Stepping into a space inhabited by Ryan Villamael’s works is a convenient way of teleporting to paradise. In “Locus Amoenus,” which was exhibited at Singapore Biennale in 2016 and at Biwako Biennale in 2018, monstera leaves cut from maps hung from ceilings and crept up on walls, depicting a beautiful scene from an untended garden. Locus amoenus means “pleasant place” in Latin, but the installation of Villamael’s clusters of paper leaves in unnatural spaces perhaps also reflect on invasiveness and the Anthropocene. When “A Paradise Lost” was showcased at Silverlens in 2019, the exhibition space offered a vantage point to a vast mountain range — a 20-meter scroll painstakingly shaped by Villamael's blade.
In Villamael’s body of work, paper is not a mere canvas, but it is the very medium. From elaborate latticework to delicate sculptures — this is how the public has known the artist. But during the pandemic, Villamael found himself returning to the medium that introduced him to art: painting.
A graduate of fine arts in painting from the University of the Philippines, Villamael veered away from the medium at the start of his career because of economic reasons and found paper as a more accessible medium.
Painting remained on the side. Occasionally, he’d pick up an off-cut paper and paint on it. Once, he shared a watercolor painting of a shabby house. In the comments, he said: “Naglalaro lang bago itapon ‘yung mga off-cuts.” But it was only during the quarantine that he thoroughly relearned and explored painting again.
Like his previous exercises, Villamael took the off-cuts he collected throughout his decade-long papercutting practice and painted landscapes on them. Most of these papers bear traces of their past, while others are adorned with ornate latticework. His painting exercise resulted in an exhibition titled “Vista.”
While his paintings are different from his formidable latticework and paper sculptures, “Vista” continues to navigate Villamael’s interest in places and his relationship with them.
“In ‘Vista,’ he attempts to work in a vacuum almost removed from the physical, from the volcanoes, lakes, and mountains that appear in these paintings and from the gallery-bound installations and sculptures that comprise his oeuvre,” Raymond Ang wrote in the exhibition text. “In doing so, he attempts to find a space for himself, a space where process can be therapy and art can bring peace.”
In an email interview, CNN Philippines Life talked to Villamael about his return to painting, his interest in natural forms, and why he keeps off-cuts.
I saw on Instagram that this series started out as some form of painting practice with off-cut paper when the quarantine began. One of the works you posted on Instagram was hinged on a painting you did when you were seven years old. What led you to revisit that old work and, in general, the practice of painting?
The process of doing paper cut-out started as a very simple exercise, born out of necessity to create something with any available material I could manipulate in the studio. At the time, I was doing all sorts of “raket” to make ends meet — from assisting established artists to, at one point, applying to work at a BPO — and having my own art practice wasn’t really something I considered feasible in my situation. That’s when I first started doing the cut-outs, in my small studio in Quezon City. Later, repeatedly doing the same process, I started to develop a muscle memory of the technique and I eventually abandoned painting, which was what I actually majored in at the UP College of Fine Arts.
When the quarantine started, I felt that same feeling of restlessness, feeling isolated from everyone and even from my own practice. That’s when I found a painting of a sunset I did using poster color on illustration board when I was seven. Revisiting the work and making it a jump off point was a humbling process. After over a decade of not really painting, I had to restart and relearn the practice all over again.
When and how did you learn to paint? And throughout the years, could you discuss your relationship with painting?
I remember when I was a kid, my mother always enrolled me in summer art workshops near her office. I’d spend my entire day there painting and playing around with material. She raised me as a single parent and those art workshops somehow became my “babysitter.” It taught me art and play. I eventually went to Philippine High School for the Arts as a visual arts major and later, as I mentioned, I majored in painting in college. After school, I also assisted artists who worked in the medium of painting, including Nona Garcia, who was actually the one who referred me to Silverlens and helped me start my own practice.
Painting is a practice that I’ve always been familiar with but not comfortable with, one way or another. For one, when I was starting as a young artist, it was just not something I could afford to do and papercutting was more economical.
The paintings featured in Vista are sceneries you encountered from your home and from your trips around Laguna during the quarantine. Could you tell us more about these places?
