By Carlomar Arcangel Daoana
Charles Baudelaire, the French symbolist poet and the staunch champion of Impressionism before it became 19th century’s most important artistic movement, described portraiture as “a model complicated by an artist.” For indeed, the resulting image that we see on the canvas—and consequently, that stares back at us—no matter how life-like, has undergone various modes of transmutation, not least of which is the alchemic power of the artist’s imagination. Highly subjective, his descriptive prowess is in fact interpretative. A successful portrait doesn’t conceal the artist’s personal imprint.
We see this dramatized in the collection of works on view in Mark Lester Espina’s third solo exhibition. Simply titled, Portraits, the exhibition features the various people that have crossed paths with that of the artist and have commissioned him for what is considered as one of painting’s most enduring genres. While the figures and their respective grounds are flat and monochromatic, their clothes—one of man’s civilizing instruments—are rendered in seemingly improvisatory impasto, shaping to the silhouette of the body.
Like some of the great innovations in art, this approach by Espina was accidental, arrived at when he was thinking of a quick visual solution to the still unpainted clothing of a figure. Rather than filling in the details, the artist attached dried oil paint on the pictorial surface. What he ultimately came up was his own take in juxtaposing figuration and abstraction as well as illusory dimensions and the materiality of paint. Since then, the artist has been applying this technique (this time using quick-drying acrylic) on portraits not only of the denizens of the art world (such as in this show) but on the models of some of the most iconic paintings in the world.
This technique, however, is not the be-all and end-all of Espina’s portraits. His deftness of touch and choice of the monochrome highlight the unique identities of his sitters, captured in a wide range of attitudes and poses—from candid to laidback to formal. After all, we, as viewers, still need to invest our belief on the artist’s credible optics. We may or may not know his models, but they still need to come “alive” through the works. Such is the power—and the paradox—of portraiture: pigment becoming flesh.
As what the title of the exhibit suggests, this suite of works is part of the artist’s ongoing series, his abiding repertoire. Portraiture has had a long tradition in the country, with no less than the National Artist Fernando Amorsolo as a guiding light. It will be interesting to know how Espina intends to evolve this visual idiom in the future, but in Portraits, the artist already dazzles us with the resulting complexity—and magic—of his figuration activated by