Tuesday ∗ 09 Feb 2010

Lack of irony in Happily Unhappy

a version of this was published in the Arts and Books Section of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, 8 February 2010.

A group exhibit such as Happily Unhappy (Blanc Gallery, Mandaluyong) has a lot going for it, other than the possibility, and the fact, of a smorgasbord of artists. There is the brilliance of a concept, the idea of being happy with one’s unhappiness, that can carry an exhibit like this to, well, brilliance. This of course banks on the infinite possibilities that a title such as this allows: what is it to be happily unhappy? Where does one take that idea, and how can it be configured and reconfigured? It also presumes a certain amount of irony, yes? Because that title is, if we must state the obvious, ironic.

But apparently the danger with irony in an exhibit such as Happily Unhappy (curated by Jordin Isip and Louie Cordero) is the possibility that a greater number of the participating artists would work with the concept in the same way, i.e., talk about the same kind of happy unhappiness. The irony then becomes less potent, less obvious, less than what’s expected.

Sameness in (un)happiness

This is what happens to Happily Unhappy, where a majority of the artists worked on happiness in relation to childhood: familiar cartoon characters and images borne of television and toys, childhood humor and sentiment, and a whole lot of color. There is an obvious nostalgia here, an overriding sense of how happiness is about bright colors and crazy textures. There were the more unusual images of course, of the religious for example (“Kiss Me, My Prudence” by Dexter Fernandez, “Cathedral” by Lulu Wolf) and the unexpectedly sexual (“Kiss Me, My Prudence” by Fernandez, “No Title” by Kreskin Sugay, “Breakwater” by Romeo Lee, “Squat” by James Gallagher). But by and large, the one-room gallery was overwhelmed by the same images, a majority of which are portraits of familiar and defamiliarized people and cartoon characters, and primarily the same colors.

This kind of monotony of course would ideally be broken by different notions of the unhappy. But not surprisingly, given the general agreement about what’s happy, the unhappy generally became a mere reconfiguration of this happiness. The images of childhood were mostly made unfamiliar by a dismembered body here, an overly large head there, some grossness here, a little grotesqueness there. To a certain extent, there is barely anything that’s memorable about this exhibit other than its seeming celebration of how adulthood distorts the happy images of and from our childhoods, to the point of it becoming the stuff for nightmares.

Irony in imagery and color

It is in light of the grotesque and ugly that some works end up popping out not because they are plain beautiful, but because they render the idea of being happily unhappy a little differently. Dina Gadia’s “Wig Murders”, a diptych, renders two vintage American female portraits as happily unhappy in its contradictions. At the back of each woman’s head are two bones formed into an X – the kind that’s used to symbolize poison – and yet both these women look as prim and proper, as respectable and expected as they possibly could within their eras.  Both these women’s eyes are without emotion, but each one of them is wielding a water gun which cuts through each others’ canvasses. With the women’s faces and blouses splattered all over with colored paint, it is clear that they are playing and are having fun, at least enough to let themselves be stained and tainted in this way. Only children, or the child-like, would allow for this abandon. Add to this the red and green hair that these women wear, and every woman could only see this as absolutely happy – in its unhappiness.

Katie Turner’s “Teenager #1” and “Teenager #2” are two portraits in acrylic and gouache of standard looking contemporary teenagers, one obviously male, the other seemingly female but really is quite androgynous. Their currency lies in the way they look: one wears a sports jersey, the other a graphic tee, one has a head of clean-cut hair, the other has teased bangs. While “Teenager #1” looks straight at the camera with nary a smile, “Teenager #2” has a very slight almost mischievous smile.  In the context of the whole exhibit, these portraits in black ink against white are unique in its simplicity. But what makes it stand out even more is its rendering of what is both happy and unhappy in these portraits: a splash of sky blue and lavender are drawn over the faces of “Teenager #1” and “Teenager #2”, respectively, showing images of a rainbow and thunder bolt, clouds and raindrops and stars, and what looks to be a whistle, all in what seems to be cohesive images of happiness.

These images of course are contradictory as well – the rain may be seen as tears, the clouds may be overwhelmingly overcast – but what works here is the use of color, and its effect against the black and white line drawings of two teenagers with blank stares. The basic images are already happy in its youth, which is the same reason for its unhappiness; the bigger image is both happy and unhappy given the dynamic between its colors and images, its blank stare and its randomness.

(Un)happiness that resonates

Interesting as well was MM Yu’s “A Few of My Favorite Things”, a print that looks like abstract work from afar, filled with dots of bright color and random shapes, but which up-close reveals itself to be a garbage dump. Obviously a take on what is ultimately unhappy about the happiness that capitalism and materialism brings, yes? In the context of an exhibit filled with works that had the tendency to be in-your-face in its grossness or distortion or violence, Yu’s work is one that resonates.

Jordin Isip’s three works, all portraits (“Blue Tangle Pink Shirt” “Looking Back” and “Elegy”) appear with an installation of four heads that look exactly like the faces of his portraits. None of these images are smiling; one is even an image of the back of a head. What is ultimately interesting is the way there remains to be an amount of happiness in the moroseness in Isip’s works. Thecolors aren’t as bright as the rest in the exhibit, and yet the light blues and yellows, the hues of pink and off-white, and the gray of the installation, seem to just be enough for the works to succeed in its assertion of our sadnesses being spaces of possible happiness, where colors may be less than bright, but are reminiscent of the possibilities of change and renewal, in the same way that the sky changes hues at sunset and sunrise.

In the way that we don’t shift from sadness to happiness, but really settle in this strange in-between space of having both and holding it in our hands, making of it what we will.

It is in this sense, and in the hands and minds of Gadia and Turner, Yu and Isip, that an exhibit that is premised on irony succeeds. Because these artists didn’t just bank on childhood and nostalgia, distortion and an in-your-face aesthetic, or a devil-may-care attitude. Instead they worked with the possibilities in which that irony may be stretched and reconfigured, ascertained and questioned, and in the end hit a core of what it’s like to be truly happily unhappy.

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