By Hannah Jo Uy
Photos by Pinggot Zulueta
“The face is a relatively small area,” said Martin Honasan, visual artist, “and yet so much of our identity is centered on it.”
The face is perhaps the greatest signifier of the human condition. Serving as a living canvas, the face changes and contorts to reveal dimensions of our existence. It serves as a gateway to emotion and a chronicle of our past with all its traumas and triumphs. Thus, as a visual artist, Honasan has always been drawn to the face. “It’s almost a meditative process,” he said.
In his early years, Honasan was mostly painting photography-based street scenes in water color. “It was enriching from a technical standpoint,” he said. “But the process was also very labored, and I felt like I was ‘rambling’ in terms of what I wanted to say through my pieces.” He soon lost the stamina for such kind of work, especially as his private sketchpads were increasingly showcasing rough rendered faces, which would later turn out to be his favorite subjects.
Overarching themes in Honasan’s exploration of the face tend to revolve around the fundamental questions of life: How did we come into being? What brings life meaning? Where do we go when we die? “These questions are quite basic,” Honasan admitted. “But most people build their lives around the answers.”
As Honasan continues to explore different facets of these questions, he carries on a rather contemplative approach to developing his pieces. “The process is very physical at first: exploring textures, cutting up and distressing the surface, producing folds and wrinkles, pushing the limits of the canvas.” When the dust has settled, the artist immerses himself in the work until a face emerges from the distressed patterns. “It’s a very intuitive process,” he said. “It really helps that the faces I use belong to people who are close to me, making it easier to identify and highlight the subtleties of their faces.”
Honasan’s earliest influencers were figurative artists and comic book illustrators. He once dreamed of becoming a comic book illustrator. “I would practice every day for hours, drawing on Corona sketch pads,” he said. “That season established a lot of habits that I still practice to this day.” In painting, among his influences are local legends like Malang Santos and Gus Albor. “Mastery of craft had always been a very important aspect of art-making for me, and it’s a common thread that ties all these artists together,” he said.
Honasan has also been moved by contemporary artists on the international scene, who, he said, “are changing the way I view art. How I want to participate in their conversation!”
Ultimately, Honasan credits his wife, musician and artist Barbie Almalbis, for pushing his boundaries as an artist. “She is the main catalyst that led to a major shift in my work. Most of her music is produced in a very expressionistic way—her songs begin with chords and meaningless syllables simultaneously, until familiar words finally take shape around the music.” This approach, reminiscent of the creative process of abstraction in the 1940s, drove him to rethink his own process.
“A large part of my work had been about my immediate environment and my relationship with the people there,” said Honasan. “For the longest time, it had always been about my own experiences, but when I got married 11 years ago, that sphere expanded. I was instantly exposed to a new culture.”
Honasan’s latest collection, “Pulô,” recently unveiled by Art Verite at the Artists Space of the Ayala Museum, showcases a more sophisticated and organic process evolving from his unique portraiture and presenting an unexpected layer of meaning.
The paintings were borne from his trips to Culasi, his wife’s hometown. From his regular visits, Honasan has immersed himself among the locals to better understand the people of Culasi and their relationship with their land, which parallels his view of himself in his environment. This became the starting point for his Ayala show.
“The residents were predominantly fishermen and porters,” he narrated. “With the help of my wife, mother-in-law, and some staff working at their cove, we spread a few meters of canvas along the shore of the beach where the saltwater and dark sand stained it for a couple of days. It really did feel like some symbolic gesture to use the environment to paint on the canvas. But it was also an act that mirrored something that physically happens to the residents who are bathing in saltwater and rolling in the sand every day.”
In addition, Honasan took portraits in Culasi and neighboring towns. “I generally didn’t know what to expect,” Honasan admitted. “But on a technical level I had used textured materials for priming before so I anticipated, more or less, the same results. The process left this powdery, light-gray finish which I sealed in with transparent acrylic. I definitely learned a lot of new ways of staining the canvas, which I’ll probably use in future exhibits. “
Honasan will continue to pursue sustainable materials and making artfully distressed pieces that evolve according to the environment and communities he and his wife encounter in their travels. The artist remains open to fine-tuning his process, believing that future projects might see him do away with figures entirely. Wherever his art may lead him, Honasan expressed his firm belief in striving to be “disciplined, honest, and authentic.”