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Painted Dispatches From Abroad

Manuel Ocampo's new show looks at European links in a journey that began in the Philippines.

April 29, 2001|SCARLET CHENG | Scarlet Cheng is a regular contributor to Calendar

Controversy throws a powerful spotlight, and as a young artist, Philippines-born Manuel Ocampo got the full treatment. Painting in a style that approximated Spanish colonial art and used vivid imagery that borrowed freely from Catholicism, Western history and current events, he had his first commercial one-man show at the Fred Hoffman Gallery in Santa Monica in early 1991. His paintings were rife with skulls, crosses, devils and hooded priests--attempts to capture, as he said then, "an apocalyptic vision of these evil times." He was 25.

A year later, he was invited to the prestigious showcase of contemporary art Documenta in Germany. However, three of the four works he sent were deleted from the exhibition because they prominently featured swastikas. That same year, he was one of 16 artists in MOCA's "Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the '90s," a provocative and influential show that headlined such "bad boys" of the art scene as Paul McCarthy and Chris Burden.

Shortly thereafter, Ocampo was being hailed as the hottest young Filipino artist in America. But, he says, he found the heat too intense.

'It's a difficult thing, a lot of responsibility," says Ocampo, 36, speaking by phone from Berlin, where he was one of 46 artists invited to the Berlin Biennale this year. "I wasn't really at the top, it felt uncomfortable. I'm not really there or I don't feel like I'm there, but people perceive me as there."

So when he won a fellowship to the American Academy in Rome in 1995, he happily left for Europe, where he stretched his sojourn to 41/2 years, most of them spent in Seville, Spain. He returned to the U.S. in 1999--this time to Berkeley.

During his time abroad, he had several gallery shows in the U.S.--including a retrospective at Track 16 in Santa Monica in 1997--and in Europe. Now he's putting his European connection--and the work he has made in the year--up for view in L. A. An exhibition called "Les Chiens Andalous" (The Andalusian Dogs), which includes 14 works by Ocampo and 30 by three of his artist friends from Spain, opened Saturday at Track 16.

Born into upper-middle-class comfort in the Philippines, Ocampo came to the U. S. in the mid-'80s, supporting himself with various odd jobs in order to draw and paint. After Fred Hoffman spotted his artwork at the L. A. Art Fair in 1990, he put on a one-man show for Ocampo. At about the same time, Ocampo became a full-time artist.

He recognizes that timing had something to do with his early success. During the early 1990s, the art world embraced multiculturalism and identity politics. "I guess since I have a sort of nonwhite, non-Western point of view, they lumped me into that group," Ocampo said in an LA Weekly interview in 1997, "and I guess that helped to create interest."

Given his imagery, symbols, and even his titles, it remains hard to avoid reading sociopolitical import into his early works. "Untitled (Burnt-Out Europe)" (1992) was one of the works censored from Documenta IX, and it depicts Christ, with the body of a hawk, floating over a courtyard where horned demons (Nazis perhaps?) prowl. Flanked by two large yellow swastikas, his forehead is bleeding from a crown of thorns.

In response to being partially excised from Documenta, Ocampo executed one of his most virulent paintings, "Why I Hate Europeans" (1992), in which demonic figures dance in a circle before a map of an unidentified country. A panel from a box of real shoe cream--Hollywood Sani-white--has been affixed to the lower right of the painting.

Anti-Christian, anti-colonial, anti-white? Ocampo avoids all labels, including that of "Filipino artist."

'I'm aware of the fact that people will read these paintings [a certain way]," he says. "That wasn't my intention, but anyway, artists' intentions are always ignored."

So what were his intentions? Ocampo deflects the question. "I don't really know," he replies. "It's one thing I'm trying to find out, what my intention was."


During his fellowship at the American Academy in Rome, Ocampo received invitations from several Spanish institutions--to teach, to do workshops, to make artwork. "By then, a lot of Spanish museums had bought my works. They knew I was in Rome and they invited me to come."

One of those who courted him was Antonio Garcia Bascon, director of the Andalusian Center of Contemporary Art, based in Seville. The artist first visited the city during Holy Week, when the penitentes in their tall hoods filled the streets in religious parades.

Ocampo and his wife, Sherry Apostol, were impressed, not only with the pageantry of that festival, but with the general ambience of the city. "When we came to Seville we just felt comfortable with the place," he says. "It was so different from what we had known before, and it was also very slow, really relaxed. We liked the fact you can just walk everywhere."

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