Colliding scapes of happiness

Colliding scapes of happiness
Bacolod-based artists (from left) Karl Arnaiz, Dennis Occeña, Mikiboy Pama, Jayvee Necessario —PHOTOS BY BUNSO GALLERY

What does hell mean in relation to heaven and the earth? Why do we visualize hell when our lives have been dominated by Christian values, believing that one’s life on earth must lead us to heaven? Does heaven continue to hold a profound meaning despite how life on earth has been mostly described as hell? 

A group show at Bunso Gallery organized by Bacolod-based artists’ Mind Salad Collective, titled “When Earth, Heaven, and Hell Collide” (Jan. 13-Feb. 3, 2024), explores and wrestles with the triadic relationships of heaven, hell, and earth through the philosophical compass of collision. 

In the curatorial wall text, Guenivere Decena defines collision as a form of “condens[ing] the incompatibilities and impenetrabilities of what these realms represent in cognitive neurology, social constructs, and cultural ecologies.” With such entanglement of the three despite their differences and frictions, we can also imagine heaven, hell, and earth as not severely isolated paradigms from one another. All of them, in fact, make sense in a state of collision. The emotions awakened by such worlds, such as the feeling of pleasure in heaven, the pain caused by hell, and the humility enabled by the earth animate affects as our “intrapersonal ventures,” and, borrowing from Decena, collide against perhaps the state of things. 

Bereft of life forms

Occeña’s “Genesis,” 36×48 inches, oil on treated wood (2023)

The collision may unfold interestingly by welcoming us in the gallery to a vast landscape, an oil painting on treated wood titled Genesis, by Dennis Occeña. In this painting, the landscape bleeds into a blood-red hue that gets illuminated by an overcast horizon bereft of flora and fauna. Despite the emptiness of the terrain, the painting’s proportions are partitioned by rock formations where a plateau figures and protrudes at the center, while the spires frame it from either side. The absence of life forms at the heart of this work allows us to be sensitive to its atmosphere in which the landscape gets smothered by mist and wind. 

With this landscape called “Genesis,” we cannot also help but invoke the painting’s attempt to allude to the Biblical narrative of the book of Genesis and the Christian mythology behind our world’s creation. The specter of the Christian narrative that hounds the work also conjures a juxtaposition between the Biblical narrative and the image, and in their meeting point, we cannot help but imagine the possibility of the making of the story of creation as the nativity of the very story of destruction. By being constitutive of one another, the bareness of the rouge landscape incites us to imagine that our visual imagination of hell is also the frame from which we visualize the heavens. With the rock formation at the center of this landscape painting, it can be also the ground on which imaginations of a hellish world, or a promising paradise can be made and built.

Despite the seeming emptiness of such a vast landscape of the creation story, certainly, the development of the plotline of the planet’s beginning will always be enabled by characters and the human body. Karl Arnaiz’s charcoal on acid-free paper and canvas explores the human body to one’s maximal reach: the nakedness, bruised and scarred skin, the disablement of one’s physical characteristics, the folds, curves, and plumpness of one’s size, and the potential eros when the skin comes in contact with another. 

Source of light

Arnaiz’s “Between the Realms of What’s Known and Unknown,” 71×47.75 inches, charcoal on canvas (2023)

With the breadth of his imagination of the body, in Shadow, Arnaiz foregrounds two women who appear like mirror images, and at the same time, the work makes the surface of their skin the source of light. Since light emanates from the women’s bodies, an image illuminated by charcoal, their bodies also morph into a space that provides volume, depth, and shape for darkness, light, and even the world they inhabit. This work is in visual dialogue with Between the Realms of What’s Known and Unknown where the two bodies are united by an embrace and care yet also these subjects mirror one another’s physical disability. While in Scream of Solitude, an individual whose plus-size body comes to the fore as one sits on top of a rock, this subject figures at the center by revealing one’s bruises and lacerations. Through the use of the play and contrasts of black and white, and the gradations in between, the works elucidate the shadow work inherent in the paradigms as the bodies envision and even inhabit their versions of heaven, hell, and earth. 

