Not-So-Last Last Full Show: A Review of Last Full Show | A Danilo Dalena Retrospective

Upon entering the exhibition at the Bulwagang Juan Luna at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, one may feel the sense that, even without having any idea as to who the artist Danilo Dalena is, conventionality would be far from the norm within these walls. One is greeted with a shabby carving installed on the wall with backlight turning on and off from time to time, a painting hanged at a questionable angle and another which wasn’t hanged at all, and a one-layer shoe rack, posing an implicit imperative that one should remove one’s shoes in lieu of civility to the master of the house. Welcome to the curious home of Danilo Dalena. Welcome to Danny Dalena.

It was over twenty-five years since Mang Danny last exhibited his works, and as if to quench this thirst of the Philippine art scene for his eccentric humor, the exhibition The Last Full Show was conceived. The exhibition, which ran for almost three months starting on the 10th of December 2016, occupying most of the galleries and corridors at the CCP, was a retrospective, unlike the artist’s previous 1990 show, which renowned art critic Alice Guillermo noted as “a survey”. This being said, the curators, who happened to be a married couple – Claro Ramirez, Jr. and Eileen Legaspi-Ramirez – arranged the works with intentional disregard to the chronology of when the works were made, but organized them in thematic fashion that elicits dialogue in their significations. Mang Danny has always been vocal about his irritation about the need to qualify his oeuvre into a finite sequence anyways. One exhibition label actually quoted his interview with the WHO Magazine: “[A]yoko yung binibinyagan ako. Meron kasing humahawak sa iyo pagnatatakan ka.”

The conventional timeline played by art critics (and now, historians) is the diachronic start from the 1970’s Jai-Alai, and Quiapo series, and the succeeding 1980’s Alibangbang, and Pakil series, to the more recent Port Area, Exercises and Kamuning series, where in each series note a phase in Mang Danny’s life, probably geographic and arguably state of mind. A common context being studied then is the uprooting from his rural childhood in Pakil to living in the “dingy and tough” cities as a “student, worker, and tambay,” and the succeeding return to his hometown, and the return, yet again, to urban life.

In Last Full Show, such sequence was broken. In fact, in the separate Bulwagang Fernando Amorsolo at the fourth floor, representative works from these series were mixed with various works from the oeuvre of the artist, such as editorial cartoons, and the Nude, and Toilet series in different mediums. At the center of the small gallery, ink on paper depicting toilet bowls (undated), and Tulog-Tulog (1975) from the Jai-Alai series, a big painting depicting a man in common wrinkly, fatty, grimy “Dalena style” on the verge of sleeping, were juxtaposed with Implosion (1968), and La Virgen de Antipolo (1969), which are non-representational abstract images, possibly of churches. By bringing together seemingly-unrelated works from separate decades, the curators tried new modes of meaning-making, allowing the viewers to explore significations on the artist’s sarcastic humor, such as this time, on the religious belief system. Non-coincidentally, this system is also taken up by the video rendering of Mang Danny’s Asong Simbahan (1984) painting by his other daughter, Sari, also entitled Asong Simbahan (1994), which was placed at the makeshift theater adjacent to the group of works previously mentioned.

Playing along the same line of laying out works in non-chronological manner, the first section of the larger Bulwagang Juan Luna at the third floor literally restaged Mang Danny’s abode, as depicted in his diptych Isabit si Chabet sa Banyo (1996). Paintings from the 70’s to 80’s were hung (and not hung) in accordance to how the artist selected works and arranged them around his home, transporting the viewer not only to the “gorgeous jungle” characterized by Mang Danny’s friend Erwin Castillo, but also to the moment in time and space when the artist became the curator. Home elements, such as the chair, the stereo, and even the shoes of the artist, were displayed alongside his works, blurring the line between being artefact objects and being works of art. Defying Susan Vogel’s fear of misappropriating objects in exhibitions, the objects in this specific exhibition were displayed, with their purpose retained: one may sit on the chair; one may opt to play music. However, what differs was that these objects transformed and became part of the signification mediated by the curators.

Guillermo noted that “[Mang Danny] honed his art in hundreds of character studies, figure drawings”, emphasizing the centrality of this classic procedure in his artistic process. A long line of these sketches and studies of figures in watercolor, ink and pastel (all dated between the late 90’s to 2000’s) were hung along the narrow corridor one had to pass through to view the main gallery area where major oil works (dated earlier than the studies) were displayed. In this regard, if one looked closely, one may have found a seemingly unnoticeable reversal of the artistic process, where the full-blown work were finished prior the sketches and studies. It could either be a challenge posed, or a declaration of one’s own personal views on the matter at hand.

