Artist Interview

Pep Manalang

Interviewed by Benedict T. Navarro

Over any other visual arts, why painting?…specifically, why abstract painting?

I can’t really give you a single reason why I chose painting. It’s just what I wanted to do. It’s not like I surveyed the visual arts and eliminated other choices. As for abstract painting – as opposed to representational painting – I didn’t really choose that either. I started out thinking I wanted to be a landscape painter but in my second year of art school I just started painting abstract.

Can you tell me the moment when you said to yourself, “I want to paint…” …feel free to narrate this particular moment in your life…

I don’t remember there being a single decisive moment. I had always been attracted to painting but it took me a long time to believe I could actually do it. I was teaching Physics right after I graduated from college when I started doing watercolor landscapes. I began to realize that I was more interested in painting than in physics.

Did you tell your parents that you want to be a painter?… what were their reactions? did they scream?…laugh? or yell at you?

Everyone in my family has always been very appreciative of the fine arts. When I did tell them that I was going to art school after my Master’s in Physics they were very supportive. I think it was clear to them that I was really committed to being an artist by then.

I visited your website, and i found out that you graduated with a degree in Physics at the University of the Philippines. You even attended graduate studies in physics and master of arts in physics in Chicago and Buffalo, NY respectively. Does your knowledge in physics affect your artwork? In what way? Can you still see some elements of physics in your artworks? **in relation to this, is there anything in the field of art that has satisfied your inner self that you didn’t get from the world of physics?

As far as how physics informs my art – some of my paintings incorporate physics formulas and symbols – that’s about all.

I find art more satisfying than physics because it is what I want to do. I am able to give myself to it more completely; it’s what I am doing with my life. Physics was something I fell into just because I could do it. Physics is too difficult to be just a hobby for me so I have pretty much gotten away from it.

After long years in the field of physics, what happened in the spring of 1989 that made you decide you wanted to get a formal training in art school?

I never really thought of myself as a physicist; I just happened to be somewhat good at solving physics problems. In graduate school I noticed that my classmates were a lot more into physics than I was. By spring of 1989 I had already been accepted to art school; I just had to finish up the Master’s.

Do you think attending an art school and learning about the art history is important to you as an artist? Does your knowledge in the history of art affect your artwork? In what way?

Art school was a dream come true for me. It provided me with studio training and an artistic community to help me develop as an artist.The art history I learned was mostly Western art history so I do wish I knew more about Eastern art. But I think it’s always good to know what’s out there, and what has gone before you, so any art history is helpful.

What particular period (i.e. realism, expressionism, formalism, expressionist realism, expressionist formalism) in the art history we can trace your artwork? Why that particular period or movement? Is there anything in that period/movement that has aroused your interest?

I don’t think it’s my job to trace the roots of my artwork; it’s usually the art critics who like to do that. I don’t consciously base my art on any movement or period. I am more attracted to abstract art, like abstract expressionism, minimalism, some installation stuff like artists who work site specific with light and the landscape.

In doing an abstract painting, isn’t it true that you can you use different mediums? Why do you prefer to use acrylic paint? Did you try any other medium before sticking to acrylic paint?

I used to paint with oils but they take too long to dry and I get impatient between stages. I used to paint watercolor landscapes too but haven’t done that in a while. Acrylic is really suited to my working methods and is much easier to clean up after than oil. I can also mimic the effects of watercolor by diluting acrylic paint. So it’s really versatile in that you can use it straight and thick like oil paint, or watery like watercolor.

How do you come up with the images for your paintings? Would you take me through your creative process? In other words, can you tell me your pre-painting stage…what do you usually do before painting

The images for my paintings can form gradually or suddenly. Sometimes it’s just about how the space is divided or a particular shape, or a color combination. It’s best to start with a definite idea. It’s very hard to just start painting from nothing. I don’t think there is a fixed sequence of steps in my creative process. Sometimes a good idea will not work out.

I can tell you that there have been inspired times when I knew exactly what size canvas I needed, what composition to start with, what materials and colors to use… and I would be very excited to work but would let it incubate a while I prepared everything to go… then I just kind of did the whole painting in one frenzied session.

Unfortunately, those times happen rarely.

Most of the time you start with an idea for a composition, know a couple of colors you might start with, then just hope it will lead you somewhere.

What is the inspiration behind your work? Where do you find it and what stimulates your imagination best?

