Los Angeles

Manuel Ocampo

Fred Hoffman Gallery

Like many complex, authentic gestures, ultimately Manuel Ocampo’s paintings, which relentlessly display physical and spiritual agony, are simple, organic, and speak of things close to home. Chaotic, angry, and 100 percent morbid, Ocampo’s paintings are also fun to look at. Though they resemble folk retablos, they are broader in scope and less specifically private. No direct prayers to Jesus to help a brother or sister regain their consciousness, no thank-yous for rescuing a loved one from under a bus, figure in these images. The grim events depicted here are far from accidental; colonial rulers of the Philippines, from Spain to the U.S., are depicted as large babies in loincloths, with oversized globes for heads and Duchampian mustaches painted on their chubby faces. These bloated grinning figures ingratiate themselves with their audience like obscene dolls begging to be deflated.

Ocampo’s personal narratives course beneath an iconography of grim expressionistic caricatures: naked sullied figures, fat vipers, skulls, skeletons, hostile dogs, bats, crucifixes, swastikas, and numerous hearts. (On one occasion a sacred heart speaks into the trunk of a headless male devil.)

Men dominate Ocampo’s tales, and the only female presence is to be found on the left-hand side of one painting, Todos Caeran, (Everyone will fall; all works 1990-91) where a female and several male bathers splash around in or resign themselves to the chocolate-shit-death pool. On the right side of this painting a shotgun-toting, hooded inquisitor holds a noose around the neck of a religious figure. Above him it reads “MORTE pour MORTE” (A dead woman for a dead woman); above a radiant eyeball in the sky are the words “SUBIR Y BAJAR” (To go up and come down), and farther down, “MURIO LA VERDAD” (Truth died.) From one image in which the earth has turned red by absorbing the violence, to another in which a lurid red square formally blocks out half a panel, or a third in which a figure strolls across the picture with his hand or head cut off, dripping like a leaky faucet, Ocampo’s use of crimson is frequent and pointedly bloody. If there are two figures in the same painting, they are inevitably in conflict or working as a team to eliminate someone else. If a figure is alone, it is a Klansman, or Satan himself. Christianity appears as woeful healer, hapless observer, and sometimes even in collusion with a cast of cruel victimizers.

As distressing as Ocampo’s subject matter gets, the surfaces of the painting are warm and inviting. Greens, browns, yellows, and purples constitute Ocampo’s principal palette. In almost every painting he performs an unusual gestural stunt, scraping paint off the surface to give them a smacked-about, patinaed look; these works appear to have endured adversity like weathered political posters. The emotional content of this work demands more than complacent esthetic appreciation. Its urgency is deeply felt because the melodramas detailed are ultimately real.

Benjamin Weissman