Toti Cerda: The Master Sketcher sketches the Masters


            “The first principle in drawing is concentration on essentials: the artist states his ideas with maximum directness; he resorts automatically to the basic elements of his art; and he exposes his sensibility without the decorative disguises that may be part of his finished creations. Drawings are often a species of visual note-taking, intended only for the artist’s own use. In recording observations of nature, illustrating abstract concepts, suggesting the outlines of a work to be executed in a different medium, their natural vehicle is the sketchpad.” Thus wrote the critic Harold Rosenberg, reviewing an exhibition of American drawings.

            In his show on view at the Galerie Anna, Filipino artist Toti Cerda presents a collection of his drawings titled “Bocetos.” A boceto is the Spanish word for drawing or a sketch, as “bozzetto” is the equivalent Italian word. Cerda’s sketches, however, are not mere sketches of landscapes or studies for the composition of a still life, nor are they merely portrait sketches of certain individuals. What gripped his interest and imagination is the recreation or imagination of what were possibly the sketches done by Philippine and Western masters in order to create their iconic masterpieces. In so doing, Cerda places himself, as it were, in the shoes of those masters. Moreover, he was aware that this gesture may be construed as a brazen act of over-confidence, as though Cerda regarded his own technical skills were equal to those masters.

            In the catalog essay of a drawing show curated by the critic Barbara Rose, she states that drawing is “a private and intimate art.” Cerda, however, conceived this show, naturally enough, for public exhibition. When he created his drawings –or rather, the “drawings” of the departed masters - he meant for them to be shared with the public. Cerda thus performs an act of “intervention” between the masters whose drawings (if they existed at all) suddenly resurrected, and the contemporary audience, now wondering if the masters had actually left any of their studies for posterity and history. Furthermore, one can stretch an analogy, but in reverse. When Rauschenberg asked the acknowledged master Willem de Kooning for a drawing which he planned to erase – itself an unthinkable act of desecration – the younger artist intended the gesture as a refutation of the very idea of originality: who is the actual creator of the work henceforth titled “Erased De Kooning Drawing”?

In Cerda’s case, there are the confounding factors, by turns, of reverence and homage as against arrogance and superciliousness. The audience may well ask: is Cerda placing himself on the level of the masters? Is it possible, in fact, that Cerda is an even more accomplished draftsman than the masters he purports to emulate? Were the bocetos of these masters to emerge on the market, would they be as good or would they put Cerda’s bocetos to shame? Such are the conceptual tensions elicited by Cerda’s own bocetos, while at the same time, eliciting the aesthetic pleasure that surely such exemplary draftsmanship will unfailingly deliver.

While at this, it is noteworthy to mention that Cerda is himself a master of another most difficult medium: watercolor. Indeed, in the “Hall of Fame” section of the competition “Kulay sa Tubig,” Cerda was declared winner above all other “hall of famers.”

Just who are the masters in Cerda’s own hall of fame? They come of course as no surprise: Juan Luna and his “Spoliarium” and “The Parisian Life,” Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo’s “Christian Virgins Exposed to the Populace,” “Edades’s “The Sketch,” Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa,” Vermeer’s “Girl with Pearl Necklace,” and Magritte’s “The Son of Man” (familiar to most as the man with the apple on his face). In Cerda’s bocetos, their iconic images better known are deeply embedded and affective in a mimetic and non-paraphrasal manner.

To his credit, Cerda is throughout unself-conscious about being a “Luna,” a “Hidalgo,” a “Da Vinci,” et al. He never steps out of character, while remaining true to himself as “Toti Cerda.” As an added fillip, Cerda sketches the portraits of these masters.

Judging from this “Bocetos” show, the viewer realizes that a humble sketchpad can throw up such jewels of draftsmanship…



Ricky Ambagan:

What Grows in your Garden?

“And the Lord God planted a garden eastward of Eden.” – The Bible

“Keep love in your heart. A life without it is like a sunless garden where the flowers are dead.”


