For artist Luis Santos, 'artmaking is not relaxing'

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Known for his dark, often hyperrealistic paintings, Luis Antonio Santos continues to explore the fragility of the human condition through mundane objects. Photo by JL JAVIER

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — In the first few months of what is now a seven-month long quarantine, artist Luis Antonio Santos didn’t stop creating and putting out new work.

Santos released limited edition prints of his photography through Shelter Fund during the earlier days of the quarantine. One of which is a photograph of corrugated galvanized iron sheets, which has been a recurring subject of his work since 2013. In July, when quarantine measures were eased, Santos mounted a solo exhibition titled “The Past as an Unknowable Landscape” at West Gallery. Two months later, he presented a print of white Venetian blinds seemingly disheveled by a whirlwind in the group exhibition “Liminal Spaces” at MO Space.

The title of his work for the group show — “Each time I looked around, the walls moved a little tighter” — is taken from Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 war film “Apocalypse Now.” The line appears early in the film: Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen), a military officer who has been waiting for a mission in Vietnam, wakes up in a room and dives into an internal monologue brimming with dread.

When he was a kid, Santos would always see the poster of the film at his uncle’s video rental shop. But he never watched it until he was in college when the extended cut came out. “I was surprised to see how relevant it was and still is,” he says.

Loosely adapted from Joseph Conrad’s novella “Heart of Darkness,” the film centers on how isolation and the cruelty of war drive humans into madness, unleashing the demons they have never seen before.

An installation view of Luis Santos's “Each time I looked around, the walls moved a little tighter.” Photo courtesy of LUIS SANTOS

For Santos, the film presents a parallel to our current experience of isolation.

His artist statement reads, “The work is ultimately about isolation, drawing on thematic parallels between the film and our current situation of involuntary detachment and the toll that lost connection takes on us. It is a testament to losing track of days, an embodiment of meaningless repetition.”

Isolation can bring out the worst in us, but as Santos says, it is also an essential part of an artist’s creative process. In this interview, Santos tells us how he’s been coping with the perturbations brought about by the pandemic.

What do you think are the essential traits of a creative person, especially in your field?

As a painter, I spend [the] majority of my time in the studio. You have to be comfortable with the idea of being in isolation. Establishing a daily practice is what I feel is essential to painting. You have to spend time with it and nurture it. I also think it is important to be open to ideas and learn how to develop them. Ideas are so fleeting, and it’s rare to catch them. You have to have a system where you can write them down as soon as you think of them and be able to access them at a later time. It’s also essential for an artist to be able to handle rejections, because your reaction to it can affect how you work.

What is the core philosophy that guides your work?

I make objects that are in relation to how I see and understand my place in the world. From the immediate environment to the universal. My works are usually about memories and its contradictions. Memories as distortion and deterioration, being determined by time, place, and circumstance. How our identity is shaped by these distortions, how it negotiates between past and present, between collective and individual.

And how does that relate to your most recent project? Tell us about it.

My most recent solo show at West Gallery is about my current exploration with that idea: how our memories, our sense of self and who we are, are fragile. My late grandfather suffered from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Because those conditions are hereditary, I fear they may be passed on to me. The physical act of painting and the recording aspect of photography are in a way a metaphor of this.

Do you have a mentor? Do you think it's important to have one?

Not in a formal sense, but I would consider my parents as mentors. I think it’s important to have someone that you can share your ideas with and be able to receive another point of view.

How important is social media in your work?

I think it’s very important especially in these times, because not a lot of people can see your work in person. At the same time, I feel that experiencing the works in person is infinitely superior to seeing them on a small screen. Social media is also helpful as an archiving tool — you can easily access your past works.

Do you look back at your past work? Why or why not?

Definitely, because for me the works are never really finished. In a way, they are constantly evolving. Sometimes they inform me of the next steps to take.

What skills do you wish you had?

Being good at speaking in public, writing, and multitasking.

What do you think are the biggest challenges faced by people in your field today? How do you overcome them?

Uncertainty. A lot of projects are postponed or cancelled. It’s hard because things are in a constant flux. I don’t know how to overcome them. I just try to live with it and to do what I can. These are unprecedented times, once in a century, it’s a trial and error of what works and what doesn’t work. I try to celebrate small, minor victories and not be too hard on myself.

What myth about your field of work would you like to debunk?

That artmaking is relaxing.

What have you learned from work that you've applied to other areas of your life?

Not to worry too much about mistakes. I work in grids and I have a quota of grids to paint in a day. I usually feel very overwhelmed when I see a large blank canvas but I learned to just focus on the quota that I have to paint on that day. I divide the task into smaller and manageable bits and just focus on those.

­How has the pandemic and the quarantine affected your work?

Scheduled exhibitions got pushed back. Art materials and services were hard to come by during the first three months of the lockdown. During the first two months, I got depressed and I wasn't able to work at all. The days began to blur together. Now I'm just trying to learn to work with it and just do what I can.

In what ways have you had to adapt to the situation, work-wise?

Since projects got pushed back, I was able to spend more time conceptualizing my shows. Being able to research and experiment in the studio without thinking about the looming deadline was a welcome aspect of the situation.

How safe do you feel about going back to work as usual?

I am very fortunate to have a studio space at home. The only time I go out for work is when I buy art supplies or go to the gallery. I always get paranoid whenever I leave the house, and it can get pretty exhausting.

How is this pandemic changing how you approach your work? What kind of changes do you think are essential to ensure the work that you do can thrive, while still protecting the people who do it?

I just do what I can and I try not to think too much about the current situation and the uncertain future.