Passage and Revelation in Mark Valenzuela's Warzone

Catalogue Essay by Riel Hilario
Warzone, Galleria Duemila, Metro Manila, Philippines, 2007

For most contemporary Filipino artists the first solo exhibition is a rite of passage. While essentially a preview or a showcase of first works, it also marks the beginning of a long relationship with art-making and the initiation into the artistic career. The artist’s ego or identity is born at that moment, another life-long process. Finally it is the first of many open performances, of presentations of one’s work for the enjoyment, judgment and consumption of the viewing art public.

Everyone expects the first-one man show to go out with a bang (sold out works, good critical reviews) but there are no guarantees. The public can either love or abhor, ignore or deny the artworks and the artist. Without much precedence, much of the factors are left to chance, luck or fate. It is sink or swim for the young artist.

There are different levels of preparedness for the first one-man show. Others do not prepare at all and leave everything to fate (or to their family and peers). Some take the risky but sure-fire shot at the art competitions; the recall of being a winner prepares the ego to undertake the task of forming a first body of work. The solo show is a mere follow-up of gains already achieved.

Still others take the long path of working first on a body of work. They introduce themselves in several group shows, or may also take chances in the art contests. It is a hard path since no rave nor recall precedes their presence and sometimes they enter into the art scene quietly, placing their faith in their artistic works alone and what they could offer to the public’s lives.

Young artist Mark Valenzuela takes the latter path in organizing his first solo exhibition at the Galeria Duemila in July 2007. But the young artist is not a maverick who comes out of the cold. At 26 Valenzuela has participated in noteworthy group exhibitions such as the Dumaguete Terracotta Open Biennial (2005, 2007), Dula sa Lapuk (Cultural Center of the Philippines, 2005) and the Festival of the Forest (Palawan, 2007) where he was with the prestigious company of established artists Pandy Aviado, Gus Albor and National Artist Ben Cabrera. He has also curated a number of shows at the Mariyah Gallery in Dumaguete since 2006.

Valenzuela is unfazed with his first major exhibition. If one sees an artistic career as a series of artistic projects over one’s life, then the young artist considers this as just one of these projects. Yet the significance of the first solo show is ultimately not in its aftermath or reception or sales. For the young artist it simply means the existential choice has been made – he has decided his fate, he has chosen the creative life.

That choice is the foreground experience for Valenzuela.

Choice, they say, is shaped by circumstance. Jean-Paul Sartre calls these “pre-set” conditions that one is born into as one’s “facticity” and they include parents, family, social class, physiology and formative experiences.

Valenzuela was born in Pagadian in Mindanao in 1980. His father was a commissioned soldier of the Philippine Army and for a time the family moved to the location where he was stationed. The young artist remembers their former itinerant life from Pagadian to Basilan, Sulu, Agusan and back to Pagadian where they settled for good. His father gained the rank of Master Sergeant, and preferred to be a non-commissioned officer doing work in the office than in the field. By that time Valenzuela was already in high school.

There were no artists, nor mention of any creative field in Valenzuela’s home. “My family is a traditional one,” says the artist. ”My parents told us to study, graduate, find a stable job and retire. There was emphasis on finding security.” Entering college Valenzuela was asked to take up Accounting at the Silliman University in Dumaguete. Two years later he dropped out and earned his father’s chagrin when he decided to take up Engineering – which was the closest thing the University had to Fine Arts. He had discovered art through peers in college and by discovering latent creativity and skill, he joined his friends in larks and “rackets” of painting jobs, design, mural-making. He frequented the Mariyah Gallery, one of the more progressive art spaces in the area which was run by sibling artists Kitty Taniguchi and Danilo Sollesta. He also read art books with earnest.

In 2002 the young artist met the independent curator Bobi Valenzuela and he was immediately drawn to the latter’s conversations on socially conscious art practice. Bobi’s approach was anchored more on coaching young artists to find their individual expressions and to empower art by gaining insight into contemporary society’s conditions. Valenzuela acknowledges Bobi’s mentorship by example and in his visits to Manila, both would go around commercial galleries and discuss the merits of an exhibition or artwork.

“Bobi provided me orientation in art making,” testifies Valenzuela. ”He would cite examples and tell personal stories of his encounters with the artists he has curated or coached with the likes of Elmer Borlongan, Mark Justiniani among others.”

The Terracotta Prelude
Valenzuela began his artistic works with paintings and drawings. His initial series incorporated images of plastic toy soldiers and other implements of war vis-à-vis bodies and landscapes of standing or reclining figures.

