Mindanaoan Artist in Lexicon of Surrealism
At a time when Manila is rocked by controversies surrounding the questionable declaration of some personalities as National Artists, a Davao-born art talent quietly carved a niche among history’s greatest surrealists. His stuttering childlike speech, incompatible with his towering 6-foot height, sometimes amuses people. But today, Bienvenido Banez, Jr., towers all the more for achievements uncommon among Filipino artists.
Diagnosed with mild learning disability during childhood, Ben’s focus of attention has always been his art. Rightly so. In 2002, he won first place in the Asian Fellowship Painting Competition of the prestigious Vermont Studio Center launched from Vermont, USA. Last year, in New York City, where he based himself after his Vermont fellowship, he was the only Filipino among the more than seventy international, surreal visual artists featured in the grandest-ever birth anniversary celebration of John Milton and what is considered as the greatest English poem, his Paradise Lost (see photo).
Earlier, in 2004, the president and executive director of Williamsburg Art & Historical Center in Brooklyn, NYC, while viewing Ben’s painting, commented to a fashion photographer that Banez is the “greatest living surrealist from the Philippines.” This comment from contemporary Surrealism’s prime mover, Terrance Lindall, himself the organizer of Milton’s biggest birthday bash, may have been trivially said. But today it is qualified by another achievement in Banez’s career: his name, profile, and sample work recently are published in a German edition of “The International Encyclopedia of Fantastic, Surrealist, Symbolist, & Visionary Artists” or Lexikon Surreal for short. Thus, Bienvenido Bones Banez, again the only Filipino in the inventory, now appears along with Surrealism greats such as Salvador Dali, Ernst Fuchs, Keith Wigdor, and Jon Beinart to name a few, in the same book.
In page 35 of Lexikon Surreal, Banez’s work, “666 Screaming,” appears in full color (photo); while in page 44 his profile is printed in German. Translated into English, it reads:
(Davao City, Mindanao, Philippines, 1962- )Filipino visionary, male, lives and works in the USA. Studied in the Ford Academy of the Arts in Davao City, Island of Mindanao; associate professor in the Philippine Women’s College-Davao. 2002 winner in the Asian Fellowship Painting Competition of the Vermont Studio Center, Vermont, USA., and has lived since in the USA.
If greatness also means winning an international art fellowship, the admiration of a globally-distinguished artist organizer, and being genus among a roster of historical figures and international achievers, then, this Mindanaoan artist has at least cut himself a slice of the surreal pie.
Banez’s art is expression of belief in Evil gaining dominion over the Earth. Injustice, inequity, conflicts, wars, environmental destruction, and human suffering—all these, manifestations of the rule of Evil—a perception old as Judaeo-Christian doomsday prophets and feasted upon by the human mind ancient to modern.
What makes Banez a paradox among surrealists is his depiction of hellish conditions not as murky depths, but psychedelic sceneries where spectra of colors enthrall viewers. Figures—human, geometric or biomorphic curiosities—lose tactility and become translucent images and luminosities swirling, shimmering, or disintegrating in a world bereft of gravity.
Marvelous colors, resembling jewelry and precious stones, at closer look turn out to be viral, cellular infections, acid-chemical concentrates, or spreading volcanic lava, eating up human figures, corrupting techno systems, and contaminating the cosmos—the artist’s vision of bio-chemical warfare, pandemics, and natural catastrophe combined to destroy the Establishment. Neonlike brushstrokes snake through his canvases—flowing traffic that entangle on physical perversions and gets jammed on a plexus of human agony nestled on infernal flame.
Esthetically mesmerizing the colors are in a Banez canvas, the portrayed perversion and misery of humankind are as morbid and offensive to good taste. Apparently, the artist captures the viewer with chromatic wonder; then, in succeeding moments, pounces on his cognitive faculties with horrors of the wages of sin. This visual irony fits well with Surrealism as originally defined by spokesperson Andre Breton: Beauty must be convulsive, or nothing! This context, Banez earned his ticket to the theater of the absurd where Hieronymus Bosch and company once sat and dreamed.
It is notable that Banez, despite his psychedelic colors, is no drug abuser. His recent works indicate he evolved from common representational surrealism into surreal abstraction, his figures and images losing physical and material volume, reduced to astral constituency, something only the very rare eye of contemplation could see.
Achieving surrealism by abstraction is not common turf of surrealists down history. This is what Banez should look forward to and discover the other half of man’s nature created not to languish in murky infernal depths. It does not set him apart from his fellow Filipinos but pulls them up as artists universal as any other race.
Lexikon Surreal is authored by Gerhard Habarta. Measuring 9 x 6.75 inches, it is printed hardcover, with ribbon. It contains 1,122 artist biographies from 69 countries in 464 pages, with 950 black and white and 458 color reproductions.
For more information visit www.lexikon-surreal.com.