Personal mythologies: Demystifying Manuel Ocampo’s early works

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Manuel Ocampo has been known for his anti-art sensibilities and how he questioned the mainstream notion of “fine art,” especially in his early works. Previously unseen in the Philippines, Ocampo’s bold and stirring works from 1985 to 1994 are now on public display at Archivo 1984. Photo by CARINA SANTOS

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Manuel Ocampo is, among other things, an enigma. There’s something about him that feels inextricable from “mystery” or “myth” or “legend,” even when you do see him up close and are able to confirm that, yes, Manuel Ocampo is as real a person as they come.

Ocampo relocated from Los Angeles to the Philippines in 2003. Already glowing so brightly, it was kind of hard to see him. While he was likely greeted by voices hushed in reverence, because it’s Manuel Ocampo, some art lovers in the Philippines came to know his work first through his “vulgar,” sketchy drawings, a sort of anti-art art movement that actively rejects mainstream sensibilities, whether on purpose or not. The work that did shoot him into prominence in the L.A. art scene in the 1990s were complicated, image-laden tableaus, simultaneously beautiful and terrible.

Writing about Ocampo is always a little scary. You feel like you’ll read him or his art completely wrong — a strong possibility, as his art is rife with iconography and symbols, giving it a proclivity to be misread — but a tiny part of you is absolutely sure that he just wouldn’t give a shit.

Dolor De Muelas - Manuel Ocampo "Dolor De Muelas" by Manuel Ocampo. Noted for paintings that mimicked the style of Spanish colonial art, Ocampo posits modernist imagery and religious and political iconography, creating otherworldly pictures that take time to unravel. Photo by CARINA SANTOS  

Comparing his current work, which is sparser and looser, to his older pieces, which are more profuse with images, one wonders if maybe he’s run out of things to say. Maybe it’s a pointless question, but at the height of his eminence in L.A. and long after that, Ocampo had been lauded by the boldness of his uncensored critique of colonialism and its effects and byproducts, religion, politics, and the systems in which we continue to function today, as well as the skill and craft he imbues his work with.

In 1999, Phillip Rodriguez made an hour-long documentary on Ocampo called “Manuel Ocampo: God is my Copilot,” managing to get on record his deliberate movement away from his earlier allegorical work as he was living in Seville, Spain. On his change in direction, Ocampo merely said, “I was bored with that shit.”

Later, in an interview with Asia Art Archive in 2011, Ocampo notes the difference between the then and now. “I’m just having fun with the current works,” he says. “The earlier works concern themselves with the struggle of using painting as medium of expression and the entire hullabaloo related to its practice.” The change then seems less about boredom and more about an unburdening, a refocusing.

Manuel Ocampo Manuel Ocampo in his Marikina studio in 2010. Photo by CARINA SANTOS  

If you’re used to seeing Ocampo’s grungy and visceral work in Manila (or your copy of Beck’s “Odelay”), prepare to be stunned by the masterpieces he created between 1985 and 1994, never before seen in the flesh (at least in the Philippines) until Archivo 1984 managed to bring in select pieces for a retrospective-like show, which opened recently. In “Early Works: 1985-1994,” Archivo 1984’s two-story gallery is filled with paintings and even an installation from that time in Ocampo’s work life.

Through massive paintings like “Dolor de Muelas,” “Why I Hate Europeans,” and “Cooks in the Kitchen” — easily the scene stealers of this collection — Ocampo is deliberately loud and pointed in his commentary, working with a seemingly endless and exhaustive visual buffet of meanings. Noted for paintings that mimicked the style of Spanish colonial art, Ocampo posits modernist imagery and religious and political iconography, in place of and among saints, creating otherworldly pictures that take time to read.

One of the other bigger pieces is an assemblage from 1985 called “You Better Watch Out What You Are Saying In This Society People Are Quick To Crucify You,” an almost prophetic parallel to those who decry “P.C. Police!” these days.

Why I Hate Europeans - Manuel Ocampo One of Manuel Ocampo's earlier works, "Why I Hate Europeans," on display at Archivo 1984. Photo by CARINA SANTOS  

Another big piece, “Untitled (Ethnic map of L.A.),” is a map in a deceptively pleasant pale blue, with brute divisions of each area, marked with derogatory names of the majority of its inhabitants. Ocampo utilizes stereotypes and an often offensive tone and direction to jolt his audience into discussion. You read a painting and you begin to ask questions: What does it mean to blaspheme? Why am I bothered by this portrayal of this individual? Am I angry at the painting or am I angry that what it’s saying is true?

Not a stranger to controversy, Ocampo, whose work was pulled out of Germany’s Documenta IX, one of the most prestigious art shows in the world, in 1992 for featuring swastikas, continues to work against established norms in place. A vocal critic of the state of art in the Philippines, particularly of the auction scene, the overzealous collectors, and focus on the market and sellability, rather than on artists and the art that they make, his turn from these paintings to his later work of prints and loose paintings comes as less of a surprise and more of an inevitability.

In the same Asia Art Archive interview, Ocampo questions the notions of “fine art,” and how it’s “cloistered and preserved within institutions because they are stuck with the conventions of a masterpiece.” Perhaps he’s grown tired of making so-called “masterpieces,” or maybe he feels the pressure to participate in art in the ways people expect him to, so he doesn’t. After all, Manuel Ocampo is, above all, a painter, and whatever comes after the intricacies of his earlier work and the fun-having of his newer work, he will undoubtedly be still painting, whatever form it may assume.

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Archivo 1984 is located at Warehouse 1, 2135 Chino Roces Ave., Makati, Metro Manila, Philippines 1230. “Manuel Ocampo Early Works: 1985-1994” is on display until March 30, 2017.