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0 comments | Friday, August 24, 2007

Joey Velasco and His Art
Opening Remarks given by
Fr. Rene R. Javellana, SJ

Solo Exhibition of Mr. Joey Velasco
August 13, 2007; MVP Building, ADMU

Joey Velasco is the picture boy of the moment in a field, gingerly trodden by Filipino artist, — religious art. His compelling images of a Semitic Jesus dinning with hungry ruffians on a table of palo china or in an open space with Gawad Kalinga houses in the background strike with the force of a sledgehammer, awakening us to see again The Christ amidst us. The God that dwells—Emmanuel.

What invests Joey’s paintings with such vital force is their roots in his own experience: in his desire to be an ideal father to his four children, in the pain and helplessness of being confined in a hospital bed, in his encounters with a deranged woman or the pain he feels when the subjects of his painting, Mang Ely and Mang Alejandro, live on but only in his canvas because they have been brutally gunned down while tiling the land.

Joey’s paintings haunt because he himself is haunted by memories of the people who stare at him not as subjects painted on canvas but living persons in the canvas of his heart and memory.

Joey’s works haunt because in many ways what he has accomplished artistically is not entirely original. In fact, as aesthetic objects his works are very traditional. And because we have been so oblivious of that tradition, his works strike as novel.

Traditional first in technique. He begins as the Renaissance masters did with an underpainting in earth colors—ochres, siennas, browns, whites—where he establishes the tonalities and delineates the modeling of his subjects. Then follows the careful glazing with color that allows the tone to shine through while being modified as it passes through layers of pigment.

Second, Joey is traditional in his approach—philosophy if you wish—to his religious subject. This tradition traces to the early centuries of Christian art. Like the Hellenistic artists of Classical times he links the Christ story with the culture in which he moves and acts. The early Christian artist forged links between the Gospel and Hellenistic myths; thus Apollo becomes Christ, the sun the nimbus of the holy person. The Greek philosopher becomes the type for Jesus and the apostles in the 4th century sarcophagus of Junius Bassus. The tradition spreads through the Byzantine empire, where iconographers incorporate the complex color symbolism of the Eastern Roman Empire and the garb and appurtenances of rank and royalty in their works depicting the Pantocrator and Theotokos.

During the Renaissance, when Christians, especially theologians and spiritual writers, were deeply enamored of the Incarnation, artists saw the Incarnation as reason for painting themselves and their lives in their composition. Their patrons found space too in their works. Thus, the Medicis, Sandro Botecelli’s patron, appear in his large scale works. In the Renaissance, the separation between past and present is broken as the timeless, eternal God, Lord of time, lives within time.

The tradition then of linking the Christ story with our story is ancient and traditional. But if we feel a tremor seeing works of Joey Velasco it probably has less to do with Joey but with us. Our imagined world of Christ has been sorely emasculated by a sentimental, mawkish visualizing of the Christ of the Gospels. Many cannot erase from their imagination the picture of a well-coiffed, blue-eyed Jesus, who even in his Passion seems to walk on a cloud and is surrounded by angels that comfort him. This is not our fault altogether. The last 100 years or so of Christian art has been the most uncreative, especially art that is popular and has had the sanction (tacit or otherwise) of officialdom. It is the art that is safe and privatized, hieratic and aloof, decorative rather than provocative.

So when Joey and other artists like him (I think of the social realists who have painted Bible themes with one eye on the Philippines. Social realists like the late Timmy Barriga, Ato Habulan, Biboy Delotavo, Egay Fernandez, Boogie Ruiz, Manny Garibay, Karen Flores, Mark Justiniani) paint in a way that bridges Biblical times with our own, we are haunted.

Joey’s paintings, like those of the social realists, are meant not to be looked at, admired for their virtuosity or lack there of, but to be engaged. In this sense, they are true icons.

In the Byzantine tradition an icon was both mirror and window. As mirror they reflected us to ourselves but as windows they opened to a vista. Joey’s paintings mirror Philippine life in which the Christ is deeply engaged, but they also open a window such that when we see a young child offering solace to Jesus by cleaning his wounds with alcohol and Betadine, we are invited to open that window and jump into the world of tattered clothes, unspeakable burden, grinding oppression but also of innocent and unsullied compassion.

Painting may not build houses, they are never intended to. But if they become passageways where we meet the other, especially our brothers and sisters in pain and in need, paintings serve a social function more eloquent than a harangue at a rally, a repetitive chant, or a hastily scrawled graffiti “Ibagsak.”

For the gift then of opening windows, for the gift of showing us ourselves, we thank Joey Velasco.

with joey and fr. rene


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