Melvin Culaba’s paintings often challenge the audience to take a second look at social problems. Photo by PAUL ALLYSON R. QUIAMBAO
IT TAKES insight and imagination for one to see art in the grime and austerity of everyday life.

All too often, art is seen as an escape into a world crafted by the artist’s imagination. Reality is sometimes too harsh, after all. Yet for Melvin Culaba, it is this harshness that brings vitality to his work.

Dubbed by critics as one of the Philippine art world’s best-kept secrets, the UST alumnus has had eight one-man shows and more than 30 group shows in the past 15 years, not to mention entering the finals in such prestigious national art contests as the Art Association of the Philippines Annual Competition and winning an art fellowship grant from the Vermont Studio Center in the United States.

Despite his achievements, the 1993 Painting major in the then College of Architecture and Fine Arts has retained some degree of anonymity. Even Culaba attests to this fact. He said some of his peers and former UST classmates, like Roland Ventura, are far more well-known than him.

Famous or not, Culaba’s works are a veritable tour de force—his paintings depict the contradictions and glaring injustices in today’s society.

His style is expressionist.

In the oil-on-canvas painting, Walang Tao, featured in Culaba’s recently concluded one-man exhibit, “Human Resources,” a dog sniffs at an indistinct object, with the stairs of a Light Rail Transit station in the background. The artist says that the dog is his, and the LRT station is the one near his home in Baclaran.

The commonplace seems to be a fertile source of inspiration for the artist.

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Printed is a scene out of any Filipino wet market, with the vendor minding her stall as her would-be customers check her merchandise. Meanwhile, Reflection is a portrait of Culaba’s cousin holding a palette.

“In painting, it is not so much important for me that the meaning should be really deep,” Culaba said. “It should be simple; something that easy to understand, but at the same time, it conveys a message.”

He explains that his paintings appear to be bleak because this is how he sees the current situation of the Philippines.

He probably would not be able to paint anything excessively happy and admits he would not be changing his painting style any time soon.

The fierce shapes seem to serve his purpose well, though. The self-described social realist tackles issues such as poverty, consumerism, and pornography, and his strong views on these subjects are translated into bold, frenetic strokes on canvas.

Aside from the expressionist feel of Culaba’s paintings, a feature one sees right away is that he seems averse to leaving even a square inch of canvas without color. The Preparation, a finalist in the 2006 Phillip Morris Philippine Art Awards, is a glaring example of Culaba’s penchant for filling spaces with colors and figures.

This piece, now in the collection of National Artist Ben Cabrera, consists of a room crammed helter-skelter with household objects.

Culaba says that “preparation” in the painting is for global warming; the many elements symbolic of the varied causes and effects of the problem.

The effect of Culaba’s horror vacui method is nowhere more evident than when he makes larger-than-life pieces. One painting—the 6×6 feet Pwersa—depicts a rolling mass of human bodies, all engaged in different activities.

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At the top part of the canvas a man is drawn into the light, where the artist’s places his so-called “heaven”.

“There are people here whose heads are turned up, arms outstretched to heaven, happiness,” Culaba pointed out. “You see other people here, their heads are also turned to the light, but they are clutching money. They think it can bring them happiness,” Culaba said in Filipino.

Works of this magnitude can be demanding—Pwersa took a month to complete, the greater part of which was spent configuring the positions of the many elements, the painter said. A flaw in anatomy can be easily seen, unlike in an object. One has to be careful when rendering body parts, he added.

When asked of his stay in the University, Culaba says that it had helped set the foundation for his style. He said his favorite subject in school was Composition, and that Professor Antonio Austria was an important figure in his student days.

“Back then, Sir Austria made us join competitions and the like,” said Culaba. “He really wanted us to fill the spaces up.”

Aspiring painters also have to be absolutely sure that they want to go into the arts, said Culaba. While it is good to have a career in it, they must be prepared for years of hard work because success rarely comes overnight.

In most cases, the recognition comes many years later, which is why some painters eventually settle for regular jobs. Culaba said that he had thought of giving up painting himself, but he has always found himself plodding on.

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Like a gem hewed by fire, the toiling artist has years of work and experience to shape his worldview. And because of this, one can be sure that an artist like Melvin Culaba is not just a flash in the pan.

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