It’s a seemingly innocent question which artist Ricky Ambagan dares us to answer, the response of which  reveals the state of our life. He has used the garden as a metaphor to contemplate the condition of humankind. A garden, as we all know, is a plot of ground where herbs, shrubs, ornamental plants, fruits, flowers and vegetables are cultivated. Our  personal garden is a piece of precious nature carved out and reserved for the nourishment of our spirit. In assessing the state of our garden, we are made aware  of its condition. We can  reflect on its  sorry vision of neglect  or exalt in its blessed nurturance.

Larger concerns, however, are implied by Ambagan’s meditation on the allegory of the garden. In three of his artworks, he invites the viewer to probe into the transformation of man, from his original state of bliss down to the contemporary realities that threaten our very existence on earth. Indeed, like a garden overrun by poisonous ivy and sickening weeds, our lives are now in a state of dissipation, despair, destruction, and virtually an invitation to death.

“Behind The Trees” is an unmitigated reversal to the original Eden. In this work Ambagan depicts the moment of expulsion from Paradise, when Adam and Eve, having lost their innocence, find shame in their nakedness. As observed by the convention in Western art where nudity is concerned, Ambagan covers their bodies with the use of a pictorial devise: a floating, undulating, serpentine overlay of designed patterns. The Expulsion from Paradise is, in fact, a classic theme in Western painting. Its most famous representation is of course part of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel paintings, but through the centuries, the expulsion of Adam and Eve was painted by the German artist Durer and down through the works of the Marc Chagall.

The sight of a contemporary painting on this subject, such as this work by Ambagan, seizes us with an uncomfortable feeling. For so long, we have been influenced to believe that the story of Adam and Eve was a mere fairy tale. But whether it is in fact a figment of the imaginative storyteller deny by the science of evolution is not the point. Ambagan departs from this iconic image to hold it up as a  mirror to modern man. From this expulsion came the curse and the onslaught of vice and all manner of evil that have brought man down to his knees. Acting on the gift of free will, he is given the challenge to rise up and transcend the misery of his downfall.

Almost Pop in the stark reality of its association with daily news, a forest fire envisioned by Ambagan is suffused and seething with blazing hot colors. This forest covers acres and acres of ground, which Ambagan now imagines to be in state of conflagration, where nature is quickly being reduced to ashes and smoke, ethereal substances that are now the remains of their once  towering existence.  The helplessness of two fire fighters  is a metaphor for the futility of man’s  brave attempts to overcome a force of nature gone wild and beyond control. Ambagan strikes resonances with the power of images to depict their dominance over our mind and spirit, if only to fill our cynical spirits with terror and fear.

The magisterial work in the show is Ambagan’s panoramic “Beast from the East”. Spanning a range that challenges the eyes to consume it in one glance within the constricted space of a gallery, it is a piece whose meaning cannot be obscured.  It whips the viewer into submission, demanding that we deal with the impact of its meaning. Bearing a compositional weight that depicts personages and a beast of overweening weight, the painting buzzes alive with the presence of its teeming powerful images. Dominating the aerial space is the mighty dragon, galloping haughtily as though it owned the world. Unless the viewer has been living under a rock these recent years, he is aware that the dragon is the symbol of that unstoppable power from the east that has been usurping our islands with impunity and to our utter helplessness and despair. Elsewhere, a pair of sumo wrestlers, suggestive of another powerful country, are in a state of combat. The sight alludes to the survival of the species, where the powerful shall have dominance over the weak, though this grossly overfed pair look just like each other’s alter-ego.  The puzzling presence of a mosquito coil and a food blender may not be so odd and mysterious. After all, from the perspective of  these countries, we are merely the slavish and voracious consumers of their goods.  As indicative now by the present crisis in the South China Sea, the threat of a mighty country may just as soon consume us.

All these images are projected against a seeming barren ground, with dried twisted branches creeping all around. Alas, it was once a garden, now sunless and a graveyard for dead flowers. The message of Ambagan has not eluded us. When the artist asks “What grows in your garden?” we should rightly feel uncomfortable, assailed by our conscience. In haste, we must restore our garden and bring back the sun and the field of flowers. Upon this depends our own, and our country’s salvation.

