Cid Reyes does the rhumba

Published November 15, 2020, 3:08 PM

by Terrence Repelente


Cid Reyes

“The virus made me do it,” Cid Reyes jokingly says when asked about what sparked the idea behind his ongoing show, “Rhumba: Geometry in Motion,” at the Galerya Amalia. “But seriously, the long pandemic lockdown, the sudden shutdown of the reality we are all used to, which has affected all our countrymen and really has changed the world, has caused me to look at my life, therefore my art and my writing, from another perspective.”

Covid-19 has indeed impacted, and continues to impact, every one of us one way or another. In the case of Reyes, the pandemic has led him to an unexpected artistic shift, from doing “hardcore” abstractions to meticulously constructing geometric ones, characterized by precise and calculated shapes and forms, instead of the usual accidental, non-cohesive style often seen in his action paintings. For him, this sudden shift is a manifestation, “a way of imposing order, harmony, and discipline projected onto the world,” with his recent works serving as an “external expression of that hope and desire.”

In many ways, this desire for harmony is evident in “Rhumba,” a show that revolves around provincial, native, and festive themes. With works like Moriones, Harana, and Prusisyon, Reyes seemingly channels not only a nostalgia for old Filipino cultural relics and activities, but a collective past replaced by our current, socially distanced reality. 

Moreover, his utilization of bright cheery and happy chromatic chords, warm and hot colors, cool refreshing greens and blues were, according to him, a way to cope and confront the absurdity of human existence. The colors, according to Reyes, “were consistent in my struggle to stave off anxiety, depression, and a creeping sense of meaninglessness in life, realizing our own mortality.” For him, the solution to this existential crisis was to search for or cling to what he calls a “transcendental force.”  “Call it God, but Art is good enough for me,” he says.

In the show, Reyes—who aligns himself within a long line of artists, such as Mondrian, Frank Stella, H. R. Ocampo, Lao Lian Ben, and Jigger Cruz, in the abstract tradition—leaves only crumbs or specs of identifiable traces to a realistic figure, such as a masked face or a stretched arm. The rest is a graceful explosion of vivid colors, a dance of shapes, spaces, textures, and lines: an absolute rhythmic abstraction. “I strive for a distillation of an experience, a flash of recognition, a poetic insight into one’s self, and a visual pleasure that is at once intellectual and emotional,” he says. “And in an optical language that is speechless but communicates nonetheless beyond representation.”

But behind the impeccable form within the works is an even more immaculate artistic process. Reyes shares how, in this specific show, he worked as if he was an architect. “But instead of creating or envisioning a physical structure of habitation, I was responding to the openness of pictorial space and creating a new spatial reality,” he explains. 

Reyes is often asked: ‘Are you a critic who paints? Or are you a painter who writes? Which of the two do you enjoy better?’ To which he always says (but often to himself): ‘Painting is a joy and writing an ordeal.’

First, he starts with a small seed, an idea, in this case, dance and Philippine traditions and customs, and then he conveys these concepts through a universal language, which, for him, is abstraction. “I let geometry: shapes, squares, rectangles, circles, triangles, ovoids, rhombus, cube, crescent, stars, hearts, ellipse, and variations thereof, the entire armory of geometry, engage itself in a free play of relationships,” he says. “At the end, I feel gifted, gratified with a sheaf of drawings, sketches, looking like an architect’s essential floor plans. The final configuration must capture the essence, or energy, or spirit of your chosen theme.” Also critical is the choice and coordination of colors as they are, for Reyes, “emotionally associative by nature, imposing their will on you.” “They can get into directions you never expected. It really is like riding a wild horse you must rein in,” he says. “The ultimate challenge then is realizing these miniature designs transposed into large scale canvases. Easier said than done, naturally.”

In a lot of aspects, “Rhumba” is a testament to Reyes’ personal relationship to art and culture. Scattered inside the show are traces of the artist’s nationalistic pride, his attachment to music and dance, and—of course—the art critic within, whose technical and historical knowledge about art is unparalleled. 

As someone who started writing about art almost at the same time as he began doing art, Reyes is often asked: “Are you a critic who paints? Or are you a painter who writes? Which of the two do you enjoy better?” To which he always says (but often to himself): “Painting is a joy and writing an ordeal.” 

For him, the challenge in writing is to make it appear effortless, “as if the entire critique wrote itself in one easy, natural flow,” he says. “But I now realize that the same challenge applies to painting. I remember the late artist Helen Frankenthaler saying: ‘A really good painting looks as if it’s happened at once.’ So true: the effort, the labor, the agony must never show. Only the ecstasy of the work.”