But after 2002 Valenzuela began producing sculptural works in terracotta, of which he makes installations and site-specific works. Terracotta was originally part of a research project he had undertaken as an Engineering student at Silliman. He frequented the Daro pottery community in Dumaguete to gain network and information on the traditional terra cotta processes. By 2003-2004 Mariyah Gallery had began to establish forays into large-scale terracotta sculptures which culminated in the organization of the first Terracotta Open Biennial, of which Valenzuela took part.

Valenzuela’s terra cotta works are mostly modular pieces intended for installations. The volume of work produced by the young artist borders on prolific. “Terracotta is an interesting and readily-available medium,” he says. “But it is also one material that is not extensively explored by local artists.”

War Zone
Valenzuela’s first solo show is titled “Warzone” and is concerned with theme of inner strife and outward conflicts. It is a collection of works on paper and a modular installation of terracotta masks.

The majority of his paper works are pen and ink figure drawings interspersed with localized washes of ink or colored pigment; the ground appear fluid, blotted or stippled with paint while the paper was still damp. “Dry” medium is applied on top of the “fluid” paper, creating a foreground that is the locus of action and symbol.

The works depict scenes of conflict; battles between plastic toy soldiers, action figures and vehicles of war (war planes, choppers, assault vehicles) in intense combat. In some instances human figures appear, as casualties, victims and even the originators of these dream-battles. The logic of the battle scenes mimics the free-flowing non-consequentiality of a child’s solitary play. Warriors wielding swords from ancient times are pitted against WWII soldiers with automatic rifles and grenades. Even bizarre are the three-way battles between robots, warriors and soldiers. The adult mind can only see inconsistencies and lopsidedness in these battles but to a child it is the action, the heroic moves and the intensity of the battle itself which excites the imagination. The resolution of conflict is not the purpose of the play.

Valenzuela explains that these scenes are expressions of imagined internal battles of the ego. His choice of symbols is often dictated by a need for immediate communication; by appropriating images from the world of ordinary, everyday objects he intends to make his visual elements “easy on the eye”, for recall. It is the composition that carries the overall weight of his message.

The ego, being a public mask of an individual is a construct of the mind. Psychologist Carl Jung says it is the “face we put up in public” as a defensive response to protect our core personality. It is our conformist aspect and it functions in accordance to the norms of society. The construction of the ego meant we have to set aside unsocial behavior, secret desires and habits, deep hatred and anger, but also much of our natural spontaneity. This “setting aside” creates the shadow part of our psyche. The shadow balances the ego and often our consciousness is caught in between the demands of both. Inside our minds is a battlefield between the conformity and spontaneity, between our civilized and savage desires. Jung also says the battles “spill over” into real life because our psyche cannot contain such strife within. It is simply too painful. To ease the tension we “project” our shadow onto other people. We react brusquely, Jung says, to a person who demonstrates our hidden desires. When we deeply harbor a penchant for vulgarity our ego reacts when witnessing people who are loud, irritating and shallow. We show our displeasure, it is seen by the other and the once-internal battle is now open conflict. Worse, says Jung, when the collective shadow operates as a projection onto another group of people, like in the case of the Nazi Germans in their hate-campaign and genocide against the Jews in WWII. The Nazis operationalized a long-standing deep-seated resentment against the Jews, who as close-knit communities of bankers and merchants, were seen as usurpers, evil puppet-masters, and plotters to overthrow national governments.

Valenzuela’s works on paper and in terracotta tries to give visual expression to the strife of the imagination and self as potential roots of public and mass conflict. The covered faces of his terracotta heads imply “mystery and unfamiliarity” with the true nature of our companions and colleagues. This image of the veiled and the obscure point out to the incomprehensible nature of otherness as potential cause of our social tensions.

Art as alethea
In War Zone Valenzuela has taken the position of revealer of the “worlds-behind-the-scenes”. Artistic exposition of personal and social conflict notwithstanding the young artist offers no solution. His current work functions as alethea: an unfolding, an exposure, a revelation of a discomforting truth. Far however from “conscientizing”, in a re-phrasing of Paolo Freire’s concept of art as teaching tool, Valenzuela’s expose is not towards public change but is a forceful expression bent on encouraging catharsis in the heart and mind. Catharsis is a Greek concept associated with watching tragedy. It is said that by watching suffering and painful truths about life, one identifies with the pain and terror and thus liberates the consciousness from the fear of suffering in his own personal life. What, indeed does he have to be afraid of? Tragedy shows that all men suffer and that through compassion we are liberated from it.

Similarly Valenzuela’s first works is a study in cathartic imagery. We are encouraged to see within us the division, the strife and the pain of conflict. The gauntlet of self-understanding is the first instance towards enlightenment and authenticity. In the same manner as War Zone is Mark Valenzuela’s first instance of unfolding of artistic resolve, it can also be our first step into self-understanding.