Rodel Tapaya’s Random Numbers

Rodel Tapaya, Flowers of May (2021). Acrylic on canvas. 121.9 x 182.9 cm. Courtesy Tang Contemporary Art.

Over the past two decades, Rodel Tapaya has become one of the leading Filipino artists of his generation, gaining international recognition in 2002 when he was awarded the Top Prize at the Nokia Art Awards Asia, followed by the APB Foundation Signature Art Prize in 2011.

His signature body of work, the ‘Folk Narrative’ paintings, draw on pre-colonial mythology and Filipino folklore passed down to him as a child, to create densely layered, brightly coloured tableaux of otherworldly imagery and impressions of contemporary daily life.

Numerous pictorial fragments are compressed together, creating landscapes full of lush vegetation, animals, and colourful deities and mythical creatures, human figures, and mundane objects, as in earlier works like The Paradox of Plenty and The Chocolate Ruins (both 2014), which feature backgrounds of distinctive lush jungle, vegetation, and animals.

Exhibition view: Rodel Tapaya, Random Numbers, Tang Contemporary Art, Hong Kong (22 April–15 May 2021). Courtesy Tang contemporary Art.

Recalling the work of Mexican muralists like José Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera—two artists who cast a critical eye over the politics of their country—Tapaya explores Filipino national history and identity steeped in magical realism.

His large-scale complex compositions burst with allegoric references, fusing myth with history and current events to create epic stories of a conflict between modernisation and tradition, colonisation, civilisation, capitalism, and globalisation.

Rodel Tapaya, Random Numbers (2021). Acrylic on canvas. 152.4 x 121.9 cm. Courtesy Tang Contemporary Art.

Tapaya’s recent exhibition Random Numbers at Tang Contemporary Art in Hong Kong (22 April–15 May 2021) brings together nine large-scale works, all painted in 2021. This new series is a stylistic departure from the earlier narrative works, which cemented Tapaya’s reputation, marking the artist’s new phase of ‘Scrap Paintings’ that explore the concept and process of collage.

Tapaya initially worked with paper collage and illustration in a smaller A4 and A3 format, cutting out pieces, pasting, and erasing details and pigments from magazine images. The artist likens this initial process to creating a painting on a smaller scale, but without the use of paints.

The paintings’ perspectives and random forms are crammed into each canvas, with different stories and worlds colliding.

Later, the artist renders the collages in paint on canvas on a larger scale, layering forms atop each other to create a chaotic fusion of distinct and indistinct fragments of objects, figures, and amorphous shapes on canvas that allude to the urban landscape. Industrial chimneys, chrome car parts, and pieces of concrete brutalist structures imbue the works with a Ballardian dystopia.

Rodel Tapaya, Flying Objects (2021). Acrylic on canvas. 243.8 x 335.3 cm. Courtesy Tang Contemporary Art.

Flying Objects (2021), the largest work in the exhibition at over two metres by three, features airplane wings, propellers, an animal skull and moose antlers, a television, a human hand, and a fragment of a grasshopper. The painting is suggestive of a plane wreck, or a scrapyard heap of overconsumption—a confusion of objects, fragments, body parts, and metal crowds the canvas in an overflow of visual information.

These newer paintings feature forms that are less distinct—some are painted photorealistically; others are blurred but expressive. The works are less figurative and freer, with figures that are dismembered and disintegrate. The paintings’ perspectives and random forms are crammed into each canvas, with different stories and worlds colliding.

The Couple (2021) depicts a pair of anonymous figures amongst a hoarder’s heap of anonymous objects and shapes. In Remedy (2021) several figures—their features blurred and erased—sit crowded amongst pieces of automobiles and machinery; a car wheel, rear-view mirrors, and a radio as a landscape of icebergs floats above them.

Across these new works, the visual narrative is not so much of a human encroachment into nature, or a cohabitation between the two—as in many previous works—but an explosive collision between humanity, the natural world, and the human-made.

Rodel Tapaya, Left behind (2021). Acrylic on canvas. 135 x 135 cm. Courtesy Tang Contemporary Art.

In Left Behind (2021), a dark, four-legged animal with a blurred head—possibly a dog—walks across the foreground against a landscape of sand, concrete fragments, factory towers, and an eerie glowing, blue sky. The scene is reminiscent of Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 sci-fi film Stalker. Like the film, the painting hints at unspoken fears, anxieties, and horror, carrying an element of the uncanny and strangely familiar.

What is left behind—the dog—is the only recognisable figure, abandoned perhaps in some cataclysmic human-created event like Chernobyl, or Fukushima. The scene, as with Tapaya’s enigmatic works as a whole, feels like an awakening from a strange, barely remembered dream. 

Published on ocula.com, 5 May 2021