Plein Air's Toil Order
a review by Jojo Soria de Veyra
Raul D. Arellano, Terranea Beach, 2006, oil on wood, 19" x 24"
You’d say that’s precisely the right amount of works plein air painting needs to put up in a gallery in order to elucidate plein air painting’s special sensibility and philosophy as a practice. That’s like saying an exhibition of one artist’s plein air paintings would have to operate in the same manner as a show showing small Piet Mondrians—you’d need a certain number of pieces on a wall before you can find yourself immersed in their utopia to thereafter come out of the room convinced.
"Arellano never paints landscapes from photos; when he’s not painting a subject face to face he paints it from memory."
That’s not exactly true, of course. More than just a presentation of consistency of skill or style or dedication to a certain kind of imagery, each plein air product is a narrative by itself, a short story that can stand alone, or some mnemonic or memorabilia of an epic operation. With luck, a certain landscape can even function as an allegorical composition, or a religious or otherwise political one, whether that allegorical reading is to derive from the painter or the viewer. Most of the time, plein air paintings’ allusions are historical, or environmental.
The international Filipino stalwart actor and director (in theater and film), semiotician, and writer Anton Juan—in his exhibition essay for Raul Deodato Arellano’s upcoming show of eighteen plein air works at Altro Mondo at The Picasso titled Stroking the Light—even goes so far as to warn us that each of the plein air pictures in the show essentially exposes a persona, one who has come alive as the Southern California-based Filipino artist’s mirror image captured in time within a landscape, a portrait therefore of this artist’s struggle or exercise in coming to terms with time’s passing and with the details of his realist soul’s or otherwise mythologist self’s perception of dynamic reality.
And as one moves the eyes through the surfaces of the frame, one hears the painter’s voice moving through these spaces as he paints, his work an evocation of rising feeling and memory. It is Memory exploding into moments of light, which he renders in vibrant colors, moving tones, quick points, and liberated strokes in space. Memory resonates with quivering light and textures in surfaces, moving into one another as memory does, as though his painting speaks, whispers, repeats a forgotten cry or song. His painting is a persona. . . .
As actors look at their masks and reflect on the interior spaces of the mask before them, Raul Arellano journeys his glorious spaces within, and strokes the light with his heart.
There are various approaches to plein air painting, of course, involving various styles of getting a capture. And so some of Arellano’s mates in those plein air sessions in California would call him “Filipino Cezanne”, while others would call him a kind of van Gogh.
Arellano would feel flattered that his chosen technique would inspire their connecting his name to historical names, but, at the same time, his lengthy experience in the practice would also make him recognize the likely truth in those tales telling of van Gogh’s weird excitement at capturing a personal treatment of a landscape under a pouring rain already wetting his oils. Recently, such an episode was dramatized in the film Loving Vincent.
Meanwhile, as regards that lengthy experience en plein air, he has been called potentially the first Filipino plein air artist in the United States. There would be a Filipino émigré or two, of course, who would inspire a claim by their friends as more likely the first, if only for, say, being older than Arellano, or for being plein air practitioners in the Philippines who these friends would naturally expect to continue in that practice in the US.
Among the small crowd of plein air painters Arellano would be with in the locations he would go to to paint, it is true that he has yet to see a Filipino in the area joining them. In California, or anywhere in the US, he hasn’t heard of a Pinoy doing what he has done, exposed to the elements for hours. In 1999 he checked; no Pinoy then. Not that Arellano would care whether he truly is the first or not. But he would insist that any claim to plein air practice, whether by Pinoys or not, be not taken lightly, as the practice goes beyond just finishing a painting started outdoors. Incorporated into each work’s context is the struggle of staying exposed to the elements on to the finish. As they say, each van Gogh painting is not just a finished product; it’s also a memory of a struggle towards finishing that product. In that sense, you could say that van Gogh was the most popular action painter in the Modernist period’s early years before action painting made a radical reconfiguration of itself to attain an independent tag.
Arellano never paints landscapes from photos; when he’s not painting a subject face to face he paints it from memory. And when we talk about a time period of never having done it with photos, we’re talking about a practice that stretches back to his start in 1998.
Also, it's different being a plein air painter in cold USA. And it’s also not just about the temperature outdoors, it’s also about the changing light’s effect on the eyes. Plein air works, therefore, are also about sincerity, or honesty, even as regards to one’s bastardizations or improvements on the subject, especially in regards to personifications of landscape forms, to anthropomorphisms.
