What I have seen of Juvenal Sansó’s work in recent years has been limited to what is exhibited at the art fairs, Manila Art in particular, because Art Fair Philippines is too—contemporary—to do some Sansó. Which of course is a very limited sense of what “contemporary” is about, but that is mere digression.
The point being that the dominant impression is that Sansó’s body of work is limited to flowers and landscapes, and hanging in the tiny art fair booth, there is not much to glean from the pretty.
Which already contextualizes quite succinctly, Sansó’s 70th year celebration, which is a retrospective of his works, one that cuts across seven museums. And sure there’s no State-sponsored art spaces, i.e., the National Museum or the Cultural Center of the Philippines galleries, but that just might be what this retrospective has going for it.
Without the baggage of the State, without the label of National Artist, it seems more free to do what it might, without worrying too much about maintaining an image for Sansó’s body of work, if not for Sansó himself.
Elogio del Agua is an unapologetic display of Sansó’s affair with water, one that might be easy to dismiss as a redundant display of seascape upon seascape, nothing but a performance of the artist’s travels: how many times can one look at the sea and think each moment different?
For someone like Sansó, it is always different. And this is not mere imagination, as it is moments captured on canvasses and paper across all media from oils to watercolor to ink, photographs and prints. These images travel from Brittany France to Bacoor Cavite, and certainly across many other seas and waters.
The power of this curation is that it is able to create a space for each work as a singular feat, even when it is so obviously part of a set or series, or more possibly a part of a specific moment in the artist’s life and times, where decisions on color and medium seem to be bound to very particular periods of artmaking as well.
But periodization is not the point here—and thankfully so. Instead curation draws the spectator into the mind of the artist, the decisions he has made to capture one moment, in a certain space, choosing which medium might be most apt for the task at hand. Across all the six corners of the museum one is given a sense of how this artist was brought into each moment of creativity, with a very distinct sense of color and medium, an exact style and precise strokes.
And this is what one gets from each of these works, all of them seascapes: that there was a very exact and controlled process that brought these works to life, and that nothing was done unthinkingly.
For how else can a whole slew of seascapes remain interesting, if not fascinating, for any spectator?
The dangerous waters
What one gathers from this exhibit that is really a tribute to, if not an elegy for, water—as much as it is in praise of it—is a sense of urgency. Where one might think monotonous a whole museum filled with seascapes, there was nothing tedious nor wearisome about going through this set of Sansó works.
It could have been the opera singers in the background, the ones who were singing as I pored through his darker works in ink on Bacoor, Cavite and San Dionisio, Parañaque, with moored and stranded boats, dark and haunting seas. It might have been the effect of moving from this space to that which holds “Frigid Beach” and “Olivine Turf” (both undated), and “Rock And Surf” (1971), which already seems to lean towards abstraction. Given dark colors, this creates a sense of foreboding.
The same might be said of the works that deal with issues bigger than these seas, and instead contextualize these in those that live relative to, secondary to, beyond, these bodies of water. In “Completed Light” (ink, 1962) and “Slow Dawn” (mixed media, circa 1950s), one is faced with the remains of a day lived in structures close to the waters, where the haunting is precisely in the lack of life in these spaces, even as we know these to exist.
Surprisingly, this same feeling of foreboding and darkness, is also in the set of smaller acrylic on paper works on the first floor of the museum, where a set of 27 sketches from 1961, 1963, and 1973 are gathered on one wall, across colors and moments, all together highlighting the uncertainty and instability of the seas, the dangers it poses, the perils these hold.
Arresting the moment
It is in fact these works that stand out in this exhibit, the ones that render the seascape as almost violent, as portents of things to come.
Say, the works “Stillness of Morning” and “Misty Lands” (oil on canvas, both circa 1950s), which, while bright renditions of two distinct dawns, also portray a fieriness in its use of orange hues, a foreshadowing of both danger and excitement, if not some outbreak of passion. This is also what “The Blaze of Growth” (circa early 1960s) works with, where the stillness of rocks and construction appear in the shades of orange that might stand for both passion and destruction.
The brighter, almost neon, colors of “Serendipitous Visions” and “Daybreak’s Glory” (both circa 2000s), while seemingly more playful, actually also register as skewed visions of lands and seascapes, where the uncanny colors also remind of the slow dissolution of the colors that are familiar and true about nature.
Obviously, there is a refusal here to portray Sansó’s body of work to have been merely about the pretty—because that is farthest from the truth. Elsewhere he had said: “I could not go around being an Amorsolo, painting beautiful things . . . there’s a limit to what you can do with that, and they weren’t facing the real problems of the moment. They were thinking of the pretty dalaga and fields and guitarists. I had to bring out what was inside of me.” (Philippine Daily Inquirer, September 2013)
And what’s inside of him, if Elegio del Agua is any indication, seems to be the
predisposition not just to capture moments in their natural light and color. It seems in these works that what Sansó does is hold a moment under arrest: he pins it down, cuffs it, chains it to the floor, refuses to let it go.
One can’t wait for the other Sansós that this year-long retrospective will reveal.