            A sage once shrewdly asked, “Did perpetual happiness in the Garden of Eden maybe get so boring that eating the apple was justified?” Like Ambagan’s query, we are stunned into silence.









  Much has been said about photography killing classical art, of how the function of art is no longer mere representation, but a transcendence of the experience of life itself. True mimesis has ceased to be the priority, has become mere affirmation, what with everyone having a camera phone and claiming to be an artist nowadays. How then can new generations of artists ever hope to be “original” or at the very least, not be accused of being derivative?


  The artist’s gumption to alter one’s perception of reality is what makes art relevant to us--it is not just a photograph or reproduction of what the eye can see, but an event wholly different from the actual. Think back to the first time you encountered a Kandinsky or a Goya, and recall the amazement at not just the product but also the process behind it. This focus on the artwork and the rigorousness of the practice of creating art is a big part of what makes the experience profound--tangible through one’s bones, as if you are there enraptured by what the artist has left behind, even if you do not see him break a sweat.


  In printmaking, the end product deceives. The audience does not see first hand the effort in producing one work, especially in the age of digital production. It might seem that machine has taken over man, that as with the invention of the camera, the human need to make things more convenient and faster to finish has surpassed the desire for art. But the two need not be mutually exclusive. For what is produced will have weight--the tools may make it easier compared to the process of lithography, or say, aquatint, yet the sheer inventiveness of the idea is what gives it gravitas.


  On the other hand, the use of printmaking techniques such as woodcut or stencil gives the artist ultimate pleasure--it is still the work of the hands that is most intimate, the gift of the creator’s indentation left on the page, as when one writes with a heavy hand so that the pages that come after it show us, however faint, that which came before it.


  In print, the cutting of any material, whether wood, metal, stone or paper, concretizes the abstraction, emphasizes the artist’s view of the world that is his own and transfers it into another surface, as a form of reflection. Each impression is now imbued with its own character, no matter the number of prints that come from the same matrix, for the act of printmaking itself makes each piece not a perfect reproduction of the original but in a way, unique in its blemishes and flaws.


  What remains in the end is the sublime, the corporal need to celebrate what the process of creation has left, a stripping away of the body to get to the heart of it, only to compound the essential with layers. There is merit in cave shadows after all, in a world where Plato’s Forms have become malleable. The spiritual is now an afterthought that lingers years from now, when memory has left thought, but what was once lost and regained through art cannot be forgotten, as with the works you see before you demand to be remembered.


-- Vyxz Vasquez


The Paschal Passerby


                        On the week after Easter Sunday, also Pasch or Resurrection Sunday, artist Robert Besana opens his solo exhibition at the Galerie Anna. The title is simply and mysteriously billed as “Passerby,” someone who happens to be going past something, especially on foot. The artist shares that his show is simply about man’s mortality and the transient nature of our life on earth. An intensely meditative suite of paintings serves as Besana’s reflection on the meaning of life.

                        Indeed, there is a species of still life painting known as “vanitas,” an assembly of inanimate objects meant to suggest the transitory nature of life. To be sure, still life painting has existed since ancient Roman times, as part of a larger canvas of nature, but it became an independent form when the 16th century Dutch and Flemish painters began to paint objects such as   flowers, vegetables, vases away from their natural setting, and presented them indoors, usually assembled on top of tables. These paintings showed objects that are symbolic of death, the most universal being the skull. These included guttering or melting candles, butterflies, and the hourglass or watch, meaning that time is limited and passing. The term “vanitas” comes from a quotation from the Ecclesiastes, “Vanitas vanitatum, omnia vanitas.” Vanity of vanities, all is vanity. The message is clear: all of man’s vanities and obsession with luxuries will in time come to pass. For this reason, we may be surprised to see in “vanitas” paintings, such objects of luxury as “rich vases, oriental carpets, gilded cups,” silk and velvet table cloths. Books were also depicted to imply that knowledge is temporary. So too were musical instruments to suggest that music is an indulgence of the senses, and that “beauty, wealth, wisdom” are all of temporary nature.

