In 20Square, the smallest of the three exhibit spaces, Leslie mounts Same Old Banana. He fills the walls with rows of 200 small, identical figures, each of a hefty, bald man dressed in a barong tagalog. All are painted black, save for one. This chosen one among all the other fat cat politicos lords it over the rest. Yet, we grasp that underneath his painted surface, he is as black as all the others. As part of this piece, Leslie installs a mound of unripe bananas. The fruits symbolize the banana republic, a country governed by a few, corrupt elite.
Buntong Hininga expresses exasperation and impatience at the state of our nation’s affairs. A sigh, however, can also convey longing, wistfulness, and hopefulness. A month from now, we Filipinos go off to decide on a new president. In his way, Leslie de Chavez reminds us on the gravity of this exercise—and what we have at stake. Hay.
Buntong Hininga runs from 21 April to 22 May 2010 at Silverlens Gallery, SLab, and 20Square, 2F YMC Bldg 2, 2320 Pasong Tamo Extension, Makati City. Phone (632)816-0044 or visit http://www.silverlensphoto.com or http://www.slab.silverlensphoto.com
(This post is reprinted from an article I wrote for the May 2010 issue of Rogue. Visit http://www.rogue.ph)