by Patrick D. Flores
Looming in this exhibit is a large work of ordinary folk, a woman chanced upon in a market in Malaca, initially caught asleep, then awakened, and finally chagrined because she was roused from rest. The shifts in the habits of the body reveal subtle responser to the day’s travails, if not its drudgery, and are discerned by the camera and then reanimated on the canvas of Winner Jumalon. This kind of encounter usually reduces the subject to a type, and so rendering it typical, if not altogether romantic and sentimental. But fortunately the artist’s hand does not reduce this robust moment of seeming banality to the exoticism of common life. Rather, he lets it play out with in a process or in fact a project in which paint matters as much as portrait – and the discipline of portraiture. Here the woman does not end up as a picture, and becomes iconic and most probably picturesque; on the contrary, she turns out to be – or into – both a representation and an index of its formation. We see a figure because we are afforded a sight of figuration as well – and its afterlife.
Winner dwells on the face, which he probes as a currency, owing to its capacity to assume presence and to claim posterity, a future that defies what social scientists refer to as the “ethnographic present”. There is potency in the face; it fleshes out character, rank and class, personality. On the other hand, it is also frail, fully exposed, subject to misrecognition, even defilement. As it is beheld as spectacle of beauty by idolaters, so is it desecrated, a prey of iconoclasts. It is mere appearance, veneer, mask. But it is also substance and spirit. In many cultures, the face is essential, a trajectory into humanity. In the Filipino lexicon, it is mukha, derived from Sanskrit, and is cherished as a source of integrity. When one loses face, one loses almost everything; the performance of self loses its theater: its postura, porma, palabas.
Winner is attentive to the many layers of the face, the telling signs of its surface, For instance, what invited his attention to the woman in the market was partly a kind of pigmentation colse to her eye, an aspect that becomes by itself a figurative device for the art, and not solely its effect. This seems to be his access to the constitution of the skin of the face as a ground that dis-colors and peels and betrays its artifice and its vulnerability. The procedure, too of painting consists of a kind of shedding of translations, from the photograph of the subject that is projected on an traced on to the canvas to the completed portrait of dense, Lustrous oil, and on to its disfiguration that disrupts the fulfillment of portraiture and frustrates the delectation of patronage and its reification as utter property. The artist deliberately intervenes in dispelling the illusion of completion, investing labor in making it difficult for the painting to pretend to coherence and laying bare a scene of ruin rather than an instance of achievement. Winner confides that this agitated gasture stems from his fear that the picture might overpower him and force him to cede his agency as originator to a product or commodity, which drains the valence of the painterly activity, the pursuit of painting, and, perhaps, the “purposive purposelessness” of paint. This is how the painter panics, productively.
Such anxiety is inflected with personal history, a childhood in southern Philippines with an artist-father, a family that painted, a house filled with paintings: early works depicting himself prancing through banana patches; student days at the Philippine High Sehool for the Arts and the University of the Philippines; and a current career in painting that is getting solvent. There is tension involved in having to survive and to survive through painting, conceiving a sense of dread and alarm over the end of the venture and at the same time the heroism of the vocation. It is in this light that the toil to unravel painting transpires, transforming the portrait as a veritable palette of impasto, drips, scratches, cross marks, finger/shoe prints, excess pigment, and other errors and violations that are actually the very details of a picture’s facture, its archaeology or pre-history and its prefigured obsolescence. It is as if the imperfect worlds of the subjects that are normally bracketed out and concealed become foreground, an outcome that links photography and painting as redeemed methods of observation.
It is at this moment of dis-order that Winner is relieved by the routine of painting, finding exhibition in the ability to free portraiture from its codes and the expectations of the public, assaulting the virtues of the norm with glee and grimness. It is here where his heart beats faster, his blood rushes, and his sensibility is kindled because it is here where he confronts a vexations; that an expressionism of this temper can become alluring for the art market and that torment of any intensity can be assimilated by a versatile trade of retailing images. The fact that the alterations must terminate at some point and settle into some level of concretion confounds the artist further. The thing or the object prevails, alicnated from its maker. And an exhibition, aptly named Face Values, becomes an inevitability, but this time displaying people who circulate in markets, markets, marchants of necessities and consumers of art, framed with in myriad formats and shapes, from houses to coins to the requisites of the white cube.
Winner’s previous exhibitions also reflected on the face. He had a suite of the faces of artists and other artworld figures, and his thesis pursued an autobiographical theme through a gargantuan self-portrait crammed with stickers culled from popular culture. It can be observed in his repertoire that his technique of distortion is external and not immanent as it is with attempts at caricature, grotesquerie, or contrived monstrosity. It must be because the artist is troubled by paint it self and not its so-called content: how it could enchant and disguise its materiality. The works of Winner Jumelon resist this enchantment of the picture through sheer paint; it is the medium of the critique as it is the medium of the vision. It conjures faces; it defaces. Wrestling with this fraught condition is at once valiant and in vain.