                        Are we justified then to regard Besana’s paintings as “vanitas”? Judging from the work with two skulls, unnervingly titled “Man and Woman”, there is no evading that it is a vanitas painting. The sight of the couple’s skulls insepararable even in the afterlife, still bound by the marriage vows - ‘till death do us part” - is extremely touching and not at all bizarre. In fact, we have been so numbed by the familiar sight of a skull that the controversial British artist Damien Hirst succeeded in shocking us with the ultimate “vanitas” – a diamond-encrusted skull!

                        In Besana’s show, there are two paintings, however, which conjure the works by the Baroque painter Caravaggio (1571-1610). Interestingly, Caravaggio lived a fairly short life – was he merely a Passerby? Caravaggio was commissioned to paint two pictures of Rome’s patron saints, Peter and Paul. The painting which Besana confronts us with is “The Conversion of Paul on the Way to Damascus.” The image is sliced, a sharp jump cut devise, which jolts us away from those early Roman times to an awareness of contemporary life. Besana’s vision is ornamented by the presence of a looming rose, starkly forlorn. In the Acts of the Apostles, it is narrated that Paul fell off his horse, when he heard the voice: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Indeed, the same may happen to modern man. One day, out of the blue, you may suddenly hear your own name, and there you go tumbling out of a jeepney, a tricycle, or worse, thrown out of an excursion bus, plunging down a deep ravine. The rose, too, which will inevitably wither, is a symbol of transient life. Through the example of Paul, we are anchored on the thought that the time for conversion is never too late.

                        The other Caravaggio painting is titled “The Incredulity of Saint Thomas”. The narration is based on St. John’s Gospel, where St. Thomas the Apostle, who missed one of Jesus’s appearances to the Apostles after his resurrection, declared, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my fingers where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will  not believe it.” The painting is a realistic depiction of Christ forcing Thomas’s finger into his wound.” Besana christened his painting “The Paschal Lamb,” which of course directly refers to Jesus whom John the Baptist proclaimed: “Behold the lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.” In his letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul wrote: “Christ the Paschal Lamb has been sacrificed.”  The viewer’s reading is ignited by these constantly intersecting and expanding allusions and references, attesting to the richness of the paintings’ content beyond their visible aesthetic appeal. Again, the specter of the rose looms, allusive of death lurking just beneath: Repent, for we know not the hour.

                        In the website “Theology Forum,” a discussion on the inspiration of religious art, a respondent remarked, “Death is our enemy. We were made to live. I want to live forever. But I cannot save myself from death. That’s why the resurrection of Jesus is so precious to me.” Thus are we consoled by the words of the Lord: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me, though he die, yet shall live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.”

                        Instructive still is the life of Caravaggio (the name comes from the town in Lombardy where he was born). The baptismal name, however, is Michelangelo Merisi. His biographers describe his life as “turbulent and tempestuous.” Socially he was “belligerent, rude, violent, a homicidal hothead”, but artistically he was “a daring rule breaker, who thwarted the classical rules of art.” His style of painting was called “tenebristic chiaroscuro,” suggestive of shadows and darkness, with the dramatic contrasts of light and dark, marked by “resolute realism, meticulous attention to naturalistic details, approachable.”  In 1606, Caravaggio had to flee Rome “with a price over his head after committing murder.”  The mystery of his death has never been resolved until some years ago, when his remains were found in Tuscany. Thanks to carbon dating and DNA checks on the excavated remains, scientists are “85% sure.” Caravaggio’s suspected bones were found to have a level of lead “high enough to have driven the painter mad and helped finish him off.”

