“In the Face of…”

A Portrait of a Portrait Show Part 2

In the wide scope of art history, the portrait may seem outdated. Portraiture in a historical sense was reserved for the elite. It was a sign of prestige, its end result regarded as highly as if it were the subject itself. Traditional portraits centered the art of representation on a privileged few. Yet today, portraiture is arguably one of the most democratized forms of artmaking available to us. In the age of selfies, photo booths, street photography, and modern storytelling, portraiture as a form of art has effectively changed. Free from the confines of social exclusivity, what keeps us clinging to this need to memorialize selfhood?

Mawen Ong. “Vik.” artist proof, c-print. 5 in x 7 in. (48 pieces). 2015

This is one of the questions posed by “A Portrait of a Portrait Show” in MO_Space. This two-part exhibit debuted its first iteration in November 2023, featuring 29 artists. The recently concluded “A Portrait of a Portrait Show II” opened this January, featuring another set of works from 32 artists as they deconstruct the idea of the portrait. What is a portrait? How does one represent identity? What has taken the place of the distinguished noble in today’s portraits? How do we tackle a concept as multifaceted as the portrait through an equally kaleidoscopic medium like the group show?

Julie Lluch. (foreground) “Trousers Worshipper II.” terra cotta and acrylic. 28 in x 24 in x 16 in. 2024. (background) “Philippine Gothic.” terra cotta and acrylic. size variable. 1985

These aren’t questions a single exhibit could fully answer. Yet among the different works on view, one sees connecting threads that weave across histories and narratives. Julie Lluch’s sculptures imagine the Filipino through the romantic ideal of classical sculpture. Classical in a discrete sense is Reg Yuson’s “Observer,” echoing the portrayal of power through the creation of monuments. In Yuson’s case, power looks sleek and cold. Nilo Ilarde’s work might be neglected without its label. A tiny coin – a “Cent of a Woman” in a literal and symbolic sense, tapping into the intertwining histories of women, currency, and colonial power. 

Manuel Ocampo. “Cringefest Bonanza: The Collector’s Choice Mind Kampf (Art in the Service of the Unserviceable).” oil and acrylic on canvas. 24 in x 18 in each (9pcs), overall size 72 in x 54 in. 2023.
Jonathan Ching. “My Blue Fur Hat.” oil on canvas. 35 in x 24 in. 2023 (detail)

Manuel Ocampo’s “Cringefest Bonanza: The Collector’s Choice Mind Kampf (Art in the Service of the Unserviceable)” evokes the past through the unmistakable lens of the present. More often than not, we cringe at what no longer fits the acceptable norm. Though how do we find what is acceptable or “serviceable” in today’s sociocultural miasma? Perhaps in a reaction to this confusion, we find Romeo Lee’s portraits – quiet in expression, yet raucous in color. This quietness also elicits other qualities of contemporary portraiture: stillness and fragility. As we see in the paintings of Mona Santos, Elaine Roberto Navas, and Jonathan Ching, the stoicism of old portraits has turned into a vulnerability that reminds us there is room to accept the tenderness of our humanity.

Diokno Pasilan. “Brgy. Gatangan” (detail shot). Mixed media. 59 in x 21 in. 2020

When looking at portraiture as a whole, one typically crosses the slim border toward self-portraiture. Even in the works of Diokno Pasilan and Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan that ostensibly examine outward social issues, we find reverberations of the artists’ own lived realities. Pasilan forms a prismatic portrait of Barangay Gatangan. He affords us a discerning look into its alleyways and channels. As an artist that highlights memory and material, we observe his own meditations through this portrait of place. The Aquilizans share a portrait of immigration and the plight of globalization, a long-time struggle the couple and many Filipinos are no stranger to. Clothes, books, toys, luggages – elements of one’s identity struggle to keep their boxed-in shape. 

Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan. Foreigner I (wall-bound) used cardboard. 183 cm x 153 cm. 2023. Foreigner II (foreground). personal belongings. 50 cm x 50 cm. 2024
Annie Cabigting. “Wound up chain of thought. A ball of anxiety.” mixed media. 11.5 in x 10 in x 10 in (size of acrylic glass). 2024

At some point, we can ponder if these works are portraits of the artist or of ourselves, the viewers. A balled up bundle of rope seems harmless on its own, but Annie Cabigting’s ball of anxiety suddenly has us fixating on our own anxieties. Suddenly the rope takes on a new meaning. Similarly, Mawen’s Ong “Vik” seems to portray an intentional moment captured over several photographs. To the viewer, the series becomes a protracted period in time, preserved for the same reason one wishes to save a moment by the sea in its infinitude. The ambiguity in the recollections of Pam Yan Santos’s “We Are All Children Here” leaves us room to project our own memories. Who is “he” to the artist? Moreover, who is “he” to us?

Pam Yan Santos. “We Are All Children Here.” acrylic, collage on wood with metal frame. 51 in x 9 in. 2023.
Mariano Ching. “shrunken orange head experiment series no. 1-6.” tattoo on orange encased in resin. 4 in x 4 in x 4 in. 2024

These diverse portraits are underscored by an ephemerality. Portraits are, after all, finite things. As Mariano Ching illustrates with his shrunken orange head series, one can only freeze these symbols of memory, as their ultimate end is to change. Change as in the work of Juni Salvador, spanning six years. Six years are condensed into two instances, showing the power of presence across the passage of time.

“A Portrait of a Portrait Show II” installation view.

Should we look at “A Portrait of a Portrait Show II” as a show of individual portraits, or as a whole portrait in and of itself? If we are in the end left to ephemerality, then it may be mortality that ultimately becomes the subject in all our portraits. The different ways we seek to portray ourselves are reflections of our finite nature, as we seek to define it, shape it, and in the end, give it meaning. It is this meaning that persists and allows however many artists in future shows and future generations to keep this long history of portraiture continuing onward.

A Portrait of A Portrait Show ran from January 13 to February 11, 2024 at MO_Space Gallery.