a version of this is in the Arts and Books Section of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, August 9 2010.
From afar, the first thing you notice about Ruben de Jesus’ works is its colors. Reds, blues and blacks are rendered in various and unexpected hues that play around with light and shadow and emphasis. Up close, each of the pen and ink works is a story in itself, at the same time that all together they could be bound into one children’s storybook. Simpleng Buhay, Simpleng Kulay (The Alcove, Filipinas Heritage Library, Makati Avenue) seems simple enough in theory, but in reality it speaks of a complexity that’s in the artwork, and more importantly is beyond it.
The choice of the simple
Last year, de Jesus mentioned the idea of paintings on the simple life to Filipinas Heritage, and while they were excited about it, de Jesus needed to be given much space and time to do it. Sometimes it wasn’t clear how much of the work was being done, or even how many artworks there were going to be. But a year after, there are 12 framed artworks all in all, six in blue and black and six in red and black, each one working with a particular moment in rural life that might be deemed simple, if not forgotten, maybe a reminiscence, by current standards of city life and development.
The choice to do this exhibit wasn’t simple at all for de Jesus. In fact, it comes from a place of complexity: the classroom. As a teacher of Visual Communications in the College of Fine Arts in U.P. Diliman, and surrounded by the swift changes in technology that surrounds the arts at this point, going for the simple, in subject matter and in medium, seemed like the best idea to him. It’s proof that it’s still possible to do it the way of the old school and come up with relevant and interesting work. And de Jesus was right.
The simple subject, medium
In Simpleng Buhay de Jesus gives us works that show very particular moments of a life elsewhere, where parents worked the farm, and children involved in household chores. Men took on their share of chores: caring for chickens, feeding the pigs. A child is on top of his house’s roof, waiting for nothing. There’s rain falling on the father as he walks by a river. A whole family chilling on and around a duyan hanging from trees in the yard.
But what is interesting in these works isn’t just the simple life it invokes, but the simplicity of its medium as well. The expertise of de Jesus with pen and ink happens at a refusal to leave any space undrawn, yet all the time allowing each kind ofline to become shade, or texture, or depth, all working together towards a whole image that’s multi-layered and multi-dimensional, even with the simples of strokes.
The complexity of the simple
The simple though is a cloak here, one that conceals the more complex lives lived in these images. The father who gets fruit from the tree cares for two of his children; the one who feeds pigs carries his child in a basket on his back. The mother with her back turned isn’t made more complex by the fact that she carries a baby in her arms – it’s complex because she stands by a window waiting. The mother cooking is letting her daughter help in the kitchen, the notion(s) of chores becoming tradition emanating from the work itself. A parol hangs from the roof that the little boy was idly waiting on, a sense of Christmas coming, or its passing.
And so as much as there was reminiscence and nostalgia here, there seems to be a lot of humor as well, and a sense of how lightly things were takenin the old times, when people could hang out with family in many ways, where the quiet of the provincial seems filled with life, noisier than we can imagine. It is here that de Jesus is able to render the old contemporary: in the fact that he allows the old a melancholia that has conceded to its conditions without knowing it. But maybe more importantly in the fact that we are reminded in the present of how we’ve lost all these, and maybe with it, how we’ve lost all sense of the simple, because we forget that it is precisely what’s also complex.
Tagged: children's illustrator, children's literature, complexity in art, contemporary art, Filipinas Heritage Library, Ilustrado ng Kabataan, INK, philippine art, philippine contemporary art, Ruben de Jesus, Simpleng Buhay, Simpleng Kulay, simplicity in art, Totet de Jesus, University of the Philippines College of Fine Arts