Black Mountain
9 x 40 feet, acrylic on canvas, 1990

This monograph was published in conjunction with the artist's exhibition "Black Mountain" held at the Bulwagang Carlos V. Francisco (Little Theater Lobby) of the Sentrong Pangkultura ng Pilipinas (Cultural Center of the Philippines). The exhibition was made posible through a grant from CCP.


by Alice G. Guillermo


The exceptional size of a painting, whether large-scale as in a mural or tiny as in a miniature, brings its own distinct significations to a visual work, as artist Claude Tayag has recently shown. Unlike the familiar domes­tic dimensions of easel painting, the large expanse of the visual field is a challenge that the painter comes to terms with and tames like a spirited, unpredictable steed with a masterly vigor and flair.


In "Black Mountain", the artist Claude Tayag success­fully confronts the problems of large-scale painting. Originally exhibited at the ground floor lobby of the Cultural Center of the Philippines, this work was made possible through a CCP grant that included making available a large wall space for mural-size work. Measuring nine by forty feet, the painting is in black acrylic paint on unprimed cotton duck canvas. Since a piece of ordinary canvas measures five by nine feet, it took eight pieces sewn together to create the desired dimensions.


The artist brings to this work an approach that is di­rect and calligraphic, lending it the character of prod­uct and process. Its direct approach invokes the values of spontaneity and intuition, at the same time that its large scale calls for the involvement of the en­tire body, grappling with the space of the work and charging it with the kinetic dynamism of painterly ges­tures. Its spontaneity places value on the role of the moment's insight, central here to the creative process, involving a fluid dialogue between space and gesture, chance and control. And it is a process that is breath­taking, like climbing a slope with long strides in the excitement of striving for the summit, which rewards with an unmatched sense of freedom and a release of energy in the vast and vibrant space of the overarch­ing sky. The product itself, on the other hand, gives proof of this event when space and time were harnessed by artistic energies.


To execute the sweeping strokes of black on white, ordinary brushes could not suffice, but brooms of soft reeds, of two sizes, were put into service. Their rus­ticity, not quite accidental, found a natural affinity with the unprimed canvas. For the painting ground, the canvas was left as it is, because a coat of white priming would cut it off irretrievably from the sensory organic qualities of the natural cotton fiber that contri­butes its own significations of freshness and simpli­city.


It is a process which draws the artist into the work as he bends over the canvas and draws large gestures in progression, marking the space, or goes over painted areas with strokes of lighter tone, creating levels and implying relative depths. There ensue in the course of working unconscious rhythms from bending over the canvas laid flat on the ground and painting then dip­ping the brush into the bucket of acrylic and painting again, following creative impulse and artistic intuition. In this approach to a large-scale work, the artist be­comes keenly conscious of the spatial expanse of the pictorial field, at the same time that he realizes the temporal aspect of the work, as in a journey in which the artist as traveller leaves tracks of his passage. It is also a highly kinetic practice requiring physical energy and busy movement into, along, and around the work within a short span of time.


While it can easily be said that "Black Mountain" shows affinities with abstract expressionism associated with the New York School, there are, however, signif­icant differences. For one, most of the abstract ex­pressionists, such as Jackson Pollock, evenly covered the entire pictorial field in a dense mesh of gestural strokes, thereby going beyond the concerns of figure-ground relationship to non-relational painting. Likewise, sheer randomness of gesture, as in surrealist automatic writing, largely excluded figurative allu­sions. "Black Mountain", however, is essentially a landscape-universal or generalized in form, to be sure-but one which captures the raw and powerful energies of rocky ground bristling with hardy, un­tamed vegetation, as well as the kinetic tension of climbing crags and promontories.


It is rather in Asian philosophical and artistic concepts that its spiritual affinities can be found. For, indeed, the temper of Claude Tayag's mural is more Asian than Western and the sources of his inspiration go back to zen art which began in the Southern Sung of China as ch'an and was transported into Japan as zen. Its spontaneity and bravura capture the spark of sa­tori, the moment of insight that accompanies artistic realization.


