Marc Aran Reyes’ monochromatic paintings tell the story of stark opposites, not just in the palette, but in the psyche, and how these clash and eventually synthesize.
By Pao Vergara
The Taoist Chuang Tzu once shared upon waking up from a nap that he dreamt he was a butterfly, carefree, flitting from plant to plant. One can imagine the Chinese philosopher’s horror and despondency as his wings morphed into arms, as he fell from the sky, ability to fly lost, crashing into his clunky human body.
Perhaps that’s what led him to add: “Now I’m not sure if I’m Chuang Tzu who dreamt he was a butterfly, or I’m a butterfly dreaming he’s Chuang Tzu.”
Enter Marc Aran Reyes, whose works perhaps revitalize the ancient anecdote.
While the paintings look similar to the surreal, landscape-dominated digital art popular among younger creators posting in social media sites today, they are traditional paintings, with a striking attention to detail which many have commented on, noting themes such as dualism and the clash of man and machine.
The artist himself embraces such comments and interpretations, stating that his work “is about intrapersonal conflicts, mental health and existentialism, in a way, a thorough contemplation of the self or the chaos within one’s mind.”
Before joining Art Underground’s roster of artists, representing the gallery locally and abroad, before winning a Philippine Art Award in 2016, before becoming a two-time finalist in the Metrobank Art and Design Excellence Awards, before graduating Fine Arts with an Advertising focus from Far Eastern University, before deciding to pursue art instead of the field he prepared for, Reyes was a boy mesmerized by his mother’s cross-stitching.
Her attention to detail and how it manifested in the patches and hatches of her work left a lasting impression in Reyes’ mind, seemingly stronger than that of any artist he was exposed to in the academe.
He looks back, noting “the intricacy of the stitches, the use of specific tones and colors, the exact pattern, made a huge influence on how I paint. Also, how it’s meditative for her, it clears her mind. I wanted that experience too.”
For Filipinos, weaving art and textile work goes beyond the practical need for cloth works. Binakol weaves from Ilocos Sur are designed to create optical illusions, which lead the viewer to a trance-like state, enabling them to communicate with the otherworld. Further south, Manobo suyam scarves are made by a babaylan and her family, its patterns based on messages from a tribesman’s spirit guides.
The Laguna-based artist’s work echoes the painterly black-and-white photography of surrealist painter-turned-photographer Man Ray, as well as those of his lover and fellow artist-photographer, Lee Miller.
Surrealism was in vogue during their time, the decades between world wars.
Like Ray’s and Miller’s, Reyes’ subjects are largely women who seem to have gotten stuck in a dreamscape, unable to wake up back into reality, perhaps, choosing not to.
Some seem to be enjoying the experience, one rides a bird, another looks around in wonder, likely embracing her new world. Some still are trapped, despairing at being unable to leave, like the female lead in Makoto Shinkai’s The Place Promised In Our Early Days, technically in a coma in the “waking world” but stuck in a dream in her experience.
Others, too, seem ambivalent about the situation, surprised at where they are, similar to the protagonist in the Love Cherry Motion music video by girl group Loona, waking up in a parallel plane that’s possibly more real than the world she knew as a teenager living in otherwise idyllic Jeju Island. Finally, a few subjects drift into darker territory: one woman carried, no, dragged by a balloon haunts viewers long after they walk away.
In a spirit similar to the Dada and Surrealist painters of previous decades, Reyes continues that thread of twisting seemingly harmless objects: Barbie dolls, glass cases, even raindrops on glass. All of these details are painted with photorealism, and it’s precisely this technique that makes Reyes’ dreamscapes, like Dali’s use of a similar realism, unnerving.
Locally, the painter’s work can also be compared to Zobel’s saetas, despite the latter’s paintings being more abstract, having no defined subject. Both artists’ works share the following: monochromatic, often black, gradients, expansive backgrounds, massive use of empty space, which observers have likened to Zen art.
Black and white, “without the distraction of color,” as one observer of Reyes’ work puts it, truly highlights tension and duality, and directs a work’s narrative towards a synthesis of opposites.
Reyes asks the following question and confronts these seeming contradictions in his work: Does never-ending white space suggest “a calm mind” or “a fear of nothingness”? After a pause (I can only smile, hesitant to toss an answer) Reyes continues, saying, “perhaps both. A metaphor for life in general.”
Carl Jung, drawing on anthropological data for his theories on the subconscious, observed that spiritual traditions across the world, from indigenous animism to the mystical schools of major religions, had as their primary initiations a confrontation with the “dark, unconscious,” oft-avoided aspects of our psyche.
Rumi, the Sufi mystic and poet from the Islamic golden age, echoes this in his saying: “to know your God, you must know your devil.”
Jung then observed that enlightenment, or better yet, a calm mind, emerges from fully confronting the darkness. Reyes seems to be a man of few words, but it seems life’s most profound insights – and consolations – are best communicated in a language beyond words.