By Duffie Hufana Osental
Many things come to mind when we consider the art of Roel Obemio. Fernando Botero as an obvious reference would perhaps be the first cue. Boterismo becomes Obemize in his parlance, but this is less due to any allegiance and more to Obemio’s interests as a caricaturist. Evolution is another. At the beginning of his crossing from a working artist in animation to a serious artist in the art world, his themes and aesthetics were simpler and easier to understand. Characters in nostalgic proto-narratives inhabited his early canvases, which gave a sense of an artist on a journey. Obemio was searching for themes that would drive his technique—all in keeping with the determination to keep true to his own vision.
This journey has led Obemio to an increased study of the Masters of Western Art. From Botticelli to Van Eyck, he paid homage in his own way—by Obemizing classic works. We see Botticelli’s La Primavera as a celebration of large people—but what we do not see is that through each of these homage attempts, Obemio was honing his own worldview.
The result is a more nuanced approach to painting, rich in the use of symbolism to drive a highly personal narrative structure. Obemio’s approach to narrative in fact brings to mind a more linear, straightforward variety of the likes of Marcel Antonio. But while artists like Antonio prefer to juxtapose symbolic imagery, Obemio allows his narrative to flow like storybook themes.
This journey of Obemio’s development is the subject of his current exhibit in Power Plant Mall in Makati’s Rockwell Center. Running until Aug. 31 as part of Rockwell’s Focus on the Arts Festival, “The Journey” charts the course of an artist in a constant state of flux. Three paintings of the exhibition in particular highlight the changes in Obemio’s approach from straight narrative to allegorical symbolism. Perhaps the most personal is Peculiar, which depicts the artist and his wife sitting for a portrait. White outlines are used as barely-seen metaphors of emotive thoughts—his wife, Connie, wears a pair of headphones, for instance, as a gesture towards her tendency—in the mind of the artist—to sometimes not listen. The entirety of the painting is done in a classical European composition, similar in a manner to Florentine renaissance painter Piero di Cosimo’s diptych portrait of Giuliano and Francesco Sangallo at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Like that work, Peculiar has a masterful use of symbolism, with seemingly every element representing an aspect of Obemio’s life. The chessboard, for instance, reflects his love of that game—or the detail from Michaelangelo’s Creation of Adam at the Sistine Chapel representing Obemio’s intense research of the Renaissance.
In a similar fashion, Reach and Big Catch Symphony both mirror the artist’s current state, and his own preferences. Big Catch Symphony is an ode to Obemio’s love of the sea, and a longing for his hometown of Cagayan de Oro. Reach is a comment on Obemio’s nocturnal habits, and his tendency to partiality towards painting alone.
These works underscore the growth the artist has experienced in the last few years. While Obemio is a painter with a traditional Fine Arts background from the University of the East, his experience as a working artist—particularly in animation—has given him a unique understanding of the degrees of narrative. Among his first jobs was being an animator in Hanna-Barbera’s now-defunct Philippine animation studio, and this aesthetic strain strongly influences his visual art practice. Likewise, his work as a caricaturist has also allowed him to depict the range of humanity in the alteration of an individual subject’s form. Obemio’s other influences include Paul Klee and Gustav Klimt, which is why his practice is partial to form and palette rather than any heady concept beyond the idea that his works are meant to be uplifting.
His is also adamant that art should be accessible, and thus imbues his paintings with messages of positivity and hope. Volume is a device Obemio uses to lend a personal sense of nostalgia to the reality of this vision that gives his works character and substance. But Obemio’s secondary use of this artistic device is to tinge his works with optimism. He points to the fact that members of his family are often heavy-set, which is the reason, more than any affinity to Fernando Botero (who he counts as an influence, regardless) why the inhabitants of his canvases are large themselves. In fact, Obemio sees his practice as a form of world-building and encourages his audiences to visit the worlds he creates.
‘The Journey’ is on display at the North Court of Power Plant Mall, Rockwell Center, Makati City. 02 659 2667; 02 570 9495