Co-presented by the Ayala Museum and Arndt Art Agency (A3), Urban Labyrinth features 18 new works by one of the leading artists in Philippine contemporary art. This collection of large-scale paintings, works under glass and on paper, and video, teeming with fantastical characters and hypnotic imagery, depict the complexity of life in informal urban settlements in the Philippines.
Tapaya’s body of work is the amalgam of close and almost investigative observations of his milieu, careful meditations on Philippine social issues, and diligent study of the research and writings of historians, anthropologists, and philosophers. Lauded for seamlessly weaving the folk and the contemporary, for employing multiple indistinct vanishing points in one enormous plane, Tapaya’s canvases blur our conventions of time and space.
His imagery and composition recall scenes from the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, 16th-century Netherlandish artist, and Botong Francisco, Angono modernist muralist. But the landscape or genre in Tapaya’s work cannot be described as gardens of earthly delights or joyful pastoral vistas. The visual lifeworld created by the artist is populated by ghoulish, surreal, ambiguous but identifiable characters, wreaking havoc or engaged in the mundane, among a cast of hundreds in his larger tableaux or isolated in his smaller paintings. Through the artist’s mediation, they are simultaneously otherworldly and familiar, conjuring our own anxieties, troubles, and folly.
In Urban Labyrinth, Tapaya does not simply depict poverty as a hapless condition, but an independent state where people live their lives and engage with one another. The viewer sees both the economic and the social layers, formed and delineated through the alliances or tensions between Tapaya’s characters, portraying a more intricate picture of destitution. Meanwhile, the two “Folk Narrative” paintings included in the exhibition depict the cultural attitudes that sustain these poor living conditions. In the end, they serve the same purpose as the myths and fables they appropriated: to allow us to discover ourselves and the valuable lessons in our allegories.
"In this exhibition, I tried to explore similar themes from Looban, an exhibition of works on burlap I presented in 2008 depicting the life and humor in Manila’s slums, specifically from observations of an area called Krus na Ligas neighboring the University of the Philippines compound in Quezon City.
In Urban Labyrinth, I am expanding the original idea to tackle not just humor, but the deeper, buried aspects of life in the slums—from looban to kaloob-looban (innermost self). I am trying to show the complexities of Philippine informal settlements in general: the dreams of people hailing from the provinces which led them to find their luck in urbanized environments, and the conditions and problems they face that entangle and entrap them in a labyrinth of difficulties which they may not be able to find a way out of.
For this show, I present five different series of works. First are the “Urban Landscapes,” backdrops which showcase the physical attributes of slums. The organic, unfinished feel of the works directly represent the randomness and unfinished construction of houses in these areas. Second, there are the “Folk Narratives,” paintings that discuss very complex or sensitive contemporary issues using mythological imagery. Third, there are the works under glass, where I employed a reversed painting process, portraying everyday scenes in these communities. Fourth, there are works on paper that, like the reversed paintings, show round-the-clock happenings in the looban, featuring a diverse cast of characters in ambiguous settings. Lastly, there is a single video work about the plight of an overseas Filipino worker (OFW), fashioned after the Filipino vampire, the manananggal." - Rodel Tapaya, February 2018