It was the year 1988 when Basquiat was pronounced dead on arrival, his autopsy report stating “acute mixed drug intoxication” as cause of death. Bundles and bundles of heroin were consumed within a day, months leading to the artist’s demise.
The painter was only 27, leaving what impressed upon us, a flourishing career in the art world.
It’s become a story so worn out, the cliché is something we’ve grown accustomed to.
When an artist dies, the world mourns a myth, almost canceling out the person behind it. The death is palatably met with romance, as art objects free themselves from the clutches of the creators themselves. The icon, is in other words, immortalized thru his work, yet left vulnerable for the owning: in waiting lies a frenzy of vicious hands vying to grab hold of the valuable relics.
But is the object really the be-all, end-all of an artist’s life? Is to create merely a means to consumption? Or can process still serve a quiet purpose?
When art is created for the sake of a raw, cathartic release, it is very much dismissed in the contemporary art world. As sociologist of culture, Sarah Thornton had put it, qualities of a self-expressionistic outpouring are expected of works classified under what is coined “outsider art.”
“I tend to call professional artists who work within the art world as insider artists, because that’s what the ‘outsider artist’ term suggests. It intrigues me that insider artists go to outsider artists for this kind of lost world of self-expression,” she says.
Mark Copino, who is popularly recognized as Elias Kidlat, straddles both worlds. Much like Basquiat, Kidlat dropped out of art school to seek an education in the streets. Like Basquiat who dumped a box of shaving cream on the school principal’s head as a dare, Kidlat once disregarded authority when he paid no attention to his thesis professor’s advice, blatantly defacing academic procedure. “The faculty looked down on graffiti, but I nevertheless drew fuel from that, presenting a stencil painting on the day of my defense–the piece executed in a surge of ire the night before,” the painter recounts. When artists question things the way a child does, it upsets the institution. “Keep quiet and go to your room,” the outmoded parent will say–but what if that room is a studio?
As artist Liz Magor puts it: “Everyone should have a studio, and it should be issued by the government as a health-mandated item. It’s a quiet space; it has really good light. A lot of people don’t know I’m here. If I’m not here, I want to be here; and I want to work. I don’t have my name on the door. I meet my friends outside of the studio. It’s my space–totally my space.”
Kidlat’s room is sheltered among other artists’ within this old house turned collective studio space in Cebu; once a makeshift hospital during the Japanese/Filipino/American war, the place is synonymously tagged Asylum 38–admittedly, a madhouse; but what’s so wrong about being unstable? Aren’t we all dealing with varying degrees of mania? Why should mental health be a hard and fast state? And what dangers lie when we suppress the truth of our being?
If the world is hard and fast, the studio must be a gap that’s soft and slow; a place to be vulnerable. My conversation with Kidlat peels layer from layer, revealing the circulation of thoughts simultaneously dancing throughout his head while hands advance the material process. We broach the image of the boy perpetually visible in his works: his son Elias who brings the painter’s moniker to life. A central figure to his father’s studio, the ten-year old has gotten used to posing for the painter’s work, inspiring some of the artist’s most introspective themes. Elias mirrors Kidlat’s past as the artist draws lines tracing back to his own childhood, describing a tumultuous relationship with his parents. Like most grown-ups, they weren’t supportive of Kidlat’s artistic pursuits, aiming to shield him from the cuts and bruises of a field perceived to be erratic; and only in his studio, does Kidlat soundly align the dissonances of his past with his presence as a parent.
The artist’s first step to composing imagery requires the meticulous process of cutting stencils, the act requiring intense focus, executed in a flow of repetitive gestures. Kidlat’s practice invites him to explore the delicate play between light and shadow, a tranquil balance betwixt positives and negatives; and although Kidlat’s approach to art seems a-matter-of-fact, it sharply impresses the mental plane with an ambivalent depth. His visual poetry brings down to earth many a paradoxical truth: pieces that are brutal yet soothing, of the streets yet nebulous.
Kidlat, who undoubtedly frees his thoughts deep, has battled bouts of depression, adding fuel to the contemplative nature of his work: deformed, exploding heads, fiery shapes, flora, and beast, all bleeding from itchy hands longing for the purity of childhood. A lunacy in high-contrast spilling itself unto canvas, illuminating darkness from blaze.
To each one’s studio, and phase.
You see, every child is an artist; the problem is how to remain vulnerable once we grow up.