An “old man mad with painting”—that was what the Japanese referred to as Hokusai, one of their best artists.
On his deathbed, at age 89, he declared: “If only Heaven will give me just another 10 years… Just another five more years, then I could become a real painter.”
The similar timeless ardour animates Sofronio Ylanan Mendoza, higher recognized by the initials with which he indicators his works: Sym.
The Cebu-born painter celebrated his 83rd birthday last March 10 with an exhibit on the Mezzanine of the Makati Shangri-La Hotel, mounted by Hiraya Gallery. (The exhibit runs till March 27.)
Although he has slowed down significantly since his fourth angioplasty, after which his cardiologists determined to put in a pacemaker, Sym’s coronary heart nonetheless beats just for his artwork.
“Art still holds a lot of challenges,” he says in Tagalog, which nonetheless bears traces of a Cebuano accent regardless of the artist having lived in Manila because the 1960s, and Vancouver because the 1980s.
“There’s no end to it,” he provides.
Often, he says, he closes his eyes simply earlier than going to sleep and his thoughts is out of the blue crammed with summary shapes, very clear, in high-fidelity. Sometimes the flashes of inspiration come whereas he’s watching TV. But when he makes an attempt to seize them on paper the following day, he all the time finally ends up with one thing fairly totally different.
Perfect expression is all the time elusive and simply past his grasp.
“Lately, in retrospect,” he continues, “I’ve been looking at all I’ve done, and there’s still something lacking. Not wrong, but lacking. I feel that my paintings are lacking in poetic expression—that’s what I want to achieve. I’m still searching for the technique that will allow me to achieve that expression.”
Maybe, in 5 years or so, he may attempt sculpture, he says with a smile.
We are within the artist’s studio in a quiet nook of San Juan, which he shares together with his spouse Ely. The partitions are hung with work from varied phases of his profession, some within the classical realist type which he favored early on, and a few within the neo-cubist type which, counter-intuitively, he returned to in 2000.
“Now that my seven children are all grown, I’m free,” he says. “I can work anytime, anywhere, and we’ve decided to spend more time here than in Canada.”
Ely interrupts him momentarily to use a transdermal patch, a sustained-release coronary heart remedy. After some time, Sym turns into extra animated, though it’s exhausting to inform whether or not it’s the remedy kicking in, or speaking about artwork, that’s accountable.
Sym ushers us into his sunlit atelier, the place two easels show latest canvases. More work lean in opposition to the partitions, all within the type that he calls “new millennium cubism.”
At the peak of his powers, he says, he may end a four-by-six-foot portray in a mere 4 or 5 hours. Now, he says a bit ruefully, it generally takes him months to complete only one canvas.
It’s not simply age and infirmity slowing him down, he hastens so as to add. His new works are far more complicated and refined and tough to execute. He exhibits us sketchbooks full of preliminary drawings, generally indicating directional traces or with notations for colours.
His type of cubism, he says, retains a component of realism. Indeed, he nonetheless favors the traditional themes: nudes, nonetheless lives, landscapes, however fractalized in prismatic colours and shapes, suggesting rhythmic motion and directionality.
“I try to incorporate shapes and harmony of colors,” he provides. “It takes science and knowledge, not just pure intuition. With abstract art, you can go by pure intuition, but with this, it takes planning. It’s like architecture. It’s easy to build a barung-barong, but a 50-story building—you need a plan.”
There was a time, when he was youthful, when he would paint all day and into the wee hours of the morning.
“It’s as if you’re flying,” says Sym. “When you’re engrossed in painting, you lose track of time.”
These days, he says, he begins at 2 or three within the afternoon, and makes it some extent to knock off at midnight or 1 a.m.
But not a day goes by when he doesn’t choose up his brushes and pigments.
“I’m a prisoner of my work,” he says.
Every so typically, Ely will ask him to exit so he can get some new garments, however Sym would slightly keep house and paint.
“Doing anything you’re passionate about keeps you young,” he swears. “Every cell in your body starts to move.”
Love of comics
How Sym bought so far in his life bears retelling.
Born within the small city of Putat Bagong Bayan in Cebu in 1934, an incipient love of drawing was nurtured by a love of comics, resulting in the dream of at some point turning into an illustrator. In specific, he admired the mastery of line within the work of Francisco Coching, the premier illustrator throughout the golden age of Filipino komiks.
Eventually, Sym managed to check underneath painter Martino Abellana, a protégé of Fernando Amorsolo, who emulated the latter’s type of classicism, a lot in order that he later labored underneath the mantle “the Amorsolo of the South.”
“He was my first mentor,” recollects Sym. “That’s why I know traditional art—because of him.”
In his late 20s, nevertheless, he determined to begin a brand new life, and got here to Manila with solely 5 pesos to his title. Even in 1961, 5 pesos didn’t go very far, and after a stint sleeping in Luneta park, he discovered his solution to A. Mabini Street in Ermita, then the middle of “commercial” artwork.
There he managed to eke out a naked residing churning out ornamental work for vacationers and locals.
As luck would have it, one of his colleagues in Mabini launched him to his father, a budding entrepreneur from Bulacan named Cipriano Villanueva. Spotting Sym’s apparent expertise, the latter generously determined to place him via formal artwork research on the University of Sto. Tomas, though he was already previous 30.
