The career of ROBERTO M.A. ROBLES (b. 1957) spans thirty years, during which time he has exhibited in the Philippines, South Korea, Japan, Australia, France, and the U.S.A.  A Retrospective is an important milestone in an artist’s career – a time to look back over their work and give due credit, but more importantly, to define their place within art history. It is an honor granted to only few artists, and recognizes their immense contribution to the culture of a nation.

This retrospective titled, Saluysoy, which literally means “an eternal spring / where the stream starts” in the Southern Tagalog dialect, captures the spirit of Roberto M.A.Robles’ abstract sculptures and paintings and offers a point from which we too can grow in our appreciation of his unique language of abstraction. Showing at the Ateneo Art Gallery through 23 April 2011, the exhibition has been curated by the international art writer Gina Fairley, and has been organized in collaboration with Galleria Duemila, Inc.

The retrospective includes 80 artworks by this outstanding artist, from large outdoor sculptures to intimate assemblages from Robles’ early career. What makes this exhibition different from most survey exhibitions is that one third of the artworks have never been exhibited publically before. They are rare treasures from the artist’s archive shown for the first time by Ateneo Art Gallery, and broaden our understanding of this complex and mature artist.

The curator has designed the exhibition to take viewers on a journey – one that starts as a “Sculpture Walk” in the gardens surrounding the Rizal Library Special Collections Building, and then moves through the various genres of Robles art making, from his boxed assemblages that won him the prestigious Grand Prize for Mixed Media in the Art Association of the Philippines Open Art Competition in 1986, to his pure minimal paintings and sculptures often referred to as embracing a Zen aesthetic, to Robles’ bright abstractions that excite through their playful use of color, gesture and material. It is a diverse and surprising journey. As the curator says, “The exhibition leads viewers to a place where they can consider their own definitions of beauty and meditations on nature. It is both humbling and energizing.”  Saluysoy promises to be an extremely sensitive and thought provoking exhibition.

What sets Roberto M.A Robles work apart from the many artists of his generation is his embrace of experimental techniques – to constantly search for new visual languages by using unconventional materials such as cardboard, thread and jute; in the blending of industrial painting with acrylic, oil and oriental ink washes or the notion of 3-dimensional drawing in his stone sculptures, deceivingly simple in their forms they are technically very difficult pieces, some taking up to a year to sculpt. Robles is a Master of many mediums with unbelievable focus.

Often perceived as raw or “unfinished”, the art of Roberto M.A Robles has a lot to teach us. He is probably one of the least understood artists of our times, despite inspiring a generation of younger artists. This exhibition offers an opportunity to unravel the enigma and to better understand the place he holds within the tenants of Philippine Abstraction.

The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue published with the assistance of Vibal Foundation.  The opening reception included a program of talks and performances of traditional Korean and Japanese musicians.


Dimensions variable
Way of the Kite: Sculpture 1, Collection Ateneo Art Gallery

In this suite of five sculptures numbered from left to right (front to back in this photo) #13, 11, 3, 12 and 1, we can see the transition of a form, a circle and square intersecting. Essentially they have grown out of cardboard maquettes using the fundamental material of steel sheeting that is lifted into 3-dimensional space. In Way of the Kite: Sculpture 13, on the end, it takes its most figurative stance, clean elements that hint of a seated, poised and weighty form. Its counter point the most minimal expression, Way of the Kite: Sculpture 3, is placed in the center, a slender totem-like form that captures Robles’ desire to reduce an object to its ‘material purity’ existing almost exclusive as a description of the patina of rusted steel. Completing this suite is a new addition to the Ateneo Art Gallery Collection, Way of the Kite: Sculpture 1, what could be thought of as the most calligraphic or animated form in the series. It takes its cue from a Korean folk tale of a fish swimming in the heavens. It is a popular ornament hung from the eaves of many Korean homes represented as a bell with a fish suspended below a little like the wind chime. Robles’ stylized version of the bell and fish is angulated in steel; the text above is a combination of abstracted Korean and Japanese languages. These sculptures were made after Robles returned from a very productive period in South Korea between 2001-2003.

