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Silverlens: A Paradise Lost / Watchfire

  • Silverlens 2263 Don Chino Roces Avenue Extension Makati City 1231 Philippines (map)

A Paradise Lost
Ryan Villamael

SILVERLENS welcomes the new year with the show A Paradise Lost, Ryan Villamael’s 7th solo exhibition in the gallery. For this presentation, Villamael will premiere a new body of work that builds upon his ongoing dialogue with the contentious subject of Philippine History.

Villamael’s fascination with history began when he came across some early maps where the idea of ‘The Philippines’ first started to appear, which at that period could be seen as just a random scattering of nearby islands, with various tribes (warring and friendly) that were forced into a single, unified entity by an external power. This set forth more than three centuries of foreign rule that effectively dissolved all but a few links to our pre-colonial origins. For Villamael, this fraught relationship with history is a powerful driving force that sets fire to his nagging desire to read and know more, to dig deeper and sort through the entanglements of hearsay and facts, and from there begin to piece together a picture that may shed light to how we, as people, ended up where we are today.

With A Paradise Lost, Villamael returns to the intimacy of paper; hand cut, made intuitively and in isolation. Presented as a set of unfurled scrolls, which in total spans close to 20 meters stretched across the length of the gallery’s inner walls, the work evokes a faint horizon seen from a distance, a distance that it is keen to preserve. As even up close, it remains elusive; blank, still, and nearly empty. While ancient scrolls served as one of humanity’s earliest forms of editable record keeping, Villamael’s sheets remain thoroughly white yet not unmarked: it contains a thoughtful and evocative lament not written in ink but is encoded by blade. From his earliest works on, Villamael has employed the process of paper cutting to create images, confer stories and ask questions through the calculated use of negative space. Here he sliced and nibbled away slowly through the paper, creating a network of lines that mirrors how certain pests burrow and eat their way through old books, leaving a distinct pattern of holes, pathways and tunnels across the pages. And while images of hole-riddled pages and destroyed books carry with them the melancholy air of information forever lost, here they translate to the actual content that informs and cuts through the blankness of the page.

Still in another light, the patterns could just as well be seen as overgrown sprouts of wild vegetation, hopeful and alive as they creep their way up through the rubble of an unseen, perhaps fractured world below the horizon.

Jon Pettyjohn, Tessy Pettyjohn, Shozo Michikawa, Joey de Castro, Alvin Tan Teck Heng

SILVERLENS opens 2019 with Watchfire, a group exhibition that brings together five artists who have each made a critical contribution to the development of contemporary ceramics in Asia: Tessy Pettyjohn, Jon Pettyjohn, and Joey de Castro of the Philippines. Shozo Michikawa of Japan, and Alvin Tan Teck Heng of Singapore. 

For this exhibition, these five artists were invited to participate in an anagama wood firing at the studio of fellow ceramic artist Pablo Capati III. Each artist contributed to the kiln a number of works that had been formed and biscuit fired in their individual studios. Once the firing was underway, they then worked in shifts to stoke and watch over the fire until the process was complete. The works from this collective endeavor are exhibited in Watchfire, alongside a small number of works from the artists’ studios.

Incorporating work from an anagama firing collectively undertaken, Watchfire examines the role of both the individual and the collective in building a ceramic art scene in the Philippines that is collaborative yet independent, locally engaged yet highly international. Furthermore, this exhibition examines how the participating artists successfully balance collaborative action with their own individual artistic identities.

In the Philippines, working with clay demands a greater level of collaboration than other disciplines. Commercially made materials are harder to come by than in other parts of the world, so it makes sense to pool resources and share facilities. The culture of collectivism born of this necessity has resulted in productive and lasting working relationships within the ceramics community, and between the artists in this exhibition.

Collectivism in the Philippine ceramic art scene has paradoxically also created a certain degree of independence. The relationships born of this approach to art-making have seen Filipino ceramic artists forge their own international networks and opportunities independent of art world structures and hierarchies – a critical contribution to the Philippine art scene that is yet to be fully recognized.

While these artists work across a number of firing techniques, the ancient practice of anagama wood firing can be seen as the core collaborative endeavor that has facilitated, deepened, and sustained the relationships between them. The Philippines’ first anagama kiln was born of a collaborative act, when in 2000 the Japanese artist Shozo Michikawa helped Jon and Tessy Pettyjohn to build one at their studio in Laguna. Two years later Michikawa provided Capati with the plans for what was to become the country’s second anagama kiln. This marked the beginning of the Batangas ceramics studio, which is today an important site for wood firing in Asia and where the works in this exhibition were fired.

Anagama kilns are typically fired for a number of days, in order to reach and sustain temperatures high enough to melt the wood-ash circulating within, thereby creating a natural glaze. Firings are therefore collaborative endeavors, with multiple participants working in shifts to watch and stoke the fire. Each anagama kiln is its own beast and the firing process cannot be entrusted to the uninitiated. This means the usual suspects are regularly called upon; Filipino potter Joey de Castro has participated in countless firings at the studios of Capati and the Pettyjohns, while in recent years Singaporean artist Alvin Tan Teck Heng has frequently travelled to the Philippines to take part. When, in 2016, the Pettyjohns undertook a residency in Shigaraki, Japan, Capati and Teck Heng flew over to assist with the final wood firing. The anagama firing that took place for this exhibition is therefore emblematic of the practices and relationships that have shaped ceramics in the Philippines over the past two decades.

For any artist working in any discipline, collectivist approaches to art making come with a degree of risk, namely the loss of artistic identity. Sharing resources, techniques and facilities requires considerable self-confidence; it requires the firm belief that even if someone knows what you know and has what you have, they still can’t do what you do. While this exhibition considers the importance of collectivist approaches to art-making, it also demonstrates the strength of these artists as individuals, and their individual contributions in pushing the boundaries of contemporary ceramic art in the Philippines.

- Anna O’Loughlin and Mark Valenzuela