I am usually inspired by things I see in nature, like landscapes and land formations, or by other artwork. Once a series has begun, one painting can lead to another. After doing one painting you think of how you could have done it differently and so start another painting.

What do you think makes your work unique?

What makes my work unique would be what would make any artist’s work unique – being true to one’s self. Some good advice I read says: everyone is good at something so you should find what you’re good at and do it.

You’ve been an artist for 8 years, am I right? You’ve been an artist for considerably a long time, What challenges do you confront as an artist? More specifically, as a Filipino artist.

I think I’ve been an artist since 1989, so about 14 years. I became a full-time artist in 1998. The biggest challenge I have to face is to keep finding inspiration to keep painting. As a Filipino artist I feel a bit like I’m in a minority group because my art doesn’t fall into the more prevalent schools such as social realism or figurative art. It is neither realistic nor conceptual. But the Manila art world is very encouraging these days because it seems more open now to abstract art than it was five years ago.

In our art class, we discussed about the artistic triad namely the artist, the audience, and the critics. Among these three the most powerful are the critics. Do the criticisms affect your work or affect you? Does the audience play a role in your creative endeavor? Or whatever you want to do, you just do it, regardless of what we’ll they say.

The audience and the critics will always be important to me. I enjoy it very much when people appreciate or recognize my work because then I know that what I’m doing makes a difference in the world (at least in the art world).It’s not a bad thing to listen to criticism as long as it doesn’t destroy you. You have to be strong enough to keep believing in yourself in order to keep working. I will always try to keep my work genuine but that doesn’t mean I won’t let others influence me. The trick is to find the right balance.

What is your opinion on the art world or the system in which you are a part of ? Do you believe that good art is only considered good if it is housed in a museum? May i get your reactions on these two questions…

The art world is like any other world – it has it hierarchies and factions. It’s not very different from the University of the Philippines system or any other system. Art is good if it is good regardless of whether you show it or not. But it’s better to show it so other people can enjoy it.

In your email you said and I roughly quote you, ” your approach topainting is like an exploration and the process of painting is a SEARCHING……hmm, searching and exploration…two loaded words…what do you want to explore? What do you want find out? Have you discovered yourself through your artwork? If yes, how did your artworks help you in discovering yourself?

What I meant was that, for me, there are no fixed steps in painting – it’s always a new adventure, hopefully I’m not just repeating myself. It’s really not that profound, I just want to find my way to the end of another painting and hope I find another painting to paint after that. I think that I identify deeply with being an artist so that makes making art very important to me. It’s my occupation.

What do you believe is your ultimate purpose as an artist? Do you feel you have been blessed by embracing the life of an artist?

That would be to keep making honest art, and keeping putting it out there for people to see. I feel very lucky to be an artist. But there are trade-offs of course. I don’t have a very traditional life, my income isn’t steady, and a lot of people don’t understand what I’m doing with my life.

Do you still have an unfulfilled wish? Is there still something you aspire to as an artist?

Of course I have unfulfilled wishes but I’m not going to tell you.

Since you’re based in the United States, do you consider yourself as a member of the Philippine art system? If not, in what art system are you a part of? Why in that system?

Although I live in the US half the time I consider myself a Filipino, and I always will. I also consider myself a Filipino artist because my career is really all there in Metro Manila.

Are you aware of the present state of the Philippine art system?

I’m not real informed because I don’t spend as much time as I could rubbing elbows in the art world. But I do talk to artists and galleries there. I haven’t really made an effort to understand the system.

If yes, what are the things that you think you’ve contributed to at least helped the said system?

If no, would you want to be of help? in what ways, do you think, you and your artworks can help in elevating the present state of our system.

I would like to form a group of abstract artists to help publicize our type of art. I understand there isn’t any such group. The group that comes closest is a conceptual group which includes abstract conceptual art.

What would you like to say about yourself after years of being an artist?

Nothing really.

Do you think, had you stayed in the field of physics (and pursued a career) would you still be the same person as what you are right now?

Probably not. I don’t think I would have loved it as much as I love art.

What do you think is the significance of your paintings in the Philippine art system? how about in the world art system?

Not much but it’s real art. Every little bit helps.

In conclusion, can you expound on this statement that is currently posted on your website…”EVERY FINISHED PAINTING IS A STEPPING STONE TO PAUSE AT; A POINT OF DEPARTURE.”

That just means one painting leads to another. I hope it does.

August 2003