ILOILO CITY—Ilonggo artists made big waves in the 2023 iteration of the Philippine Art Awards. Of the five winners from the Visayas, four are Iloilo-based, including the brothers Tyrone Dave and Jun Orland Espinosa.
Tyrone’s work, Family Tree (5 x 6 feet, inlay on wood), is an ode. “The importance of the family is the main message that my entry intends to convey to viewers. It is my effort to highlight the significance of the family to humanity, and to honor the hardships and struggles of our family,” he says.
Each character in Family Tree is “inlaid in macabre appearance to embrace the emotional epitome of every member of the family, with the parents at the center serving as the heart and mind and the source of the family’s wisdom and empowerment,” says Tyrone, 32. “The overall composition imparts a moral message that a unified family starts at home.”
Jun’s piece, Light Lines (48 x 60 inches, engraved automotive on canvas), shows the artist’s break from conventional forms of artmaking, whether in terms of materials, medium, process, or execution. “My work is aimed at pushing the boundaries of materiality and process in artmaking, and I attained this in Light Lines,” he says.
He employed a combination of approaches to come up with the artwork. He used a body filler, an automotive material, as a medium through multiple layering, then made an engraving using wood sculpturing tools to create textures and images, and completed the piece by burning some areas to generate a rusty shadow effect and reveal the hues of sepia.
The process of engraving and scorching automotive material creates a “light line,” says Jun, 27. The message is that there is beauty and hope beneath the rustic and seemingly ugly surface—a metaphor for hope emerging despite life’s struggles.
Filipino critic, curator and art professor Patrick Flores describes Tyrone’s Family Tree as “an encompassing ecology.” Adds Flores: “Meticulous, attentive, and dedicated to the liveliness of ornament, the scene of the family assumes the form of organisms and their vital parts, perhaps an allusion to the robust flora that make wood, art, and [the] world possible.”
Consequently, “the scene of everyday life that is represented is finally animated by the task of sensitive, diligent making,” Flores says of Jun’s Light Lines. “Exploring the options afforded by the automotive material of the body filler, the artist builds up not only texture but also image.”
The siblings’ artworks are part of the Philippine Art Awards 2023 exhibition of winning pieces at the Yuchengco Museum (RCBC Plaza, Makati), on view until July 30.
Tyrone Dave Espinosa and Jun Orland Espinosa have been luminaries in the Iloilo contemporary art scene for more than a decade. Their wood sculptures are among the most sought-after works in every art exhibit that they participate in.
They are diligent artists who continuously study and experiment to improve their artmaking, as attested to by the awards that they have received through the years. Tyrone gained a special citation for his thought-provoking Nakakabinging Katahimikan or Deafening Silence (wood, 25 x 19 x 12 inches) at the Metrobank Art Design Excellence Award 2021. Jun’s Underneath (wood, 58 x 53 x 58cm x 18kg) merited a special citation in sculpture at the Metrobank Art Design Excellence Award 2022. He was a grand prize winner at the EVM International Arts Awards in 2019 and was shortlisted for the Philippine Art Awards in 2018.
The brothers seem predestined to become brilliant artists by their genetic code. They belong to a family of carpenters, furniture makers and wood carvers. Their craftsmanship in ornamental wood sculpture was their doorway to contemporary art, and their renditions on wood are considered surreal expressionist art.
Jun started as an ornamental wood sculptor at 13, “or even younger,” he says, “through the actual mentorship of our father and uncles, doing wood carvings mostly on furniture, like chairs, tables, cabinets and beds.”
“Our free time as youngsters was spent in the shop in Bacolod City, where we grew up,” he recalls. “During vacations, we would visit our uncles and relatives in Iloilo and work in their shops.”
These experiences honed the brothers’ skills and deepened their appreciation of wood for utilitarian purposes and its potential for art.
Says Tyrone: “The skills that we acquired from the artisans in our family served as the fundamentals of our artmaking. And this is demonstrated by the various techniques that we have applied to our art, like woodcut, engraving, and inlay.”
The intergenerational nature of the siblings’ development is manifested in not only their skills but also their understanding of the tools used. According to Jun, knowing the appropriate tool for a particular piece of wood was something handed over to them.
“The V-cut chisel,” says Tyrone, “is a precious and powerful tool, and this was passed on by our forefathers to our father, and then to us.” Some tools are bespoke and customized for their needs by blacksmiths, who likewise follow intergenerational arrangements and are close to the family.