“At that time, modern art was on a pedestal,” he recollects.
Vicente Manansala, H.R. Ocampo and the remainder of the so-called “13 Moderns” had made their creative and business breakthroughs and had been thought of the main lights of modern Philippine artwork. Suddenly, Sym’s Amorsolo-esque works appeared very outdated hat certainly.
“When I entered UST, I was still doing traditional art,” he says. “My professors told me that it wouldn’t do, I would fail. Modern art was the standard being taught all over the world. Amorsolo was over, Manansala was the new hero.”
Sym turned his brush to portray within the neo-cubist method made widespread by the Moderns, which received his professors’ approval and even a couple of artwork competitions after he transferred to the University of the East.
By this time, he had married his patron’s 16-year-old daughter Elena, began a household, and attracted a coterie of like-minded artists who would later be referred to as the Dimasalang Group (after the road in Sampaloc the place Sym saved his studio). This included E. A. “Abe” Cruz, Romulo Galicano, Ibarra de la Rosa and Andres Cristobal Cruz.
With the Dimasalang Group, Sym deserted his cubist experiments and settled on a extra modern type of realism. He quickly grew to become one of the nation’s better-known painters, receiving each crucial and business acclaim.
In his 1987 essay “The Quiet Revolt of Sofronio Y. Mendoza,” Ambeth Ocampo wrote: “The artistic climate in 1968 at the time Sym founded the Dimasalang group was revivalist in the sense that a few decades earlier the ‘Moderns’ Victorio Edades, Hernando Ocampo and others had gone against the blind adoration which reduced the genre of Fernando Amorsolo into Mabini Art… It was artistic suicide to be a ‘conservative’ (meaning representational) painter at this time but Sym felt that he was part of a great tradition which had not yet reached the peak of its evolution. He looked up to old Philippine masters: Juan Luna, Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo, Fabian de la Rosa, Fernando Amorsolo and of course his mentor Martino Abellana who made him realize that he was still part of that development of Philippine painting which had not yet achieved full flowering… Sym made representative art, denigrated by the critics as almost photographic or old-fashioned, reputable again. Sym produced a quiet revolt, a renaissance if you want to call it that, in Philippines painting with his sunlight canvases and engaging interiors.”
Somewhat presciently, Ocampo ended by asking the query: “Granting that he does reach the zenith of his craft and artistic development the ticklish question is: What movement will he start next? The art scene today is representational, former abstract artists have now returned to the basics, so to speak, so what will Sym do next? A shift to the modern?”
Point of delight
When the financial state of affairs within the Philippines turned glum after a decade of Martial Law, Sym had determined to immigrate to Canada in 1981. He settled his spouse and 7 kids in Vancouver, the place he made a residing giving portray classes.
It continues to be some extent of delight that he has managed to assist his household and put his kids via school via his portray alone.
Ever prolific, Sym continued to exhibit his works a minimum of yearly in Manila. He even discovered time to arrange two extra generations of the Dimasalang Group: one in Manila and one other in Vancouver.
By 2000, nevertheless, he was feeling stale.
“I was at the highest point of my realism,” he says. “I was selling all my work, but I told my wife I wasn’t happy with it—there was no challenge left, I had done all I wanted to do with it.”
At this level, he determined to return to his earlier triumphs as an artwork pupil, when his experiments in neo-cubism had been profitable artwork competitions.
“I felt young again when I returned to cubism,” he says. “Every new work was a challenge. I felt like a new person. There is a transformation, because you have to change the way you see, the way you think.”
He determined to name his new type “new millennium cubism,” one thing of an oxymoron since cubism was a mode that reached its peak within the 1920s and all however died out by 1930.
Critic Cid Reyes acknowledged Sym’s seeming dilemma in his essay “A Sym Card to Cubism”: “For these works to emerge in the 21st century even compounds the problem of assessing his works… To be sure, Sym had taken the grave risk of being denounced as derriere-garde as opposed to being avant-garde.”
But he goes on so as to add: “Undoubtedly, Sym’s works are all visually intelligible and guided by purely formal concerns… An expert in building up his forms, Sym revels in the use of geometry which defines each of the paintings in the insistent and progressive multiplicity of squares and rectangles, circles (dots) and triangles, all conjoined in a dazzling and dynamic design. There is all assurance that Sym exercised perfect control in manipulating the pictorial space reaching into a deep recession.”
“Sym, grounded in the radiant light of his country, harmoniously blends the brilliant colors of the spectrum, almost ritualistically blending alizarin reds with peaches and oranges, sky blues with chartreuse and viridian, lemon and chrome yellows shifting with purples and pinks and magentas. Elation in colors will never leave a Filipino Cubist.”
Freedom of expression
As for Sym, he not feels the necessity to justify himself, or his artwork.
“The bottom line in art is total freedom of expression,” he says. “As an artist, you have the license to express yourself the way you want, even if it means reviving the past. It’s all up to you. As long as what you paint is different from the rest. You have to have a signature, otherwise it’s as if you’ve remained a student all your life.”
His pal, the author Alfredo “Ding” Roces, paid him the very best praise when, after viewing Sym’s latest work, he reportedly stated: “These are the works of a young man.”