                        In his painting techniques, Besana sought the same resolute realism that Caravaggio achieved, in a process that one can call, alluding to the recent Lenten season, penitential and punishing.  The artist uses, not the fluid and fluent paintbrush, but the tedious instrument of ballpen, limned not on smooth canvas, but on roughhewn wood panel. A viewer might think of it as artistic self-flagellation, but such is Besana’s passion for his medium that, once understood, the viewer can belie the labor of the execution, and share in the joy and jubilation of the artist’s creation.

“Passerby” is the perfect Easter show!






Matters of Time: What Matters Most to Arvi Fetalvero and Ivy Sinugbuhan

By Cid Reyes

Time does not pass, it continues. – Marty Rubin

            Surprisingly two artists, in the prime of their youth, in the pink of health and just now commencing their artistic career, should choose as a theme of their two-woman show, a subject that should expectedly be the concern of people in the autumn of their lives. But such is the power of time that it has consumed the concerns of Arvi Fetalvero and Ivy Sinugbuhan, about the meaning of the passage of time.

            Both are former students of Robert Besana, who is Executive Director of the School of Multi Media and Arts at the Asia Pacific College. Besana, like a proud and shepherding Big Brother, has taken the pleasurable task of curating the show billed as “Matters of Time.” Neither Arvi nor Ivy has had a solo show, though that in itself is just a matter of time. This tandem exhibition is an exercise in collective as well as individual contemplation on the theme of passing time.

            In Arvi’s Artist Statement, she writes with clarity and precision about herself and her vision, thus: “I identify myself as a Filipina artist and I strive to define my art practice in terms of the continuously evolving role of women artists in Philippine society. In line with this objective, I am currently focused on the study of the roles that women played in 19th century Philippines.

            “Recently I have become interested in old photographs that archive obscure but interesting pieces of Philippine history….I am a storyteller and my works echo my inner voice.”

            It is interesting that Arvi has discovered for herself the wealth of materials that our archives can offer contemporary artists. Indeed, it was National Artist BenCab who paved the way and the inspiration with his landmark series, the “Larawan” paintings, started in 1972. Hence, succeeding generations accessed themselves into this visual granary, drawing from them meanings, messages, and significations that only the individual artist can proffer to their audience.

            Because these archival photographs carry with them memories of the past, they are the perfect vehicles for Arvi’s meditation on the passing of time. Thus, in her work titled “Phases” adverting to the phases of the moon. She conflates the various images and roles of “Virgin, Mother, Queen, Crone” as personified by our ancestral Filipinas of varying ages to signify the different phases of life. In dramatic quadriptych, Arvi conjoins four separate canvas panels into one cohesive work. What connects the four female figures are the staircases that ascend and descend, intersecting and traversing each separate pictorial space. The art history student may recall its reference, perhaps unintentionally, to the ambiguous spaces of the Dutch artist, Escher. The gesture also suggests the fluidity of time, where past becomes the present, and the future recedes into the past.

            Between birth and death mankind navigates his life through its various vicissitudes. Intriguingly, Ivy has chosen the subject of sleep as a metaphor for death. Not the sweet angelic sleep of the guile-less and the innocent, but the turbulence of the awakened consciousness out of the deep black night. Ivy adverts to what is called “sleep paralysis,” with its fearsome word in the vernacular, itself a nightmarish word: bangungot. Sleep, of course, is a kind of temporary death; one never knows whether he or she will still wake up to this world, or the afterlife. Ivy translates a personal experience in a couple of works that reveal much of their germination: “She Slept and Chased Death” and “The Visitor at 3 AM.”

            The first unveils the dual image of a woman and a skull, rising in a midst of lotus flowers. The merging of a woman, with eyes intensely and dreamily closed, and a skull equates the moment of sleep as the time of departure into the netherworld. Without engaging the viewer in the physiological reasons for “sleeping sickness”, for which only a medical practitioner can speak, the artist has permeated her work with anxiety and poetry that allows her to churn the emotions of her audience. The second work is also personal to the artist but she ascribes the experience to a male figure. Shrouded in a swirl of smoke that seems to suffocate him, the inert figure is a hapless victim, who, in the deep of the night is visited by the Grim Reaper.