The brothers consider the tools an inheritance; their familiarity with the tools is shown in their ease in shaping pieces of wood into ornate carvings, jaw-dropping wood mosaics, and award-winning sculptures.
Their works highlight the uncommon and vanishing resource that is wood—and their overarching advocacy. “We try to convey that wood as a material requires respect, and elevating it into art pieces is our way of doing justice to it,” says Tyrone.
This is why the Espinosas ventured beyond ornamental wood sculpture and into contemporary art, making them and their relatives a rarity in the art world today.
The brothers’ artworks are the type that grab you at first sight and stay with you for a long time. This was demonstrated in their three-man show, Salvaged, in 2018, which they mounted with another decorated wood sculptor, their cousin Jeanroll Ejar.
Salvaged was described by the visiting journalist Thelma Sioson as “a searing commentary of the times—powerful yet not depressing, somewhat social and political yet not clichéd, whimsical, witty and fresh.”
“Given such layers of expressions, the wood sculptures, in this writer’s eyes at least, come out beautiful, not trite,” she said.
Tyrone’s work is “individually powerful,” Sioson said. “They’re carved chains—entangled masses that are intriguing to the beholder simply because they show no beginning or end.”
Jun’s work, alternatively, are “sculptures of wood planks mounted on the walls [that], from afar, seem like random compositions of shapes and textures,” Sioson said. “Upon closer look, however, the viewer gets overwhelmed by what, in fact, they are: collages of heads or parts of faces evoking sounds. The viewer readily sees the screams, without hearing them.”
The strong emotions and deep meaning that are effectively conveyed by the Espinosas’ works are rooted in their multisensory approach to shaping their art and handling wood with veneration, be it a found item like driftwood, salvaged wood from junkyards, or new lumber.
They examine every piece of wood to identify its peculiarity, recognize its genuine characteristics, and understand its origin and variety. They smell it, touch it, to feel its texture and age. This exploration is integral to their artmaking: “It reinforces our skills, craftsmanship, and experience—the foundations of our art,” says Tyrone.
The Espinosas follow a conscientious art process by prioritizing scraps.
“We make art from available material, even scraps from the shop,” says Tyrone. “We conceptualize our art not just from the physical beauty of the wood, but by examining it, then doing research on it, making art that is connected to the wood’s life.”
Holding driftwood, for instance, the brothers do not cut it right away or make a carving through its natural contours. Rather, they work backwards to understand its subsistence, purpose, and function. They consider understanding the material a crucial step, for it integrates the natural dimension of the material into their art, extending life, if not giving new life, to the wood.
Their practice of converting neglected pieces of wood into sculptures is demonstrated in Jun’s Underneath, which came from salvaged roots that were stored in the shop for a long time. The artwork is a deliberation on life’s tragedies caused by failing health or illness and faith’s restorative ability to create hope.
Studying the appropriate technique for available material is illustrated by Tyrone in his Family Tree: “I used inlay, a technique applied to old furniture, in which a pattern or an outline of an image is carved on the surface of the wood, and then another material of contrasting color is inserted.”
“The inlay is a 17th-century woodworking technique in Europe that made its way to the Philippines and was then used on antique tables, baul (wooden trunks), or chests of drawers,” Tyrone says. “But I innovated on its application for my art. I used resin because of its availability and durability instead of the traditional bones and pearls for inlay.”
The brothers’ experiments are an outcome of their continuous study and expansion of their sphere of learning beyond their architecture background through art residency programs. Tyrone completed the Linangan Amuyong Apprenticeship Program in 2022, and Jun was part of the Eskinita Gallery mentorship program in 2019. The programs broadened their knowledge and allowed them to understand the gamut of issues surrounding art operations and management.
Family and faith are enduring subjects in the art of the Espinosas, revealing their strong spiritual life and close family ties. Their art personifies honesty and transparency, as well as courage to reveal their innermost dilemmas and aspirations.
This can be gleaned from Jun’s recent residency exhibit, Beyond Senses, at the Eskinita Art Farm in Tanauan, Batangas, and from Tyrone’s works that serve as a tribute to their parents—Indan (inlay on wood, 61.25 x 49.25 inches) and Medjong (inlay on engraved wood, 5 x 4 feet), on view at the Iloilo Museum of Contemporary Art and Museo Iloilo, respectively.
Declares Tyrone: “Our experience as wood sculptors has taught us that art is a powerful medium for public education, especially if artworks are created with the full understanding of the life, nature, function, and purpose of the materials that are used—like wood, in our case. We employ these values in our artmaking to give new life to wood, with the intention of using art to share meaning and empower viewers.”