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Looking Back
The sculptor in National Artist Arturo Luz

By Ambeth Ocampo
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 03:14:00 03/20/2009

Filed Under: Sculpture, Arts (general), Libraries & Museums, Exhibition, Personalities

That Arturo R. Luz, National Artist for The Visual Arts, is better known as a painter than as a sculptor is not surprising because his output of sculptures is quite minimal compared to the innumerable paintings, drawings, prints, etchings, photographs, tapestries, collages and other works of art (which he jestingly refers to as ?kalokohan,? or foolishness) that he produced in a long career that spans over half a century. His earliest extant sculpture is a small block of adobe chipped and chiseled with a bolo to form ? with proper up-lighting ? a head of Christ. Completed in 1951, this was the only piece of sculpture in a retrospective show in the Ateneo Gallery in 1961, which was dominated of course by paintings, drawings and one collage.

While other national artists live quiet lives punctuated by regular medication and trips to the doctor, Luz has been quite busy since his 80th birthday doing sculptures best described as monumental.

When necrological services for a national artist are held in the Main Theater of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), the living national artists go onstage to offer flowers. Thus, national artists being assisted or almost carried onstage to pay their respects to a fallen peer has become one of the painful sights at state funerals for national artists. The national artists who occupy the front-row seats are often described as being in the ?pre-departure area,? and it is significant that the National Commission for Culture and the Arts continues to support their artistic endeavors by providing them with an annual grant to undertake new projects. Luz used his grant to execute that huge bent black paper clip that now adorns the left side of the CCP frontage.

Inside and outside the Ayala Museum in Makati City are large sculptures executed from his studies by a team of engineers and metal workers in Laguna. Unlike previous works that were stark black or just plain white, these sculptures now come in more lively colors like yellow and red. It is one of the most successful shows, and this we say based on the number of people who pose for pictures beside the works.

There is something about sculpture that invites us not just to view it but also to appreciate volume and space by touching it. I have been one of the proud owners of Luz?s first series of metal sculptures, the black sculpture that looks like a line he had drawn in the air; this all began as a bent paper clip that was fashioned from a wide piece of tubular steel and was known in the house as ?Anaconda.? While growing up, my nieces and nephew had no fear of ?Anaconda? and often used it as a makeshift playground, climbing over it and even converting one of its sides as a slide. When ?Anaconda? was displayed in the Ateneo Gallery for the first of Luz sculpture shows, my nieces couldn?t understand why they were not allowed to touch it, and why people were contemplating it with reverence and respect.

Another piece of sculpture, which was unveiled by Luz in the Ateneo in 2004, is a large block of granite left in its natural, rough state with some lines cut into it. Aptly called ?Incision,? this Luz sculpture has remained outside the Ateneo Gallery for the past five years because I don?t quite know where to put it; and since it weighs over one ton, I don?t think I can get it up into my apartment. Students would touch ?Incision,? use it as a table, or feel it thus producing a wonderful patina that made me quite happy; until a guard was stationed near it and a sign told people what it was and encouraged visual rather than tactile appreciation of it.

Luz is quoted to have said almost 40 years ago: ?I predicted to my wife that the next boom in Philippine art will be sculpture, and this is precisely the time when, one day, I looked around and suddenly realized that the Philippines had only two or three sculptors ... which I found very strange. We have a tremendous amount of materials to work with.? I reminded Luz about this comment given years ago and he laughed, ?I was absolutely wrong!?

Luz made two bold resolutions in 1969: the first, he would shift from the figurative to the abstract; the second, he would abandon painting in order to engage in sculpture full-time. He worked with Philippine hardwood and when material ran out, he used laminated plywood ? producing sculptures and reliefs that have not gone out of style since and look as contemporary as when he made them. A decade later, in 1979, while already back into painting and collage, he did a series of sculptures in steel that he jokingly referred to as the ?Spaghetti series? because they did resemble bent noodles; but these were made from hundreds of bent and twisted paper clips from his desk in the Design Center. He recognized these as simple three-dimensional calligraphic lines drawn into space. These became known as the ?Paper Clip series,? improved and reissued in recent years.

Works that nobody noticed for the decades have been given a new lease on life through the enthusiasm of Sari Ortiga and the Crucible Workshop. With better equipment and precise execution, these new-generation Luz sculptures prove that some national artists refuse to rest on their laurels or sit quietly in the ?pre-departure? area. Luz is so productive these days and we hope he remains so, well into the next decade.

* * *

Comments are welcome at aocampo@ateneo.edu

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