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Symscapes: the feeling eye, the seeing heart

By Lorna Revilla Montilla 1978

If Sym (Sofronio Y. Mendoza) is hanging another set of paintings for another (his fifth) one-man exhibit at the ABC Galleries this November, it is perhaps to show his fans and viewers something new. Thirty frames of paintings in watercolor, oil and pastel are for viewing this time - a small number, considering Sym's extensive travels abroad in the last three years. A travel itch has afflicted the man and has definitely given his works and international flavor few realists in his day can hope to achieve.

In 1976, he was in Europe for all of six months, and again last year he was back there soaking in the wonders of great art. Still driven by a consuming passion to see other places, he went on four-month tour of the USA and Canada early this year "which is necessary," he says, "for a refinement in taste, technique, if not a new concepts and a different way of life."

His trips abroad may not have given him anything in the form of material benefits, but in his own words, "enriched my mind as well as my perspective in art."

Indeed Sym has evolved, but not in such a drastic manner as to make the change obvious. However, one will immediately notice an air of tranquility in him that is also apparent in his works. Despite his aggressive fidelity to subject and reality, a subtle change visible only to those who have followed his artistic growth, has infected his painting. This time, his brush strokes are simple and subtler but more effective (reminding you of the works of the impressionists.) Where his colors used to scream for attention, they are now treated with a hush and wielded with the dexterity of one at peace with the world. Pastel, a medium he chose to ignore in the past, takes up most of the paintings and indicates Sym's unquestionable versatility.

Before, one was always attracted to Sym's Spartan brush strokes and the technique of zooming in on his subjects the way one blows up photographs. This time Sym is more poetic. There is a hint of nostalgia in his landscapes that touches heart and soul together as does a love song. His foreign and local landscapes are finer in treatment, so that one does not get only pictures of contemporary scenes but also the haunting strains of a poem.

Sym, he is basically a nature painter. His previous works varied widely in subject and approach but most of them reflected his interest in nature. And despite his consistent successes, he is still a man of the country - a simple man with a taste for simplicity. He paints his subjects as he sees them and only that part of life he knows best. "I don't subscribe to the way Amorsolo glamorized both landscape and figure," he says, "for I paint only the truth. The difference is feeling. If you can paint the truth with feeling, then I guess, you are on your way to greatness."

To Sym, truth and feeling do matter, and he believes that a realist must not only develop a rigid discipline in technique but also possess the sensitivity of a poet. "A good artist," he adds, "must also have the knowledge of contemporary reality."

Tutored by the Cebuano master, Martin Abellana, Sym at first produced landscapes and seascapes native to his rustic beginnings. Guided later by Abe Aguilar Cruz (writer, painter and now ambassador to the UNESCO in Paris), he recorded the small streets, the dark alleys and passageways and the busy market scenes of Binondo together with a small group of artists known today as the original Dimasalang painters. Now that he has built himself a house in Novaliches, his works dwell mostly on the foggy mornings and the glowing sunsets of that place.

"I know every banana leaf and gabi patch outside my house," he laughs, "and I can even tell you the number of trees in that vicinity." One recalls with amusement an exhibition of gabi and banana patches in watercolors that quickly sold out at the ABC two years ago. His love for nature never seems to wane and even if SYM lived somewhere else, he would still be painting the scenes that surround him in only the way he knows how - seeing them with feeling.

But realism as championed by Sym must always be in keeping with the spirit of the times. Hence, this latest exhibit features impressions of new, rustic scenes. They are of people either coming or going under a shade struck by the glowing ember of an afternoon sun. One painting shoes the foggy silhouette of the Pont Neuf Bridge in Paris and another, of a cute bungalow in Canada surrounded by a garden full of blooms. There are flowers in a vase that seem to show Sym's impeccable hand at detail. His treatment of light and shadow shows a spontaneous dexterity, and he puts on colors with gentle but precise strokes, creating the feeling he wants to projects. Landscapes are a common subject. Sym is at home in them - they are his element. But he also dabbles in portraits and still lifes and although he may excel in these, his forte has always been "interiors" specially those peppered with old santo and antique furniture. This segment in his art catapulted him to fame a decade ago and made him one of the darlings of art patrons and the moneyed elite. It is even said that a private collection without an interior by Sym is never considered complete. Four big pieces in oil are included in this show, if only to remind everyone those interiors are still Sym's first, passionate love. They are pictures of his own living room, composed and designed as only Sym can do then and, at this moment of writing, may have been sold already.

Sym thinks that a realist should go with the temper of the times but frowns at the proliferation of abstract art in the local scene. He espouses artistic freedom but is firm in declaring that abstract art is not for him: "Philippine art should be traditional, for it is only in tradition that we can anchor ourselves and define our stand ad Filipinos."

There may be truth in that statement, only those who have neither a rich tradition not a soul to speak of would have to reduce art to an abstract.