Throughout this pandemic, my only breaks from staying at home were the bike rides I took around our area. My friend Miguel Aquilizan, a fellow artist, and I have this specific route around the Laguna Lake that offers an interesting, almost surreal view of the landscape. Using that route, we’re able to get [a] vantage point at the edge of Laguna Lake, where you can see the hazy silhouette of the municipalities and cities surrounding the lake from the horizon. And behind are the mountain ranges of Montalban, Banahaw and Makiling. It’s a stone’s throw away from the city and yet you get two contrasting landscapes.
You took videos of the scenes from your bike trips. I wonder, is there any piece from the show that you made based on an image from memory alone?
These plates are all created from memory. I guess even taking the videos was more about emotional documentation than anything. Those bike trips may have subconsciously created a mental map of the landscape. While looking at the sunrise/sunset for hours and observing the environment changes as the time of the day passes by, somehow I was able to memorize/document not just the physicality of the landscape, but also the feeling of being engulfed in the space with all the elements.
The paintings in “Vista” are made on off-cut paper. And the silhouettes are interesting. To me, a lot of them are reminiscent of fossils. There’s an effect that these works are a record of the past. Did you further trim the off-cut paper to deliberately attain these shapes?
As much as possible, I kept the silhouette of the paper the way I found it, though there are a few pieces where I played with the idea of adding a more baroque “frame.”
It’s interesting that these off-cut papers reminded you of fossils. I have this habit of collecting pieces of disregarded paper every time I finish a cutout, keeping it in a zip lock or in a paper envelope because I find the forms of off-cut as interesting as the intricate forms of the cut-out paper. I guess that’s something I’ve always done, even when I was younger, that has somehow made its way to my practice. I’m a big scavenger and collector of things their original owners no longer have use for. That’s why I’m always at Japan Surplus, antique shops and secondhand/ukay-ukay stores. I’ve found crucial pieces that have informed my work at these places.
My 2015 show “Behold A City” is one example. The show’s impetus came from a 1970s travel booklet I found about Manila in a secondhand shop. It also inspired the imagery to an extent.
One of the things that I find interesting in your body of work is your interest in natural forms. Of course, you’ve also shown interest in urban forms with “Behold a City,” but I think you always return to nature. There’s “A Paradise Lost,” “Locus Amoenus,” “New Specimens,” and now “Vista.” What informs this interest in nature?
I grew up in the province, surrounded with nature. And since moving and living in the city, every time I visit my hometown, there is that sense of being reintroduced to that place. I always find myself with a different perspective on how to look/understand the familiar and yet strange landscape.
“Vista” was made during the quarantine. How has the quarantine changed your creative process?
To be honest, the past few years, as I’ve gotten busier with work, it’s become harder for me to work on things that aren’t meant for an exhibit or even a collector. But this series, I actually just did for myself. I didn’t think I’d exhibit or sell the work — it was more personal, finding a way to create for myself again, without thinking of a show or whether or not anyone would acquire it. I was initially actually hesitant about showing people these paintings because I really just did them for myself. At one point, at the most intense moment of the lockdown, I was making a plate a day. It became my routine and it helped give my days some structure.
Papercutting and painting are very different from each other. But I wonder, is there anything about painting that you also find in papercutting? If any, what are the similarities? Or how does papercutting inform or influence your painting practice?
I think in both, there is an intimacy that’s similar, both in the work — the scale, the size — and the process, how quiet, deliberate and meditative it can be. I guess what I realized working on this series is that painting is just another tool for me to say the things I want to say in my work. The way I say it might be different in this series but I think or hope there’s a consistency in what I’m talking about.
What have you learned about painting through this project?
I can’t say I’m a good painter. When you don’t practice something, your body forgets it and muscle memory needs to kick in. But at the end of the day, it’s just another tool. While doing these pieces, I realized I shouldn’t hesitate to try different mediums and that artmaking shouldn’t be limited by expectations. Pwede ka naman pala mag paint even if you don’t consider yourself a “good painter.” Malawak ang posibilidad para makagawa kahit sa pang personal na trabaho lang muna.
And what have you learned about art through your return to painting?
That art can bring inner peace.
Lastly, aside from painting, how else do you keep yourself sane and creative during this period?
Rearranging furniture. The same spaces can offer different dynamics and I find it interesting to sometimes disorient yourself with things that you’re familiar with.
"Vista" is up until Jan. 28 at Silverlens Galleries.