Dominic Rubio illustrates the timelessness of traditional Filipino culture through his art.
By Mara Fabella
Dominic Rubio is a man with a taste for the past. As an artist, he recreates the elegant culture of the traditional Filipino way of life. His paintings and sculptures depict the Filipinos of Old Manila—men donning the stately barong tagalog walking hand-in-hand with women clad in the delicate baro’t saya ensemble. They stroll peacefully through the familiar streets of Manila. He foregoes the social stratification of the period and depicts the fisherman with as much dignity as the ilustrado. Rubio looks upon this rich shared heritage of Filipinos fondly, yearning to return to a Manila he describes as “romantic.”
For years, Rubio immersed himself in the local sights and artistic traditions that would shape the practice he is known today. He grew up in the home of Philippine woodcarving—Paete, Laguna. He studied Fine Arts at the University of Santo Tomas, then went on to work for an advertising agency in Manila. e most seminal moment of these early years came when he found work as an in-house artist at Pearl Farm Beach Resort in Davao. The position afforded him enough time to travel to Mindanao and observe firsthand the visual cultures of tribes like the T’boli, the Mandaya, and the B’laan. Studying the intricate textiles and art forms of Mindanao allowed Rubio to develop a keen eye for detail and appreciation for local garments that would influence the signature style he would go on to develop.
Rubio began painting classic Filipino subject matter, like the mother and child motif, and the farmers and fruit vendors he would observe during his time in Davao. His early exhibits included group shows with the Paete Artist Group, as well as the Blumentritt and Guevarra artist groups, which he helped found. In the early 2000s, Rubio exhibited at the Ad Infinitum Galleries in Manila. It was there he met gallerist Joaquin “Jack” Teotico, and the two would establish a fruitful working partnership under Galerie Joaquin.
Rubio’s art evokes a traditional style of painting known as tipos del pais. The tipos del pais is a secular style of watercolor painting popularized during the Spanish colonial period that depicted different members of Philippine society, specifically highlighting the articles of clothing they wore. Rubio takes the portrait format of these paintings a notch further by incorporating narrative elements into his work. He brings his men, women, and children to life by allowing them to wander freely along the streets of Manila, bordered by meticulously rendered colonial architecture. Some figures are taking a walk, others are riding bicycles. Some sweep the streets, others sell wares or play instruments. Whether set in an urban or a rural environment, there is a sense of movement in his works that make them resemble stolen snapshots of a bygone era. Rubio sees his art as a medium for storytelling, relating the harmonious aspects of this setting that makes this era for him feel so timeless.
Colonial period subject matter has been a very commonly executed theme in Philippine art. For Rubio, making his works stand out was a matter of appropriating the visuals of the period using his own unique artistic vernacular. Rubio began rendering his figures by drawing straight from references until he found himself able to depart from strict figuration and develop his own distinct manner of stylization. The most notable characteristics of his figures are their thin, elongated necks. These features could very well have made Rubio’s depictions of the Filipino seem like caricatures, yet he imbues them with a sense of elegance befitting the clothing they wear and the grace with which they carry themselves. Many who view Rubio’s works and Rubio himself see this as a gesture of Filipinos literally holding their heads high, or the proverbial attitude of taas-noo. Their faces bear exaggerated proportions and the details on their skin are smoothed out and simplified.
Another technique he employs is the use of hieratic scale. He renders his predominant foreground characters disproportionately larger than his background figures. In some works, they tower as high or even higher than the churches and houses that line the horizon. By doing so, Rubio straddles the border between traditional period painting and surreal historical tableau.
A notable aspect Rubio manipulates to further make his works unique is his background. Instead of rendering a sky for each scene, he paints his backdrop using at uniform shades of red, brown, olive green, or yellow. In the artist’s own words, this is his way of adding harmony to a composition that would otherwise feel visually crowded by the many figures and details that occupy his foregrounds and midgrounds. It becomes a quiet resting space for the viewer to acclimate to the many elements of each work, like a calming musical interlude in between the lively beats of his main composition. He associates his use of red in his works to the Chinese notion of luck or good fortune. A red sky becomes a welcoming focal point that adds a striking visual element to a mostly down-to-earth color palette.
Rubio is just as meticulous a sculptor as he is a painter. True to the traditions of his hometown, he began sculpting using wood. He eventually abandoned the medium in favor of brass—his current sculptural medium of choice. Rubio’s sculptures emphasize his ability to focus on character. Despite the stiff canons of portraiture and stylized features, his banana vendors and mestizo merchants still carry a dose of personality. His intuitive use of color and detailed costumes and props give them as much life as the figures that walk through his paintings. And just like his paintings, his sculptures just as easily t in the modern context as they do a historical one. In Deus Ex Machina, a recent show held with fellow sculptor and friend Ram Mallari at Galerie Joaquin last November, Rubio combined his figures with Mallari’s steampunk works in collaborative pieces that show how art does not have to be restricted by era.
This year has been no less eventful for Rubio. His most recent solo show Mondial was held earlier this year on March 5, just before Metro Manila would be placed under enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This marked his first solo show since he suffered a major heart attack in 2014, putting a temporary pause on his career. He gathered paintings and sculptures to put together an impressive show with a lively opening that brought together artists and art enthusiasts for an Old Manila-themed night at the Manila Peninsula. The show marked a successful return for Rubio after his hiatus. He considers himself nothing but lucky to have gotten the chance to have had a solo exhibition before ECQ happened.
While in quarantine, Rubio maintained his positive attitude, taking this as a time to rest and spend bonding moments with his family. He has kept busy, finding himself more productive and using the extra time to create more works. This kind of solitude has allowed him to keep learning and progressing in his artistic practice. Rubio says taking regular driving breaks has also helped him counter burnout and keep a fresh mindset towards his work. Despite the uncertainty surrounding the local art scene during the pandemic, he counts his blessings at having the opportunity to continue exhibiting and growing as an artist.
Rubio has one last big event to cap off a busy year. He is planning his second solo show of the year at the Shangri-La Plaza to mark yet another personal milestone—his 50th birthday.
In line with the theme of a golden birthday, Rubio plans to debut a new set of paintings that incorporate gold leaf, silver, copper, rose gold, and other metallic foils as embellishments. Gold leaf is a centuries-old artistic medium that still remains popular among many artists today, making it a fitting element for Rubio’s works, which keep the spirit of Old Manila alive for a modern generation. Citing his fondness for automobiles, Rubio likens this new style of works to debuting a new car model. He sees this as a way to keep his art evolving and to illustrate how the romanticism of the quintessential Filipino way of life transcends time periods.
Dominic Rubio’s upcoming solo show will open on December 27th at Luxury Lane Level 1 East Wing of the Shangri-La Plaza Mall.