‘Primal Instinction’ Champions Survival Through Art

The latest group exhibition at The Picasso reminds us that paintings can do things that other art forms can only dream of.

by Emil Hofileña

In Altro Mondo Arte Contemporanea’s newest group exhibit Primal Instinction, survival and defiance are at the heart of its collection of seemingly gentle animals and vulnerable human figures. Rather than portray their subjects as existing within the vacuum of individual canvases, the seven featured artists situate them in a fading world placed under strict surveillance. Still, they remind us that this world can be survived. More importantly, the exhibit also sets itself up as a tribute to the enduring quality of paintings and illustrated works. It mostly succeeds, reminding us that there are things only a brush stroke can communicate.



The exhibit is divided into two rooms. The first is dominated by Trisha Silo’s “Safe Haven,” a portrait of a mother tiger and her three cubs, set against a backdrop of pink and blue flowers. Silo’s painting is flanked by colored pencil illustrations by Sara Concepcion: “Survive” depicts a golden snake weaving through black and white flora, while “Curiosity,” “Hesitation,” and “Protect” form a triptych that shows birds forming a nest amid dead branches. There’s an Eden-like quality to these works in that no violence exists between them. These are simply creatures coexisting, never mind where each of them belongs on the food chain.


Detail from Curiosity by Sara Concepcion


If you choose to view Primal Instinction primarily in terms of its mission to affirm the power of illustrated and painted works, then Silo and Concepcion present strong arguments. You could probably attempt to replicate their pieces through photographs of live animals, but they would gain the anticipation of movement. In paint or colored pencil, Silo and Concepcion capture the stillness of these normally restless creatures. They draw our attention to their very shapes or the texture of their bodies, and position them against visions of nature either barren or lush.


In contrast, the second room of the exhibit takes place in the world of man. Karl Sandoval’s “Prisoner’s Cinema,” a giant eye in which other eyes are reflected back in a spiral, watches over the other pieces. On one side is Ku Romillo’s “The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty,” which reimagines the central figure of the classic fairy tale. On the other side is Karl Tan’s “Visions of a Failing State,” a busy painting populated by ominous, foreboding characters from myth and legend. On the opposite wall are three nudes: Marge Chavez’s understated “Surrender” and “Cocoon” and Ralph Layaon’s more mysterious “Hexametophosphate.”

What’s most impressive about the second room is the surprising way that every other work seems to respond to Sandoval’s all-seeing eye. The subjects in the other paintings rebel against it, literally turning their backs to it (as in “Visions of a Failing State”), casually disregarding it (“The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty,” “Surrender”), or challenging its gaze head-on (“Cocoon,” “Hexametophosphate”). This doesn’t weaken Sandoval’s work at all, imbuing its gaze with anxiety and self-consciousness, making it richer.

These more confrontational pieces remain consistent with the project put forward by Primal Instinction. Romillo’s and Chavez’s pieces portray the woman’s body with confidence and grace, but the medium of oil on canvas allows these figures to inhabit ethereal spaces that would be difficult to imitate by any other means. There’s purity to their solitude.


Of all the featured works, Tan’s and Layaon’s are the ones that aren’t quite as compelling in arguing for the painted medium. “Visions of a Failing State” doesn’t necessarily aim to be subtle, but one gets the feeling that its use of paint may dull the immediacy of its message. Meanwhile, “Hexametophosphate” can’t help but look a bit too provocative next to Chavez’s nude paintings. The floating symbols painted in the background also don’t do much to elevate the central figure beyond her nakedness.


Taken as a whole, though, the exhibit still presents solid ideas about the ways in which subjects can be depicted as strong. It reaffirms the notion that a subject need not conform to its surroundings or political context. And if anything, it’s especially coherent as a group show—compelling us to think deeper about an artist’s choices, from the moment they choose to pick up a brush.


Primal Instinction is on display until January 21 at The Picasso Boutique Serviced Residences, Makati City. Visit altromondo.ph for more information.