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The Quiet Revolt of Sofronio Y Mendoza

By Ambeth R. Ocampo 1987

During the big homecoming exhibit four years ago, expatriate Filipino painter Sofronio Y. Mendoza more popularly known as SYM confided that, " I have many things I want to try as far as painting is concerned but unfortunately my mind moves faster than my hand." He talks of his evolution as a painter and remembers his hard but successful climb in the Philippine art scene he talks of times when one paint brush cost him one week's salary in Cebu, or how his work is not forged and faked left and right proof that "he has arrived." Sym, a natural born, teacher, talks to young painters about "developing oneself in order to catch that elusive thing called antistatic vision."

Sometime around 1966 writer E. Aguilar Cruz had spotted two small and well done oils in the Mabini studio of Miguel Galvez. Seeing that these paintings were not even hung on the walls meant that they were not considered good enough to sell and were probably made by another of those "struggling" artists. Aguilar Cruz bargained for these paintings and left. A few days later, the price he bid, was accepted and he took home the paintings. The young "struggling" painter happened to be Sym who had not expected anyone to like his work, least of all a newspaper editor with a reputation as a connoisseur. Sym sought out Aguilar Cruz and the two became fast friends as Aguilar Cruz was returning to painting after thirty years in journalism. Sym made the rounds of artistic and literary gatherings and was invited to outdoor painting sessions (actually country picnics) arranged by Aguilar Cruz with established painters like Mauro Malang Santos, Vicente Manansala, and Hernando Ocampo all from the abstract school of Philippine painting which was then at its height.

In 1968, Sym had founded the Dimasalang group named not after the pseudonym of the National Hero Jose Rizal but rather for the ramshackle studio apartment on Dimasalang Street in Sampaloc where he lived and worked. After dropping out of college Sym set up Vilco for Villanueva and Co. which was an advertising firm which made campaign posters, teaching aids and architectural rendering for lazy architects and students from nearby UST who wanted a good grade.

Sym laughs when he recounts "I was the 'and Co.' in Villanueva and Co. " It is this simplicity which makes for unglamorous art history but such is the left and work of Sym.The artistic climate in 1968 at the time Sym founded the Dimasalang group was revivalist in the sense that a few decades earlier the "Moderns" Victorio Edades, Hernando Ocampo and others had gone against the blind adoration which reduced the genre of Fernando Amorsolo into Mabini Art. The rich were buying non-representational art because it was "in" to do so thus the representative artists were called old fashioned and left without patrons many had to hawk kitsch to tourists on Mabini Street, Ermita thus the name Mabini art. It was artistic suicide to be a "conservative" (meaning representational) painter at this time but Sym felt that he was part of a great tradition which had not yet reached the peak of its evolution. He looked up to old Philippine masters: Juan Luna,Felix Resurrecion Hidalgo, Fabian de la Rosa, Fernando Amorsolo and of course his mentor Martino Abellana (sometimes referred to .as the Amorsolo of Cebu) who made him realize that he was still part of that development of Philippine painting which had not yet achieved full flowering

The Dimasalang group thus following the tradition of Amorsolo and de la Rosa produced a large body of landscape paintings which was the logical result of all the "picnics" to Mt. Arayat, Laguna, Bulacan or any place where the mood took them. To be more close to their times the Dimasalang group moved from rustic landscapers to cityscapes often painting from the rooftops of high rise buildings thus adding a new genre to Philippine art. It is too bad that there is more to Sym than will fit in this Catalog, maybe a book on Sym and his movement will be written in the future because the importance of Sym and the Dimasalang Group is that through their work they were able to counter the wave of the abstracts art and yet coexisting with the other artists. Sym made representative art, denigrated by the critics as almost photographic or old fashioned, reputable again. Sym produced a quiet revolt, a renaissance if you want to call it that, in the Philippines painting with his sunlight canvasses and engaging interiors. Granting that he does reach the zenith of his craft and artistic development the ticklish question is: what movement will he start next? The art scene today is representational, former abstract artists have now returned to the basics so to speak so what will Sym do next? A shift to the modern?