Past the corridor lies a section adorned by the triptych Now Showing (1992), depicting the perspective of the movie screen, looking at the gaping spectators seated at the movie seats. With stools placed in cinema-like fashion standing across the paintings, one may engage with the art in a staring game with the figures. Are we watching or are we being watched? Who has the power of the gaze? The similar concept of the gaze is tackled by the work adjacent to the stools. A small makeshift room was built to restage Mang Danny’s restroom at his place. As one may not enter the room, one may only peek through a small hole, where one would find a bust of Imelda Marcos beside a toilet bowl.  Through voyeurism promoted by art, the viewer undermined the power of the ‘patron of the arts’ during the militarist rule of the 70’s and the 80’s. The one who toyed the arts for political propaganda, and who built the CCP from being just a concept was then the one being toyed at by art, the artist, the curators and the institution she founded herself. It was a point with risks dangerously accounted for by the curators, being in a country bastardized with dirty politics. Because art can wrap itself tightly with politics, the decision of displaying highly-political works requires a sensitive measure of the dynamics of the time: asking again, who has the power of the gaze?

At the innermost section of the exhibition, as if hinting how these works play central in the oeuvre of the artist, the works from the Quiapo, Jai-Alai, and Alibangbang series were arranged per grouping. In the Quiapo group, oil on canvas painting Kristong Hari sa Trono ng Ari (2004) depicts a solemn Filipinization of Jesus, garbed with the gown of the Black Nazarene, the patron of the Quiapo Church. Adjacent to it is a much later painting Let Us P_____ (2012), depicting a long queue of people waiting for the same Filipino Jesus to finish peeing. One question may pop up in one’s mind: “what happened to ‘anyone who wants to be the first must be the very last’ lesson that Jesus himself taught?” (New International Version, Mk. 9:35). In the Jai-Alai group, the betting hall becomes “a metaphor for the human condition” (Guillermo 116). The paintings Tres-Seis Dejado (1993) and Talo (1995), both later recreations of Mang Danny’s 70’s works, depict the betters moping at their loss along the old Jai Alai Street in Taft. Adjacent to them was Lubid (1993), depicting an aerial view of the waves of people in a common Feast of the Nazarene scene – a classic Filipino display of communal faith. The placement of the works turn back to ask: is faith a losing bet? In the Alibangbang group, paintings with the likes of Sayaw Alibangbang (1993), inspired by “a Cubao beerhouse, all smoke, sweat, and stale beer, with gyrating a-go-go dancers quickening the pulse of the habitues”, were displayed across sensual, bordering carnal, terracotta sculptures, insinuating questions on pleasure and the need for such.

Suggested by the centrality of these groups of works – the Quiapo, Jai-Alai, and Alibangbang series – within the exhibition, the artist, through the curatorial directive, tackled truths at the core of the general motivations of humanity. What brings us to do or make things? It is perplexing, and perhaps outrageous for some, how the need for faith was placed at the same level of the primal needs of man to urinate, gamble, drink, and have sex.

All the various works with their significations unify at asserting Mang Danny’s departure from categorized understanding of realities in life, the absurd operating as his pivot. As a matter of fact, the only thing he claimed himself and his art to be is “gago at totoo”. The exhibition, successfully freed from the chains of diachronic stipulations, and challenged the viewer to also look at the exhibition – the utilization of space, the selection of works, and the art of the exhibition text – similar to how Dalena’s works should be seen: a close and inquisitive look, thinking out of preconceived boxes, with full attention to the nuances of the voluptuous curves, and layers of fat and grime.

The exhibition title deliberately states finality, but reflecting the oddness of the artist being honored, the catalogue quickly claims otherwise: “LFS is posited as a grand unfolding rather than [a] definitive account”.

Truly, it was grand. With the help of Mang Danny’s youngest daughter primarily – Kiri Dalena, the team was able to amass an enormous number of works (more than 160 for those that were laboriously listed in the exhibition guide; the rest not counted), whose lenders’ names are enumerated in a long list at the back of the catalogue. A classic curatorial dilemma – space – proved to be one of the challenging parts of this exhibition. The family (and even the artist himself), perhaps because of the desire to make a comeback and a 75th birthday celebration worthy of the accomplishments of Mang Danny, kept on adding works into the exhibition. In influxes like this, as curators, it is difficult to say No, especially since the team sought to maximize the public access an exhibition at the CCP uniquely offers. Consequently, the temptation to fall into the risk of horror vacui came. But a second look at the goal of the exhibition proved that such is no problem. It is a very Filipino tendency anyways.

Truly, it was an unfolding. The exhibition was an unfolding of the unusual genius that Mang Danny is – his hiatus from needless publicity making it possible for him to create rejuvenated art. His art is alive and is kept alive, with meaning and questions unfolding every time a viewer looks at his work. The irony of the exhibition title and the opposing claim in the catalogue makes sense, because in the end, who are we to say that it’s his last? 

The exhibition ran from the 10th of December 2016 to the 4th of March 2017, at the Cultural Center of the Philippines

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