Again, plein air paintings are paintings, not photography; no such thing as plein air photography painting. In short, let’s be honest. And when we talk about honesty, it’s not just in relation to having been truly out there, it’s also in regards to a dead mosquito that one viewer might find embedded in a painted oil surface. Or in relation to the dust or sand that seems to have been sprinkled onto another surface. (Arellano prizes such surface presences that he prefers to frame his plein air oil works under glass). Or . . . with how one got such a clean picture within all that environmental pressure at a certain location.
All this is one of the reasons why plein air painting would often be approached as a community practice of sorts, involving fellow artists who—though it’s an unwritten code—would be there to attest to one’s plein air truths. Kind of like Mount Everest climbers’ position to testify about their fellows’ real achievements as well as their lies.
Furthermore, plein air painting is not just about being out there. It is also about being out there where. Only a few would join Arellano in certain places.
But, true, yes, it’s not always a group effort. In 1998 when he started to paint in the South Bay district in Los Angeles, he would paint alone in the whole coast of Palos Verdes. He started in a cemetery, a national cemetery along Sepulveda Avenue. Only the cemetery administrator can testify to Arellano’s presence there; he once asked the painter, “but why here?”
So, we could say that Arellano is just continuing the California Impressionist tradition, a tradition already familiar to long California hours for completing or finishing just a single painting outdoors.
Arellano would drive his child to school at 7:00 am, and then after that he’d be at a chosen spot until 3:00 pm. 3:00 pm would be the time he’d have to leave the spot to fetch his kid. When he leaves the house in the morning, his trunk would already be loaded with painting equipment, lunch, and snacks. . . . Sometimes, when the weather turns bad, he’d be forced to leave; but he would come back to that exact same location to finish the work. It’s two days max for plein air, which usually involves 19 x 24 inches of canvas.
It’s important that we say this: Arellano does not correct a piece in his studio; he knows that that would ruin it. Others would take a photograph to catch a certain kind of light and then have that in their painting. Arellano knows that that’s bull-shitting on the plein air practice. After all, in true plein air, the changing light would cut across the picture on the canvas. Whenever there’s an exact same light on a part of the picture, it is to be understood as having been painted within an hour. If one tells you he tried to capture the light in a spot for six hours, that light ought to be noon light or timeless, as they always are in Arellano’s 19 x 24s. If one wants to capture a certain kind of light in an hour, he’d have to use 8 x 8s canvas or smaller; that would make the work possible or legit. Arellano knows the famous California plein air artists, and all of them would tell us the same thing.
ARELLANO’S style is a mix of Impressionism and Expressionism. Although he acknowledges Picasso as his idol in the early days, his foundation is essentially Expressionist, which we can see beneath his plein air work. Edvard Munch, etc.
A 1998 Arellano painting titled Embrace is a variation on Munch’s famous The Kiss, a motif that Picasso himself has explored.
Raul Arellano, Embrace, 1998, oil on canvas, 18" x 12"
Van Gogh’s plein air is expressionist. But Arellano’s mates in the Order of Southern California plein air painters would also call him Mr. Outdoor Cezanne, perhaps to also chide him for sporting a Cezzane-esque balding head at the front.
But, seriously, to get at a style one can be consistently comfortable in, it would require at least four to five years straight of true plein air practice.
It would take 20 years for Arellano to finally see an opportunity to show his plein air work in Manila. Stroking the Light would be at Altro Mondo at The Picasso, on the second floor of The Picasso Serviced Residences along Leviste Street in Salcedo Village, Makati, from April 26 to June 3 this summer.
Consisting of eighteen plein air paintings, it is important to be reminded that this show shall portray the landscapes of the Palos Verdes Peninsula, an area in Southern California that, in turn, used to belong to the Tongva people before the Spaniards came. Why is that important to note? Because, as Juan would tell you, memory is all part and parcel of the act of plein air painting qua exposure to a landscape. It’s only fair that such memories—personal, historical, political, environmental, mythological—should be part of the act of being exposed to plein air paintings as well. . . .
Well, okay. And now that we’re done you could be saying that what you’ve just read is really more of a journalistic piece on the artist’s honest toil than an advance review of the paintings for this upcoming show. Well, that’s precisely the point, isn’t it? You can’t seriously review a show of plein air achievements without doing exactly that, can you? [d]
Raul D. Arellano, Bluff Cove, 2006, oil on wood, 19" x 24"
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