To a certain extent, these categories, as much as they circumscribe our moral judgments, also trace the shades of our moral dispositions, bodily feelings, and personal imperfections.


heaven, hell
Necessario’s “The Abundance of Right and Wrong,” 45×60 inches, pen, ink and charcoal on 300 Arches paper

In as much as we contend with the dispositions as if we are standing on quicksand, we still draw lines to figure further ourselves and our ways into the collisions. Lines have served as the means for Jayvee Necessario in his use of pen, ink, charcoal, and graphite to foreground bodily entrails by also highlighting the inherent cubist character of the human body. In his series titled Decomposing Gods, the bodies trace and sharpen, through graphite on acid-free paper, often hidden entrails, skeletal frames, and muscles, which make the body, specifically of the gods, lose its ideal image, and reveal the decomposition, not by only in a condition of antagonism or conflict with a non-god entity. Instead, the body decomposes by virtue of strain, tension, and effort. As such, if one desires to be a god, one must also muster bodily constraints. Perhaps the bodily constraints also bear a herculean effort that large-scale portraits such as Play It by Ear and The Abundance of Right and Wrong try to seize. 

In their respective artistic lifeworlds, through the accretion of details, textures, sketches, and shades, while also giving visibility to subjects, such as a quasi-soldier diminishing into a skeletal subject, or two seated subjects who stage moral trouble between right and wrong, the line in these works also show how bodies are not finite, but built and shaped through the shades of one’s dimension. This physical disposition may be visually captured through the layers and shades of one’s labor servitude, the stress patterns that one endures in the process of using one’s body, and the toil that the muscle archives through its sinews and curves. Perhaps, these works also make us realize how we rely visually on the bodily character as our index in navigating our everyday moral economy. 


heaven, hell, earth
Pama’s “Aeternum Remeo,” 47.75×59.75 inches, oil, aerosol, enamel, archival pen, image transfer, polymer glue, textured paint and collage on canvas (2023)

However, Mikiboy Pama also expands the position of these works within the constellation of a global economy of signs, which highlights, in our attempts to think about heaven, hell, and earth, a form of evaluating the temporal nature of the times.

Pama intervenes in the quintessential Bosch’s world by confronting the pillars of our Catholic moral imagination and, at the same time, deploying an intermedial approach to painting, bringing together oil, aerosol, enamel, archival pen, image transfer, polymer glue, textured paint and collage on canvas. In Nativitas, Pama defamiliarizes the sacred image of Mary’s body as dismembered across her head, feet, and womb, which the latter brings to the fore its animalistic propensity. The womb in its skeletal frame bears the egg while being framed by Adam and Eve, and the animals of the wild, which discharges the idyllic fantasy of Mary’s immaculate conception. Instead, Pama acknowledges the precarity of Mary’s predicament, and by visualizing the danger and difficulty of Mary’s childbearing, the traumatic real behind the Christ narrative is further exposed. With this perspective, Confusia Existentia alludes to the Biblical narrative of the lamb of God where he whacks it open for us, putting to the fore the veracity of the human-animal relation behind the veil of Christian morality. 

Such visceral quality of Pama’s artistic technique leads us to Aeternum Remeo where it inscribes the text “Vaya Con Dios” along with the image transfer of the galleon boat at the center, while being framed by two aging figures. The work evokes the maritime journey as a form of aging, and thus, our age becomes a temporal period of sailing into the wilderness of the world’s civilization—whether in the past, present, or future—in which most of us wish to finally dock at the port where paradise can be found. 

However, from the rouge swath of rock landscape to the maritime world of the wilds of civilization, is paradise merely, to borrow from Jacques Derrida, a future to come? After all, the collision of heaven, earth, and hell turns these works into attempts to anchor oneself in the broader colliding scapes of happiness. Drawing from Jerry Walls, a Calvinist philosopher, hell will always be determined by heaven, and to signify hell would always underpin the “desire for happiness,” which most of us believe that heaven guarantees. Yet as the artists turn the gallery space into a state of collision, then the wall paintings draw the lines from which the landscapes of happiness begin to become porous, drift away, and turn the sites of what is supposed to give us happiness as shatter zones. 

These painters, in the end, may be deemed to reconstruct the consequences and aftershocks of collision, trying to redeem the world in the aftermath of a clash, disruption, and disorder. Yet as they unravel their works with such sizeable scales, we may also ask: Is their practice also about trying to achieve the elusive happiness?  Why continue to persist with such a harrowing imagination of the world when such a world allows us to have a peek of hell while on Earth? Or do these works finally settle the problem of heaven and make us finally come to terms that these works by Bacolod artists have finally painted what we need to accept as our paradise?

Read more: Artist researching: Experience curves in Taiwan and Cambodia

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