Philippine hardwood, marble and steel
Installation 3 meter diameter 260 cm high

This sculpture originated as a painting. It captures the desire of Roberto M.A Robles to take the painted gesture off the canvas and push it into 3-dimensional space. From that perspective it could easily be thought of as drawing in the round, where its series of lines, patterns, and textures are considered against a landscape backdrop. Furthermore, this trilogy of objects encapsulates Robles’ dexterity in embracing found materials. Here he uses Philippine hardwood with local marble, steel, bolts and wheels. The title points to the biblical narrative where God appeared to Moses as a burning bush appointing him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt to the promised land. Despite the ‘signs’ Moses was described as being reluctant to take on the role, arguing that he lacked eloquence and that someone else should be sent instead. Robles’ use of this metaphor captures a humility and humanity in our own embrace of the impossible and journey towards the future. There is a lightness to this sculpture despite its physical weight, obvious in the artist’s choice to paint it white. It has a sense of flight at it reaches tall and wide across the landscape. It represents a freeness of spirit found in nature, and
indeed oneself.

Jute, threads, industrial paint and acrylic
on canvas
122 x 203 cm

Made exclusively from colored thread meticulously twirled around rope, Robles’ punches the drawn lines of his abstract paintings into 3-dimensional space. Titled Flying Kite the reference is an easy one to grasp. Robles’ blurs his own childhood memories of kite flying with its oriental traditions. Kites were first used around 2,800 years ago in China and were originally flat and rectangular. Sound a little like the conventional painting? Maybe the link is not so obscure. Robles brings renewed ways to how we can approach ‘painting’. Here line, gesture and material move beyond traditional use, liberated by his fearless experimentation. A large swatch of jute floats offset like a box-kite, its crude, heavy raw material not usually associated with the fine arts. In the hands of Robles, however, it has a lightness, animated like a puppet on a stage. What is interesting about this construction is the way it moves outside the ‘picture frame’ – the threads hang low activating the white gallery wall. Just like flying a kite, gravity plays a role. The bright palette embraces the playful tradition of kite flying, and invites the viewer to release their own spirit – to take flight from convention.

Acrylic on canvas
175.2 x 267 cm

Mixed media on canvas
170.5 x 137.3 cm

Acrylic on canvas
122.5 x 212.5 cm.
Collection Philippines Long Distance Telephone Co.

Granite on steel support
Front: 38.5 x186.5 x 60 cm
Back: 76.5 x 156 x 60.5 cm
Right: 54.5 x 155 x 30.5 cm

Granite is one of the most difficult stones to carve. While this trilogy may appear as a simple flurry of marks casually arranged, it is a deceiving complex and technically difficult sculpture. Titled Saluysoy, the word comes from the Southern Tagalog dialect meaning ‘an eternal spring / where the stream starts.’ This notion of origins and growth is at the heart of this sculpture, and indeed this retrospective. Placed in the gallery facing North-east, it turns into the cool winds of Amihan. Robles describes its journey: “The sound of the saluysoy is like flowing waves crossing the China Sea reaching a land called Felipinas.” Working with a metal chisel and polishing disc, the dots and gestures along the sculpture’s surface simulate the river of Robles’ home town with a lightness and energy. In Robles’ words, “…it is nature teasing the marble into form.” The static dense stones seemingly levitate on their steel bases with a magical presence, raised off the ground like a sacred object. He offsets the ancient monoliths with the man-made; the steel bases succumbed to the forces of nature, rusted with time. It mirrors the age-old philosophy of Yin Yang – nature’s interconnectedness. While the embrace of nature’s forces is ubiquitous to the oriental psyche, it is also one inherent in animist practices. Saluysoy harnesses that intersection. Batangas is a landscape rich in heritage and artifacts. Merging with that understanding of trade winds is Amihan, the bird in Philippine mythology and first creature in the universe. Like Saluysoy, it is a metaphor for origins. Regardless of whether we are reading this sculpture from the position of mythology, evolution, spirituality or art history, it primarily describes humanity.

Acrylic on canvas
91.4 x 91.4 cm.