Architect-turned-artist Roberto Chabet, whose approach to teaching was half Zen, half terror, made a living out of instilling a deep understanding of conceptual art in those who were privileged enough to enter his classroom. In an exclusive excerpt from his upcoming monograph, Ronald Achacoso uncovers the man behind the myth
An MM Yu portrait of Chabet superimposed against Labyrinth, his 2013 installation of hollow blocks with shards of glass, lamps with tripods, red nylon cords, and red fluorescent lights.
Roberto Chabet had been teaching at the University of the Philippines (UP) College of Fine Arts for most of the 1970s, and by the end of the decade he seriously considered retirement. But an intrepid batch of students came along that put his plans on hold. This was succeeded by several waves of students who made him reconsider his decision from one year to the next, a streak that would eventually stretch to another two decades. Throughout these years, he earned a reputation as the holy terror of UP Fine Arts with a strong devout following very early on. Much of what we know today about Chabet as a teacher and his relationships with his students emerged from the 80s.
The quintessential image of Roberto Chabet, or “Sir,” that everyone came to recognize was the bespectacled man with a mustache and a goatee, who wore short-sleeved polo shirts and Levi’s jeans, and toted a small duffel bag on his shoulder. From time to time, we would catch a glimpse of the neck of Jack Daniels inside his bag. At the time, he sported a classic pair of Nike Waffle trainers, the blue one with a yellow swoosh. He was 46-years-old and had already run several full marathons and was every bit a serious runner. We would see him in the late afternoons doing several laps around the 2.2 km academic oval while we lingered around the library walk. We came to recognize his lone silhouette running until the sun went down and the lazy mercury streetlights lit up one by one.
We had a Spartan regimen in the first few weeks of class. We worked with paper, scissors, and glue, and composed a seemingly endless series of collages to embody cryptic themes: days of the week, for instance. I snickered at the more obvious, more literal pieces, though we all groped around, more or less, figuring things out ourselves. With little by way of maps or codes, we sensed the importance of the exercise intuitively. Chabet paced around the room, handpicking, without a word, works he would tape on the wall for all to see. As much as it was a class on painting, I only caught a whiff of linseed and the essences of paint in the legendary Dirty Room, which was acknowledged as his stronghold in the college.
If the Dirty Room were a stage, Chabet was not beyond playing the role expected of him. He saw the humor and irony in his reputation and often chose to have fun with it. He confided how he would stand behind a student not to look at the work but at the beads of sweat that trickled down the nervous student’s nape. Chabet had become an anecdote to scare off lowerclassmen, and the aura that surrounded his persona has been ingrained in our consciousness. Myths regarding his mercurial temper and stories of students crying and paintings flying off the building were perpetuated, and while not necessarily encouraged, neither were they quelled.
Chabet’s fiefdom was the last room in the north wing of the building diametrically opposite our former freshman room. It had a breathtaking view of the Sunken Garden that we took for granted, and if you looked out the window you couldn’t miss the mounds of smashed Tanduay Rum bottles that had accumulated on the ledge over the years. The Dirty Room was the embodiment of controlled chaos, where everyone independently settled in his or her own niche. Students started painting on walls; paint dripped on the floor, on the tables; chairs were props to hold the tubes and cans of paint; stools or benches became makeshift palettes of mixed paint; and the heady intoxicating scent of linseed and turpentine permeated the room and wafted down the hall as paintings were churned out like in an assembly line.
Chabet photographed by Ringo Bunoan at MO_Space in 2007.
Chabet considered what he was doing in the 80s as his crucial years, and as much as he had become a serious runner by then, he regarded this period as his second wind in teaching and making art. He forged a strong bond with a lot of his students and developed a more hands-on approach to teaching. In a way, his decision to teach students to paint was a conscious choice to challenge or reinvent himself in reaction to the prevalent criticism against him that “he only taught conceptual art and that his students would starve pursuing this path.” When he opted to tap into their latent painterly skills, there were some remarkable results that surprised the students themselves.
Only simple brushes were allowed in class, flats and rounds, but no fancy fan brushes or palette knifes for special effects, only direct application of pigment on the surface. Acrylic or water-based paints were forbidden except to prime the canvas, and only oil-based paint was allowed, although a contemporary of mine, whose palette contained enamel paint and tinting color, came up with fantastic giant portraits using nothing but house paint. Our crash course in painting resulted in some spectacular artistic transformations in terms of skill or handling of paint, sophistication in composition, and conceptual or intuitive discernment of subject matter.
While Chabet conducted his art classes in the Dirty Room, he unofficially held court at Nanette’s, which was really nothing more than a hole-in-the-wall outside the campus that had good barbecue, chicharon, and cold beer. It was where the group congregated, drank, and talked about art, life, and everything in between, like a less wimpy version of the Dead Poets Society perhaps. The beer helped to loosen us up, and there was a natural flow of discussion that was not possible in the classroom. The place had its own dynamics and you entered the premises with an uninhibited sense of peerage.
Chabet had a penchant for telling stories, a way of making the simplest ones profound and the old ones new again. There seemed to be a fine line in his stories and it was difficult to read whether he was “seriously joking” or “jokingly serious.” He did regard jokes seriously as a portal to the subconscious, or at least he brought it to another level (after all he did pull that elaborate hoax on the fictional artist Angel Flores on national TV). Sometimes, rather than give explanations, he would tell a joke and come out with a parable that might not directly answer the question but shed light on how to approach it. As much as he would try to avoid clichés, he was often alluded to as a Zen master who posed parables for students to question and revise old notions or habits.
The monograph Roberto Chabet, edited by Ringo Bunoan and published by King Kong Art Projects, will be launched on Oct. 24 at MO_Space, 9th Ave., Bonifacio Global City, Taguig. For inquiries, call 856-7915. Sincere thanks to Mawen Ong.
This excerpt first appeared in Rogue’s 2015 Design Issue, now available on newsstands and digitally on Zinio.com/Rogue. Get immediate access every month to intelligent storytelling, world-class photography, and in-depth profiles on the country’s influencers for $1 less per issue by subscribing now to Rogue Magazine for iPad, now available on Apple’s App Store.