(SPOT.ph) In 2007, Luis Antonio Santos witnessed someone close to him slowly showing signs of memory decline. He remembers vividly how his grandfather and visual artist Mauro Malang Santos began finding it challenging to paint, up to the point that there were noticeable changes in how the revered cartoonist and illustrator placed his signature on his works—regarded to be the final step in finishing a painting. Following this event, the younger Santos decided to explore this harsh reality and fear of forgetting through his art.
"'Yong idea kasi ng memory napakalawak ng scope niya. Kasi ‘yong isa sa pinaka-fear ko sa buhay ay ‘yong mawalan ng memory kasi ‘yong lolo ko may Alzheimer's siya. So, nag-suffer siya the longest nang eight to 10 years, parang unti-unting nagdi-deteriorate memory niya. ‘Yong bandang huli, di na niya ako makilala. Nakalimutan niya na rin paano mag-swallow. Para siyang physical manifestation," says Santos in an interview with SPOT.ph.
Luis Santos on layering as a metaphor for forgetting and remembering
Santos, who graduated with a business degree and had no formal training in art, acknowledges that it may have been an easy route for him when he started dabbling in the arts as a painter in 2010 since he was exposed to it as a child, however, through time, he developed his visual language that responds to a particular worldview, specifically his own.
"'Yong process ko sa pag-art parang galing din siya sa parents kung ano ‘yong process nila… pero siyempre meron akong in-add na through practice din, through time. May sarili akong system. Pero ‘yong starting parang napapaturo ako. Kasi wala akong formal schooling. So ‘yong knowledge ko based doon sa studio [practice] nila [Soler Santos and Mona Santos]."
In his very first solo Modular/Variations (2010, West Gallery), Santos painted images of traumatized skulls that correspond to the deterioration of memory, an idea which interestingly comes full circle and relates to his current exhibition An Echo Made Tangible / (sun in an empty room) at MO_Space Gallery.
"[It’s about] traumatized skulls… may sakit ‘yong person. Kung anong nangyari sa skull. Parang interesting sa akin ‘yong image kung paano nagmanifest ‘yong disease doon sa skull. Ngayon ko lang siya narerealize na may thread pala ‘yong first show ko sa latest. Tungkol pa rin siya trauma, memories."
In hindsight, his first and latest exhibitions signify his artistic progress over the years in production techniques, but Santos views the themes and concepts embedded in his works as closely tied and not departed from each other. This premise is also evident in Nocturne (2014, West Gallery) and Measuring Distance (2015, Silverlens Gallery), both nominated at the Ateneo Art Awards, respectively; both exhibitions demonstrate his use of industrial materials such as galvanized metals sheets to make references to the structured and, to some degree, calculated and constructed environment of a contemporary city.
Santos narrates, "I’m trying to do work that has something to do with my interests and what is happening in my life at a particular moment. I’m interested in materials that are recurring in my everyday life. For example isang bahay na laging kong nadadaanan or mga type of plants na lagi kong nakikita. Kaya puro construction materials din ginagamit ko, yero, fences. Bukod sa lagi siyang present may mga metaphors din ako na nakikita sa kanya kung p’ano ko naiintindihan [‘yong] place ko sa mundo, universe [and] existence."
Tensions, contradictions, and distortions as Luis Santos' visual language
During the pandemic, Santos became fond of watching films and documentary series, which informed his 2021 exhibition Each time I looked around, the walls moved in a little tighter (Drawing Room Gallery). He used Venetian blinds as central images touching on emotions, such as suffocation and restlessness he felt in isolation. The use of blinds is a recurring theme in his practice, something he first explored for his first solo Binary at MO_Space in 2015.
"During the beginning of the lockdown, I would replay The Last of Us. I rewatched mga horror movies about virus outbreak, dystopian futures… I guess para siyang exercise in not being so anxious about the current situation. I also rewatched Apocalypse Now, and that's where I got the title of the work. May PTSD and feelings of detachment and isolation ‘yong character ni Martin Sheen [in Apocalypse Now]."
Describing his artistic process, Santos shares that it’s a trial and error method for him before becoming comfortable in dealing with the mediums he’s exploring and their technicalities, "'Yong oil painting na process ko kasi very tedious and time-consuming, tapos ‘yong process na na-develop ko doon [ay] very rigid. Minsan pag pagod na ako sa process na iyon, naghahanap ako ng ibang outlet. Tapos, interesting din kasi sa akin ‘yong behavior ng paint sa iba’t ibang surface[,] like [sa] canvas and smooth na plexiglass. Gustong-gusto ko rin ‘yong nagriri-react sila with each other in a closed space like a gallery."
For Santos, he considers his works a painting, a sculpture, and a photo where all ideas, tensions, and mediums co-exist in between, complementing, and building on each other.
About his prints on plexiglass, he explains, "Physical siya, rigid, tapos nagka-cast siya ng shadows, people can move around it and and people can interact with it. Gusto ko ‘yong works ko, they exist in between. Puwede mo sila i-approach from different lens, i-approach as literal tapos puwedeng ambiguous pa rin siya; tapos open pa rin siya for interpretation."
"[G]usto ko siyang mag-act na intervention sa space, and at the same time, ‘yong space at saka viewers, intervention din siya for [onto the] image. 'Yong works ko laging [may] dichotomy o contradiction,” he adds.
His artistic practice of combining the aesthetics and documentative properties of painting and photography is another form of tension found in the primary mediums he used for his works and how he depicts reality.
"'Yong pagka-develop ng camera [na] parang painting is dead. Pero parang opposite ‘yong nangyari. Parang silang dalawa ‘yong mas nag-flourish with each other. Kunwari, photography with Photoshop, so not necessarily totoo ‘yong photo kasi puwede ka mag-add and subtract. ‘Yong Photoshop meron siyang tool na paintbrush, so act pa rin siya ng painting, pero within that world.”
"Personal and collective siya e [our realities]. May parallels sila. ‘Yong notion na ‘yong reality natin is based on every person's distortion of reality. Parang nagiging distortions upon distortions, upon distortions. Of course may truth naman and may documentation pero kahit ‘yong mga ‘yon nama-manipulate din and distorted," he continues.
Luis Santos emerges from his family's shadows
From cutting out letterings and doing layouts for magazines in his previous job, then as a graphic artist, to becoming the visual artist known for his photorealistic paintings and layered images, Santos emerges from the shadows of his family name. Like his works, he casts his own shadows not to conceal, but rather to reveal something intangible, inevitable, and temporal such as the bittersweet instance when the mind can no longer hold on to memories.
He elaborates that inaccuracy and disarray of memory manifest as imperfections visible in his works.
"It was important for me to attempt to do the images as perfectly as possible but the act of keeping the errors is equally important as well. Ayoko ‘yong sasadyain na mali. Gusto ko 'yong mga 'mali' sa works totoong nagkamali noon. Hindi ko kasi nai-experience ‘to sa oil paintings ko. So ‘yong exercise na ganito mas naa-appreciate ko… Interesting din sa akin ‘yong habang ini-explore mo ‘yong painting may nabubuo ka na narrative sa process. Parang niri-retrace mo kung paano ginawa. Interesado ako i-translate ‘yong mga feeling na ito sa works ko.
Santos, in the meantime, visualizes and records the eventual collapse of memory, while he is capable of remembering. There’s liberation for the self in both.
An Echo Made Tangible / (sun in an empty room) runs from July 23 to August 21 at MO_Space Gallery, 3/F MOs Design, 9th Avenue, Bonifacio High Street, Bonifacio Global City, Taguig City.
Photos by Jilson Tiu