            Disturbing though these images may be, Ivy redeems herself with the work titled “The Endless Round of Rebirth.” It is a celebration of life and its resurrection, its re-emergence through the mysteries of nature. Birds, butterflies, and the lotus flowers, all richly symbolic of the passing time, festoon the space. They are in fact the staple images found in the 17th century European still life’s known as the “vanitas” paintings. The word comes from the Biblical reminder of life being all vanity, which will all pass away in time.

            “Matters of Time” by Arvi Fetalvero and Ivy Sinugbuhan should beckon us to keep still, and stop the frenetic whirring of the clock. After all, time waits for no one.














Wildredo Ulicdan

Christian Tamondong

Chriseo Sipat

Janelle Tang

Eman Servito

Toti Cerda

Roger Rishab Tibon

They Were Among Us

“They Were Among Us”:  Vincent Padilla’s Encounter with Time Past


            In her book “On Photography” Susan Sontag writes: “A photograph is not just the result of an encounter between an event and a photographer; picture-taking is an event in itself, and one with even more peremptory rights --- to interfere with, to invade, or to ignore whatever is going on. The omnipresence of cameras persuasively suggests that time consists of interesting events, events worth photographing. After the event has ended, the picture will still exist.”

                                                Raising the Ante

            And if artist Vincent Padilla will have his way, his paintings based on these photographs will co-exist in time together with the images that engendered his artworks. In a series of shows devoted to the exploration of emotional and psychological connections with old photographs, Padilla keeps raising the ante. He has, after all, no choice but to do so: looming large is the legacy of National Artist BenCab’s “Larawan” works, after which paintings based on photographs would be counterproductive, redundant, lame. BenCab had, after all, already claimed the territory, and to such magnificent results.

It is to the credit, therefore, of Vincent Padilla that, despite the daunting challenge that lay ahead of him, he has redeemed himself, for he had neither scruples nor doubts,  that his own photography-based works would reveal what the original photographs never did. He would transform his own canvases as a concealed camera.

                                    Pages of History

            Currently on view at Galerie Anna is Padilla’s solo exhibition, billed as “They Were Among Us.” Padilla focuses his lens, as it were, on notable historical figures, mostly public personalities in the arts and politics, so famous that streets and avenues are named after them. Plucked from the pages of history, they deliberately lose their time-line distance and detachment from us even as we relish our connection with our sense of history, where the past participates in the present. Thus, it seems, History is just a jeepney ride away.

            Understandably, the artist in Padilla ties him, like an umbilical cord, to such luminaries as Fernando Amorsolo and Guillermo Tolentino montaged together, the pioneer professors of the Escuela de Bellas Artes (among them, Vicente Rivera y Mir, Miguel Zaragosa, Teodoro Buenaventura, and Dean Rafael Enriquez), and in one iconic photograph, Juan Luna and Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo, with Dr. Jose Rizal. History as hero-worship is accountably evident in these works.

Interestingly, Padilla has maintained his characteristic layering of manuscript writing in reverse across the pictorial space, serving much like a subtle running filmic music in this these visual discourses with history. And as the manuscripts are hardly legible, teasingly puzzling and painstakingly handwritten, they seem like forerunners of the contemporary practice of merging words and images.

Other notable historical figures assert their presence: President Manuel Quezon panning for gold, Rafael Palma leading the members of the Philippine Independence Mission, all wrapped in heavy winter overcoat; William H. Taft presiding over the Philippine Assembly (where Padilla has brazenly interposed himself in the scene, painting the proceedings), and the bandolero-hero Macario Sakay, in  characteristic  long tresses, with his band of brigands.

                        Timeless Instrument

The viewer may construe that history may vanish upon the destruction of these photographs, paper being so perishable, for only photographs may prove the existence of a past reality. Vincent Padilla proffers his paintings not merely as a more stable medium of recording the past, the act itself being a reproach to photography, but as a timeless instrument created by man and not by machine.

“They Were Among Us” is on view until October 9.