In this tradition, calligraphy plays an important part. And in "Black Mountain" the bold sweeping gesture lines are calligraphic in their spontaneity and direct­ness and in the vigorous manner in which they cut through space. They possess a rhythmic, jagged qual­ity, bristling with the artist's personal energy which, as in tao philosophy, is also an expression of the univer­sal cosmic energy that pervades and vitalizes all things. Clearly articulated, they effect a lively interplay with the spaces between, around, and above them. The blackness of the lines, their modulations, their variable pressure, tone, and density, with sharpness and softness alternating, their sheer boldness of ex­ecution easily recall sumi black-and-white painting with its calligraphic fluidity and virtuosity. The spaces, on the other hand, become richly allusive, and be­come by turn sparkling water as in a mountain-water landscape and sky as perceived through the vigorous gesture lines or as a transcendental space above the striving figures.


Indeed, black-and-white calligraphic painting has al­ways been an important part of Claude Tayag's work, although his art has been marked by versatility and an element of surprise. Probably the constant factor in his art has been the use of watercolor and water­based pigment, such as acrylic. Since his first one-man show in 1978, he has worked in various thematic se­ries. He made his artistic debut with a watercolor se­ries on fiestas where he showed his outstanding ability to manage numerous figures in a large space, such as crowds of devotees in procession, with all the light and color of Philippine fiestas. The following highly successful series, an offshoot of the first, had for subjects the festival masks of Moriones, the color­ful taka or papier-mdch6 animals of Paete, and the stuffed Baguio dolls of orange cloth. Recently, the ar­tist has also produced an important series on Philip­pine religious imagery, particularly the santos or holy figures carved in wood or ivory for devotional pur­poses. His approach is distinctive for its quality of naive charm as though the subjects were seen through the unspoiled eyes of a child.


In 1984, the artist held a splendid show of landscapes in watercolor and acrylic inspired by the Baguio mountain scenery and in which the artist explored the myriad possibilities of watercolor and found delight in the many insights into the art of landscape that the medium disclosed. Some of these were small works and a number of them in large-scale, in Japanese ink on Arches paper, exquisitely framed like Japanese screen panels with hinges and bright brass motifs. In these paintings, black-and-white was dominant with color used for accent or contrast. Likewise, the in­terplay of figure and space was brought out to the full, with the spaces as integral part of the entire com­positional design and artistic expression.


Even more, these landscapes capture the spirit of the place: the small houses dotting the grassy slopes and, through the ancient and evergreen mountains, the mist rising in thin diaphanous wreathes through the valleys. At times, a bright yellow burst of sunlight is caught in a deep hollow and reflected on the hillsides of tall pines and clusters of cottages. The hues are mostly cool, deep blue-greens shading into black and contrasting with their complementaries, with white spaces between and around, crisp or soft as fog, as the shifting tonalities follow the play of light-and­shadow on the picturesque terrain of mountains and valleys that create the unique drama of the place. The gestural ardor of these paintings seeks to go beyond the specific features of the landscapes to capture the large, basic rhythms of nature. Thus, the spontaneous and fluid calligraphy brings out the earth movements in the undulating mountains and hills, with every­where the 61an vital in the trees and vegetation stir­ring and burgeoning with primeval energy.


He further explored the possibilities of this landscape series in black-and-white works in Japanese ink on paper in the spirit of sumi painting. Their achromatic austerity is tempered by the richness of tone, the black often acquiring a tactile, velvety softness and the white achieving a luminosity in the intensity of the contrast. In Tayag's style, the figures of mountains and vegetation are not jagged or spiky but are generally soft, their edges blurring like fur with a secret life of their own. And as in "Black Mountain", the interplay of black gesture lines and white space is lively and inventive, with gentle modulations or sharp breaks where the edge of the brush encounters the paper at an uncommon angle. The very disposition of the ges­tural figures, following a low or high horizon line or creating horizontal rhythmic patterns, is an essential part of the meaning of the work. These watercolors in black-and-white combine delicacy of touch with sparkle and brilliance, as the acrylic works in gestural strokes and wash attest to a bold and adventurous ar­tistic spirit.


For the artist, landscape painting is a total experience where art and nature converge. He thus strives for authentic feeling by immersing himself in the natural environment. As an artist, he is also voyager, ranging the country from the northernmost windswept Ba­tanes and the peaks of Sagada to the southernmost islands of Sulu.


But always, he is in search of the rare and elusive in­sight, the quick and brilliant flash of wings, which Claude Tayag as artist captures in black-and-white ges­ture lines quivering, bristling or rising boldly upon a white expanse of space, the yin and yang of creative energy. The large-scale "Black Mountain" in its bold, intuitive, and direct approach to landscape painting is within this Asian spirit of adventurous discovery which the artist bids us to share in his art.

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