By Helen Yu-Rivera
Abstract art came about in the postwar period as an iconoclastic reaction to figurative painting. Developments in the 19th century in the field of technology, image production and reproduction paved the way for its development, forcing artists to focus on the materiality of the medium instead of the mimetic. Abstraction was also a political revolution aimed at nullifying and shocking the bourgeoisie and their set ways and taste. The individual feelings and imagination of the artist were thereby given free reign in the manipulation of line, color and texture, its nonreferential language a direct opposition to the status quo.
However, decades have passed since this initial stirring and art has welcomed back the figurative, and the postmodern foray into mix/cross media works has pushed abstract art into the background. Ironically, what was supposed to be in opposition to the bourgeois lifestyle has itself become, in contemporary times, its language and medium. Abstract art supposedly negates the kitschy, campy, ironic styles characteristic of pop and postmodern art. By succumbing to capital and the market, abstract art has also found its most fervent adherents among the new bourgeois, many of them appreciating the form merely as adornments for their fancy homes. Where do the abstract works of a young Filipino artist like MM Yu stand therefore in relation to these changes in the historical context of abstraction? If the gestures of the avant garde have been overturned and abstract art stripped of its discursive mode, are her works then merely decorative?
One of the first things that struck me upon viewing MM Yus works in the exhibit Rescind at the West Gallery in Quezon City is the process of creating these colorful abstractions. Yu has almost always used bright, primary colors in her works, producing drip paintings that are studies on what she terms controlled chance and gravity. In her earlier works, paint was allowed to trickle down the length of a canvas vertically as it is pulled down by gravity. While the paint is allowed to a certain extent to take its natural course, controlled execution is done through the careful observation of the properties of her medium and the resulting patterns created by such. Her works, therefore, underscore the importance of processes such as gravity and weight and viscosity of material. Her recent works show an attempt to defy gravity allowing vertical drips and horizontal lines to cancel each other out. The drip paintings in Rescind traverse this direction of defiance and control. Instead of allowing the paint to drip vertically all the way down to the end of the canvas, the drip is seemingly arrested by horizontal lines. If one were to turn the paintings the other way, the horizontal lines become vertical and are, in turn, canceled by the gravity-defying drip moving toward the left instead of falling.
The title of the works in Rescind describes the dominant color used, such as red, yellow, blue or black. Yu relates that she initially worked with one color allowing it to drip into other colors, creating new hues. As such, the dominant color becomes partially hidden yet noticeable. One of the works featured puts together several smaller works to form a large composition. On the left side of this huge work, empty cans of paint used in her work are added to provide an interesting contrast to the vertical and horizontal lines.
In my reflection of MM Yus abstract works, I am reminded of what the eminent art historian Ernst Gombrich once wrote about the inadequacies of abstract painting. Gombrich wrote that when he seriously compared his reactions to the best abstract canvas with some work of great music, the former faded into the sphere of the merely decorative. For him, music is more than a configuration of sounds for the motif undergoes a series of transformation and vicissitudes through the dimension of time which abstract painting sadly lacks. Accordingly, abstract painting is akin to a chord in isolation which is all the painter could muster within the limited confines of the four sides of his/her frame. Gombrich was certainly referring to classical music with its dynamic/changing movements.
Abstract painting, however, is more akin to minimalist music which is based on the repetition of motifs, an insistent pulse and a slow transformation. Yet minimalist music displays harmony and beauty and is never completely static. MM Yus abstract works, with its repetitive motifs, do not reveal stasis; they are characterized by the movement of form and color, and, like minimalist music, are enriched by a confluence of rhythmic influences. For classical art, the end product was the object and subject of appreciation. For the abstract expressionists and many contemporary artists like MM Yu, the process involved in the creation of the work becomes as important if not more important than the end product. The shapes and colors used in MM Yus works undergo dynamic changes from the initial execution to the final result. In this way, the works are to be viewed in a kind of continuum where the past is an integral part of the present. The dimension of time is, therefore, not absent in abstract painting.
The works of MM Yu also allow the viewers to exercise their mental and visual concentration on forms and color. The formal elements transform themselves not as a series of drips and horizontal lines and changing colors but perhaps into a more poetic image of rain falling on a colored glass pane. Her works, however, evoke neither the reflective character of minimalist abstraction nor the angst of abstract expressionism. In her use of bright primary colors, the works display an almost pop appeal, fresh, young and exuberant. In this sense, her works have democratized this genre by allowing a kind of campy sophistication to merge with what has since been perceived as bourgeois art.
Abstract art can, therefore, be viewed as a sustained tradition inviting new forms, techniques and ways of looking, as proven by these works.