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Light Breathes Life in SYM's Paintings

Veronica T. Vielosoyap 1976

This lovely girl in beiger flashed by, her delicate profile flitting in and out of the jostling churchgoers in the thick Quiapo crowd. Soon she was gone amidst the yelps of lanzones vendors, beggars and jeepney drivers - a streak of shapely light but momentarily transfixed in a quiet, disturbing mood if such a thing is possible in the avid eyes. This is like SYM (Sofronio Y. Mendoza) canvas that has quietly caught the folds of yellow and pink curtain atop a rattan chair to highlight a circular coffee table and a Mother and Child before a sewing machine, the entire scene discreetly lighted, judiciously colored with a skilled artist's hand and eyes.

Sym, whose fifth art exhibit will be on view at the ABC Galleries, Harrison Plaza from Nov.4 to 17 shows a felicitous apprehension of moor of manner, a seizure of a nostalgic moment, a portrayal of character of attitude. All this emerges from the interplay of light, a minimization of volume, disbursement of solids, glint of flesh, detailing of vibrant lip or lively eye. At times, the is a tendency in some of the SYM pictures particularly those that appear to burst with life, to be cut off at the top but somehow the delicacy of illumination save both feeling and texture.

Blumentritt Market
It is testimony of SYM's equable approach to life and the sharpening of his basic skills that in the categories of his art works - portraits, landscape still life, nudes - there is the band of light, the streak of color and the glowing pigment that contribute to the depiction of illusion and seen to endow the canvas with influxes of breath.

But I was not prepared to see, together with the flow and vibrancy of SYM's new art works, a characterization I his portrait studies that somehow, without meaning to be presumptuous, I would hazard as akin to that of a playwright or a fictionist. And instead I daresay that new significant trend in contemporary Philippine painting is the appearance in portraits of distinctive characterization done by some of the best Filipino painters: Cesar Lagaspi, Romeo V, Tabuena, Juvenal Sanso, Vincent Manansala, Zny Laygo, E. Aguilar Cruz, M.O. Abellana, Mario de Rivera, Romeo Enriquez and Romulo Galicano.

The most revelatory and representative "Studies" in this regard are in SYM's portrayal of two markets scenes in Blumentritt. The one he finished a few days ago shows at an illuminated angle a vegetable vendor with a brown and reddish salakot. Around are baskets and bushels of watermelons, green beans and heads of white cabbage. Similarly important is a market scene which has been hanging in the Mendoza dining room for several months now. In this painting, we have in the center a customer, thin, middle-aged, a bandanna tied around her head, hands clasped behind her back, bargaining with the buxom vendor in blue. Their interpenetrating attitudes transfix the stridency, color and movement: of a market day in Manila. Their attitude and conversation are re-echoed and reflected by the buyers lined up behind the vendor and also by those in the left corner of the canvas.

More than a copy
SYM's mastery of light and the evocation of quiet mood are readily seen in his Gate of the Artist's Home, Sunset in Manila, Morning in Manila and Night in Manila (all three studies having been painted from atop the Royal Hotel. In watercolor, there are Shanty Compositions, a veritable tour de force the Hot Spring in Bantangas, a scene in San Pascual, Hagonoy, Bulacan, his Banana series and one showing a gabi plant. In the area where the Mendoza's now live in Novaliches there is still a trace of wildness in the countryside where gabi and banana plants, wild plants and rocks abound.

It is the shift and shimmer of light in the house, plant and people that intrigue and attract SYM endlessly. And it is most evident in his banana series. The same impassioned feeling for color and detail which one can sense in this series is also conveyed in his Nude 1 (watercolor and pastel) whose dark hair, soft, subtle tinted back faces the viewer even as the bedspread on which she is sitting lovely and relaxed seems to rise and fall with each model.
It is present in his Ely series-eight studies of his wife in the pastel; the black and white study of the Mendoza's son Vilmen; a pencil sketch and a study in brown pastel of Symele, their daughter, and in four studies, of the artist's other daughter, Sovila, with her expressive face and eyes.

It is very likely that SYM would be extremely reluctant to part with his Blumentritt market scene although I would say that at his age (he is only 42), he has plenty of oils and watercolors and pastels in him. The remarkable thing about this is, as his friend Aguilar Cruz states, SYM who is more or less acknowledged as a leader of the contemporary representational school, "does more that copy from nature. He adds something of his own emotional state to every canvas he paints."

Never exaggerate
Painting the people and places close to him and the things familiar to him has given his oils and watercolors added power. He thinks that by portraying Philippine life and scenes he can assist in "preserving the artistic identity of the Philippines." As in the case of most artists, SYM is drawn and propelled by matters closest to his heart. There is a perceptible difference in composition and approach between the hundreds of SYM's facades of houses in Binondo and Tondo, parts Intramuros and Fort Santiago on the one hand, and the portrait studies, interiors and market scenes on the other.

Talking to him you would not think he is capable of deep passionate feelings because outwardly he appears relaxed, talking and gesturing slowly and quietly. But there is no mistaking a tightening now and then in his voice, a flush on his cheeks when you ask him about the objectives and the tools of art, about color and dimension, light and shadow, cityscapes, rectangulation of light, landscapes and portraits. For him, the only valid way to approach and use light is never to exaggerate nor to "theatricalize" it. He believes that it will always be subordinated to the aim and the composition of the canvas.
Sym's canvases hang in many homes, including the Malacanang Palace. It is a pity that he, like all members of the Dimasalang Group, have one, that is not represented in the inaugural exhibit of Contemporary Art in the Philippines currently shown at the Museong Pang-Sining ng Maynila.