New York

Manuel Ocampo

Annina Nosei Gallery

Manuel Ocampo’s solo debut in New York was a vivid send-up of his native Philippines, particularly the role of the Catholic Church in a culture that has brought us, among other spectacles, Imelda’s famous shoe-filled room. The 13 relatively large paintings featured here, aptly titled “Stations of the Cross,” (all works 1994) formed a blasphemous send-up of Catholic excess, particularly the pious self-mortification practiced yearly by penitent Filipinos who reenact each of the Fourteen Stations of the Cross—including the crucifixion, nails and all.

Although often presented within the context of emerging Asian artists, the 28-year-old, Los Angeles–based Ocampo has more in common with Mexican painters like Frida Kahlo and Julio Galán who have reinvented the religious genres of the retable and the ex-voto. But Ocampo’s repertoire is not reducible to a single strategy—his solid grounding in Spanish colonial painting is enriched by the use of both high and low visual vocabularies. Cleverly manipulated Expressionist and neo-Expressionist tropes mingle freely with passages indebted to Asian sign painting, edgy cartoon characters, and mass-media images. These works are an outrageous mix of horror and decorative beauty.

Needless to say, Ocampo’s “stations” do not replicate those recounted in the Bible. In Eighth Station, a horned devil spews blood onto a host of skeletons being picked clean by crows, while a banner reads “Paradiso Abierto A Todos” (Paradise is open to all). Even more grotesque is Twelfth Station, in which a giant cockroach defecating its young and wearing a crown of thorns is dutifully worshipped by a boy and his dog. What makes these images so effective is Ocampo’s utter mastery and subversion of the language of religious painting—including the weathering of each work to give it an “authentic” colonial look. In his dedication to damning societal hypocrisy through manic cultural reclamation, Ocampo shares an unmistakable kinship with the late Jean-Michel Basquiat.

This show’s tour de force was Istasyon Libre/Eighth Station a painting that summarizes the major formal and iconographic concerns of Ocampo’s oeuvre. A diapered figure with a globe (turned to the Philippines) for a head and a bloody stump for an arm stands at the center of the composition, wielding a can of pesticide. A regular in the artist’s lexicon of symbols, this character embodies the blindness that results from rejecting one’s own cultural heritage, which in Ocampo’s case includes the many different strains that comprise the protean cultural landscape of the Philippines. Flanked on all sides by figurative, textual, and decorative caricatures that symbolize his country’s violent, cross-cultural history—ranging from indigenous totems to evil-looking American eagles—Ocampo’s infant is, Christ-like, willfully reborn, albeit into a sublime ignorance that also appears, not surprisingly, to be a method of survival. This painting epitomizes the ambivalence that pervades and charges Ocampo’s work as he attempts to retrieve and reconstruct something resembling an identity from the ruins of history.

Jenifer P. Borum