The art of Danilo Dalena and the Filipino everyman

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Aside from portraits of both Philippine urban and rural societies, Danilo Dalena also made numerous portraits of the people in his life, their faces and beings illuminated by his signature hand. In photo: (top middle) the Filipino poet Pete Lacaba. Photo by CARINA SANTOS

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Danilo Dalena's last exhibit prior to 2016's "Last Full Show" was held in CCP in 1990, nearly 30 years ago, but he never stopped making art.

A retrospective of sorts, the ongoing exhibit showcases the breadth of his work dating back to the '60s on display, and occupying most of two floors at the CCP — a buffet of Dalena's work, something like a time warp or a highlight reel — where audiences can glimpse, generously, what exactly has made Dalena's art resonant with the Filipino everyman.

Dalena was active in the ‘60s and remained as such all throughout martial law, having been associated with Shop 6, an alternative artist-run space instigated by Roberto Chabet in the ‘70s after his resignation from the CCP.

Along with Chabet and the rest of Shop 6 — Joe Bautista, Joy Dayrit, Rodolfo Gan, Yolanda Laudico, Fernando Modesto, and Boy Perez — Dalena explored more conceptual modes of art, with ideas taking precedence over form. Although more traditional modes such as painting are more associated with Dalena, his involvement with Shop 6 may have had a hand in his utilization of mediums such as fish wrapped in official documents from state departments, a parade of black shoes (“Shoe Story,” ca. 1972-1974), or a termite-eaten book (“The White Ant,” ca. 1970).

Tsk-Tsk-Tsk-(2016),-Jingle-Blues-(2009),-Belly-Blues-(2009),-Play-Dead-(2006),-Exercise-(1998).jpg Dalena's bodies are lush and fleshy, less concerned with depictions of ideal physicality and environments, focusing more on immortalizing what he sees as he sees them. Photo by CARINA SANTOS

The quality and character of Dalena's brushstrokes are distinct, but his voice even moreso, recognizable even as he tackles different mediums and modes of art, such as sculptures and installations, as seen in 1972’s “Playpen,” an installation for CCP 13 Artists recreated for this year’s retrospective.

Dalena also often works in series — “Alibangbang,” “Pakil,” “Jai Alai,” among others — each acting like timestamps of his life and the time he spent immersed in these environments. Adorning many of the walls of “Last Full Show” are sketches, some of which bloom into paintings, displayed alongside them. Dalena's bodies are lush and fleshy, less concerned with depictions of ideal physicality and environments, focusing more on immortalizing what he sees as he sees them.

Rather than just showing scenes from Cubao's Alibangbang or his hometown of Pakil, for example, Dalena works to evoke a full sensory survey, relying on the way he makes his images to recreate these aspects by tapping into a person's stockpile of memories. The painting itself doesn't smell like piss or dog, but you might find yourself thinking about what that smells like and how it felt like to be there. The hordes of bodies scrambling in a jai alai arena, despite not being rendered photorealistically, lends an air of claustrophobia. Through sight, one feels what it’s like to be in a specific place at a specific time, thanks to Dalena’s masterful portrayal of these environments.

Pambalot-(2009,-1984),-Playpen-(detail,-1972).jpg (Left) "Pambalot" (2009 and 1984) and (right) "Playpen" (1972). Photos by CARINA SANTOS

Altar-ng-Pakil-(1987,-left),-Isabit-si-Chabet-sa-Banyo-(1996).jpg (Left) "Altar ng Pakil" (1987) and (right) "Isabit si Chabet sa Banyo" (1996). Photo by CARINA SANTOS

Aside from portraits of both Philippine urban and rural societies, Dalena also made numerous portraits of the people in his life, their faces and beings illuminated by his signature hand. Scattered throughout the exhibit, and along a wall on the third floor, hang a selection of portraits of people in Dalena’s life, some recognizable to other Filipinos: poet Pete Lacaba, artist Roberto Chabet, and authors Nick Joaquin and Joy Dayrit. 

“Kung gusto akong tawagin na social realist, okay lang. Pero ayoko ‘yung binibinyagan ako. Meron kasing humahawak sa iyo ‘pag natatakan ka.”

What sets Dalena’s portraits apart is his inclination to surround his subjects with things that call to their personalities or character. As though setting up scenes, he treats the backgrounds in which his subjects exist as a part of them, too.

Many of Dalena's canvases have a dingy and suffocating quality — one of his skills was to present the very humanness of humans, to expose the humanity of those around him, whatever that may mean — but despite potential unpleasantness, one is held captive and suspended in awe.

“Last full show” is a term widely used in the Philippines to refer to a cinema’s last full screening of a movie for the day — marking the ending, something that signals finality. Although entitled as such, the show, Dalena insisted according to the exhibit notes, refers to much more than what the morbid implication may be.

Having been consistently hesitant to adhere to and wary of the boxes he has been placed in, often finding them to be what influences and limits the audience from seeing work with more nuance, Dalena likes to think of himself like “other artists who self-identify as gago at totoo.” In an interview with WHO Magazine in 1980, Dalena said, “Kung gusto akong tawagin na social realist, okay lang. Pero ayoko ‘yung binibinyagan ako. Meron kasing humahawak sa iyo ‘pag natatakan ka.”

Shoe-Story-(c1972-1974),-Dalaw-(background,-1996),-wood-feature-from-Dalena-ancestrall-house-in-Pakil,-Laguna-(designed-by-Danilo-Dalena).jpg (Left) "Shoe Story" (ca. 1972-1974), (center) "Dalaw" (1996), and (right) a wood feature from the Dalena ancestral house in Pakil, Laguna, designed by Dalena. Photo by CARINA SANTOS

With his eye turned towards more absurdities, Dalena recaptures the life and times of the Filipino as he sees it, not exactly an offering of his own socio-political commentary, rather what feels like a kind of blessing of his own observations, redone with his own nuanced expression.

 

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“Last Full Show” is on display at the Cultural Center of the Philippines until March 4, 2017. The exhibit will also be having its closing reception and final walkthrough on the same day, from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. at the 3rd and 4th levels of CCP.