WILL NATURE STILL MAKE A MAN OF ME?, FINE ART ARCHIVAL PRINT, 18 X 27 CM. 2014
A Level of Land and Pattern
by Patrick D. Flores
The tension between the history of artifice and the life of materials lies at the dead center of Yason Banal’s exploration of things. These are inflected things, informed by either finical facture or irresistible weathering. However they are formed, these things are subjected to various degrees of expenditure: the force they keep is expended in one way or another, slowly but surely, and irresistibly so. That said, such an expenditure elaborates on the substance of the things, or make them so elaborate, to the point that the latter are exceeded by this surplus, so thoroughly transformed that they disappear – worked on, layered, and inevitably replaced by the prostheses of the supplement. This process may well ensure a third moment, one that follows the sequence of finding the thing, morphing it, and then intuiting its changeling potential. The overdetermined bust of revered National Hero Jose Rizal, for instance, is striped up instead of being outstripped, queered to perfection.
Consider, for instance, faux hard wood structure in pastel finish and mother of pearl inlay and canes of the same material encrusted with shells. The always-already mediated, animate wood is further historiated, so to speak, subjecting it to multiple moments of adornment, wrapping around it more skin and spectacle. Banal flits in and out of the intricacies, and intrications, of the souvenir, on the one hand, and the allure of the exotica on, the other. In doing so, he reflects on the intimacy of one and the incomprehensibility of the other. In this alternation, he transcends the duality of the accepted and the illicit, the pure and the corrupted. In his transformative imagination, objects are sharply distinguished because of the sheer density of their overlays, the burdens they take on so that their carapace could harden, at some point becoming intractable and at another becoming more open to dissemination. Such a constantly refiguring carapace, however, is rendered essential, seemingly thriving with bare minimum and in the same vein testing maximum tolerance.
On one level, the artist overinvests in the surface, the excess of ornament, and the bedeviling nature of appearance, its authenticity and originality and the opposite of the virtues of singularity: reproduction, mimicry, imitation. This situation addresses the productive predicament of a lack, a diminution. Such scene evokes Banal’s keen and abiding interest in art history, specifically its articulation in the language of minimalism that references the geometric and industrial effect and the gestures of paring down, metonymy, and the elusive contemplation of objectivity or objecthood. Moreover, such fascination with the minimal leads him to reconsider the sublime potential of land art as expressed in natural materials, landscapes, hubris, and the attraction of romanticism: crushed liquor bottles sourced from Philippine Independence Day cocktails in Singapore, the American Fourth of July commemoration in Manila, Baguio, Boracay, and an art gallery opening; Boracay pebbles; Zamboanga silica; Mount Pinatubo volcanic sand; Romblon marble chips; and Ilocos crystals. The object – the geopolitics of gems, the residues of revelries ensconced on tower-like metal plinths — almost becomes toponymic: it names the place, the origin is its nomination/nomenclature. It is known by its earth and the empires and regimes that govern and till it.
Banal frames all this within relational and intersubjective exchange in terms of human relations, social context, the discourse of neoliberal humanism, and certain shifts in cultural capital in this global digital era. An anthropologist has brought to our attention the notion of the “social life of things” and a theorist of the aesthetic has rigorously probed the “life of forms.” Banal participates in this conversation on the constitution of “things.” In a film installation, for instance, he mixes a Super 8 film essay with three hyperlink wall stencils pertaining to password-protected online videos. He speaks of folk art and formalism in the same breath, in the same way that critical theory is uttered in gay patois or an essence in the guise of abstraction or identity is cast as brutalist.
Exemplary in this regard would be a suite on abstraction. It consists of four pastel-colored impastos, soaked in acid, the corrosion, indeed the weathering, reversed and preserved by a conservator. Then there is another set of four black paintings in different brands (Winsor and Newton, Old Holland, Grumbacher, and Prague). Banal repurposes these brands as overpaints on yet another series of pastel impastos performed by him when he arrives in Singapore, the canvases festooned with original champagne-colored south sea pearls to conjure the complex and contested orient; the black overpaintings dry and harden – coalesce – in the course of the exhibition.
According to the artist, “the metonymy of minimalism and Reinhardt’s black abstracts become metaphors for other things not apparent or even plain absurd. Minimalism’s materiality is not necessarily self-contained nor objective, it’s quite nervous, also socialized in fact. Abstraction both veil and reveal cracks in the real.” Again, we are invited to ask the belabored epistemological question of “What is painting?” not so much to answer it as perhaps to think about why the practice of art, even its contemporary incarnations, belabors it. Maybe, it is the procedure of belaboring that actually matters. And it is the performative gesture of expenditure and exertion, overlay and weathering that, in the words of Banal, “material, process and context-based abstraction can trigger links to formal, economic, and social realities.” As Susan Stewart remarks, through the narrative “the souvenir substitutes a context of perpetual consumption for its context of origin. It represents not the lived experience of its maker but the ‘secondhand’ experience of its possessor/owner. Like the collection, it always displays the romance of contraband, for its scandal is its removal from its ‘natural’ location.”1
This proposition is set against the wide background of an ecology in flux where there is profuse parturition and irrepressible attrition, a depletion of nature and matter. Here, the photographs of uprooted trees in the wake of a strong typhoon become salient, juxtaposed as they are with an American government official and two paintings used as props in the photographs and then as artworks on display in the exhibition; boys in languor amid disputed natural history. Intriguing here is a possible post-colonial moment arising from catastrophe and the belief in the regime of art that is supposed to resist replication and yet guarantees the prevailing of its canon.
There is an instructive anecdote that may provide an intertext to all this. The Lightning Field project of Walter de Maria under the auspices of the Dia Foundation had once required photography to capture the sui generis manifestation of nature, of the vicissitudes of the world across a “monumental array of four hundred polished stainless steel poles arranged in a rectangular grid one mile by one kilometer in size.” It found the photographer John Cliett. In an interview, he reveals that “the pictures were a necessity. Their position was that you can’t have art without pictures. My goal was to make pictures that were so astounding that nobody would ever be able to make a better one. That the pictures would overwhelm the work.”2 The souvenir at the end of the day is the thing you take home, the sort that survives in this hypermediated atmosphere no longer as a trace to a reality but something like a “link” to a surfeit of still but promiscuous, even bare or unprotected, images, the access to which are regulated by codes or passwords.
In On just land patterns of drift will nature make a man of me, Banal pursues the elusive deep structure of the global image, the abstractions of its capital, and the stamina of the labor to keep up with its persistent algorithms and afterlives. In dispersing the density of appearances and the basis of their permutations and simultaneously compromising the condition of reproducibility by way of virtual design, this image loses much of its ground, as it were. Banal encroaches on the various methods of this hectic interfacing across wired borders and finally drifts into the nature of a hopefully still human world. The attempt to recover a level of land and pattern may, at last, require the incursion of the political, a horizon that can no longer be transcended.
1 Stewart, Susan. 1993. On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the
Collection. Durham and London: Duke University Press, p. 135.
2 Curiosity and Method: Ten Years of Cabinet Magazine. 2012. New York: Cabinet Books, p. 198.