Manuel Ocampo

Uplands Gallery

Mobile, menacing, messy: These are words that immediately describe Manuel Ocampo’s hit-and-run approach to painting and, ostensibly, to identity. Like the late German artist Martin Kippenberger, Ocampo presents a surplus of meaning but a dandyish deficit of definable intention. The artist’s articulate, carefully rehearsed, public disdain for the vocabulary of art criticism and theory (he has often selected the baroque titles of his shows and individual paintings from art critics’ and canonical artists’ utterances), combined with his predilection for artistic collaborations (not least with another Uplands artist, David Griggs, who is often resident in Ocampo’s hometown, Manila), further complicates interpretation.

Ocampo’s recent paintings—exhibited under the title “The tragicomic gravitational destiny of the conscious stricken world of a painter’s limp wrist” in conjunction with his residency at Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces, ahead of a major show there in July—are remarkably consistent with those that he has been producing for the last fifteen years. If his mimicry of Baroque religious painting, harnessed to an insistent postcolonial politics, was more evident back in the early 1990s, Ocampo is still exploring the implications of that unruly combination: In The Rainbow Connection (D. Griggs), 2008, for example, the artist arranges images, both heraldic and scatologically abject, in shallow space. He has a thing for blood, guts, pumping hearts, and shit. He submerges cartoonish, Robert Crumb–like figures in murky paint strokes, their body parts and viscera adrift; or floats them aloft, silhouetted above low, cursory horizon lines in arrangements that recall Goya’s paintings. In The Rainbow Connection, both ends of a crudely scrawled rainbow descend into a mug of beer. Beside this image sits a memorial with the name D. GRIGGS affixed to its crucifix. The landscape is completed by the signs of a bad party: an upended bottle sticking out of a Halloween skull, balloons, party sausages, a leering child, and storm clouds. Everything in this tableau is depicted with such graphic insistence that descriptive accuracy or even the simple recognition of elements is subordinated to an ominous but undefined allegorical point. This fits right in with Ocampo’s reduction of forms to ambiguous icons, usually presented frontally or set in bas-relief against a shallow backdrop, like planes in a stage set. The green demon in A painting for a proposed monument to art’s triumph over reality (green guy in toilet), 2008, is located in as ceremonially central and self- consciously iconic a position as the scabrous (crucified) gray torso of A painting for a proposed sculpture for a monument to a crucified minimalist sculpture, 2008. The elements in Ocampo’s paintings thus reek of metonymic significance.

Yet a search for any coded proposition—whether explained by an
identity politics connected to Ocampo’s 
peripatetic life in various Latin “periph
eries,” from Manila to Los Angeles, or through the captions written across his paintings in previous series (but which are present in only some of the works in the Melbourne show)—would miss the point. Just as the artist has explained that his themes are “myth induced stereotype rendered iconic but . . . bludgeoned into a farcical conceptual iconoclasm,” so the chaos of his superfast production methods and opaque allegories is underpinned by an extraordinarily refined painting technique (that owes more than a little to Ocampo’s early training in the Philippine adaptation of Spanish Baroque, in which trompe l’oeil methods figured large). No matter that Ocampo is a very bad boy, mixing angry identity theory with postmodern mockery; he is, despite all his iconoclastic rhetoric, a very good cosmopolitan.

Charles Green