Show review: Reg Yuson’s R. Muck (2010)

Reg Yuson, "R. Muck" (2010). Photo by the author.

Here’s an unpublished feature I wrote on Reg Yuson’s R. Muck exhibit at the Manila Contemporary. This was an assignment for the Art Writing workshop conducted by noted art critic/curator Gina Fairley and jointly organized by the Ateneo Art Gallery and Silverlens Gallery, both in Manila, Philippines.

Not much I can say about this piece—I’ve yet to receive Gina’s comments on it—but the experience was quite different from doing music features, where there’s less emphasis on theory. Music writing seems to lend itself more easily to autodidacts than art writing—I constantly felt an anxiety about ‘bumping’ against an extant theory the wrong way.

I do, however, want to stick to the view that the aesthetic experience springs from intuitions, gut reactions, and first impressions—and that effective criticism builds up on these pre-cognitive, ‘irrational’ responses. My stoutly rational cousin M. would probably disagree with me on that count. 🙂

All in all, I enjoyed this exhibit, although I have to admit that I didn’t come as a blank slate: I’d ‘conditioned’ myself to be more aware and observant because I had an assignment to write, and I’d previously conducted an interview with Reg for another article on public art (now four months late—bad freelance writer. Bad!).

Anyway, having a ‘face’ and a ‘voice’ to go with the art softened—or humanized—this critic’s perspective. Reg has made a name for himself with his site-specific installations; this specialty comes through in R. Muck. He narrates that the idea for these sculptures stemmed from his concern with how to engage the relatively large exhibit space of the Manila Contemporary gallery (interview, 27 July 2010). He wanted a way to make the space of the entire gallery appear ‘friendlier’ and less imposing. Hence the reflections, and the morphological strangeness, and the multiplicity of the shapes: space ceases to be just an empty container and instead becomes an activator of thought, literally and figuratively reflected upon.

Reg Yuson’s Skin-Deep Strangeness
The beguilingly bizarre shapes of the installation artist’s latest exhibit mirror more than just reflections.

R. Muck, Reg Yuson’s latest exhibit at the Manila Contemporary, makes an obvious nod to Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917): the infamous upturned urinal that stood contemporary art on its head was signed with the pseudonym “R. Mutt.”

At first glance, this new collection of works does evoke the irreverent playfulness of Dadaism. The twenty-odd sculptures might remind the viewer of giant rubber teats, or viscous bubbles escaping an oil slick: while they don’t seem to mean anything in particular, they instinctively mean something.

It’s this immediate and indelible visual impression that draws one in for a closer look. Like the most effective Dadaists, Yuson stimulates viewers’ curiosity by defying the popular notion of what’s artistic and beautiful, permeating plain objects with the mystery of infinitely possible meanings. What’s admirable about R. Muck is that it carries through and sustains this initial response into reflection, literally and figuratively.

The “mucks” are of varying sizes but of the same liquefying shape and hypnotizing black lacquer, achieved through many layers of automotive paint. They are meant to be approached and looked at, even inviting a tentative rap on their bowling ball-like crowns—which is just what this writer observed of a fellow, albeit accidental, viewer. A waiter, on his way to a catered event beside the gallery, suddenly deviated from his track and wandered to one of sculptures. Balancing a tray on one hand, he knocked on the domed head with the other, peering into the lustrous black surface for a few seconds before returning to work. While it’s impossible to guess his assessment, it’s clear that a judgment was formed. The reflective mucks have done their job.

Reg Yuson, "R. Muck" (2010), detail. Photo by the author.

Those familiar with Yuson’s ouevres, particularly his public art installations, will likely recognize his penchant for intuitive viewer engagement, as well as his intelligent use of exhibit sites to activate that responsiveness. His sculptures inhabit their spaces, subtly changing the viewer’s experience of herself within a given environment. Specific Gravity elicits the primordial not-quite-rightness with the world, that is at the heart of all exploration and discovery. Not surprisingly, the suspended boulder-fountain is a favorite playground of children at Bonifacio High Street.

His last exhibit at the MO Gallery, Seeing Yourself Seeing Yourself (2009), offers sparse meditations on another kind of primal encounter, that of the mirror image. While one expects most art to display some kind of symbolic depth, Yuson chooses remain on the surface, eschewing fixed detail in favor of the murky reflections of the unadorned monochromatic squares. Like the mucks in the new exhibit, they are thickly glossed with car paint. Unlike actual mirrors, they offer a less-than-precise portrayal of reality, inducing the viewer’s own meaning to emerge from the surface itself.

These proclivities find a fresh and compelling interpretation in R. Muck. Walking among and inspecting the sculptures, the main feeling one gets is a subtle blurring of boundaries. The mucks embody the in-betweenness of things: they are both/neither hot/cold, up/down, solid/liquid. In the gallery space’s second floor, the largest muck drips from a second-floor ceiling as an alternative to its floorbound counterparts. (Considering the delightful oddity of the latter, however, this positioning seems a bit too obvious and distracts from an otherwise coherent exhibit.)

Other oppositions are weakened. The pitch-black purity of the sculptures’ surface is enhanced by the harsh halogen luminosity of their surroundings. The vastness of space is compressed and contained in a compact reflection, at once faithful and distorted. The end result is the blurring of the most fundamental boundary of all—the line between the viewing I and the eye-less viewed object. Reflection occurs not as duplication but as encounter. In these remarkable surface-shapes, a primal strangeness is distilled into an enigmatic yet accessible experience of the self.

R. Muck: New Works by Reg Yuson runs at the Manila Contemporary from 21
August to 12 September 2010.

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