Roberto Chabet: Conceptual Art Patriarch

Manila Bulletin, April 8, 2012 | Go to article overview

Roberto Chabet: Conceptual Art Patriarch


People in the local art scene have raised his status to that of a luminary, a cult leader, if you will. He enjoys a steady following of contemporary artists from this digitized generation and generations past; these artists, old and new, see his pioneering artworks as impetus for theirs-a veritable starting point of their creative experimentation and exploration and considerably the universal benchmark of what Filipino conceptual art is. Many have dubbed him the "Father of Philippine conceptual art", in fact, further cementing his name in Philippine art history.

For those who have had the privilege of being in his classes at the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman, he was their teacher, one who was infamous for his brilliance and mercurial temper (which I think pushed his students to be the best that they can be and to produce pieces worthy to be called art). The last few decades have seen him being the most influential contemporary artist in the country, singlehandedly spawning a school of thought still ever so present in the exhibitions of the creative set he has significantly inspired. He is Roberto Chabet.

Though his name became virtually synonymous with UP's College of Fine Arts (where he taught for almost four decades), Chabet graduated at the University of Santo Tomas with a degree in architecture in 1961. He mounted his first one-man exhibition at Luz Gallery in that same year. His art directorial career would start six years after when he was designated founding museum director and curator of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP). There, he established the prestigious Thirteen Artist Award, a recognition that gives precedence to young artists whose repertoire shows "recentness and a turning away from the past".

However, he unexpectedly resigned from the CCP three years after, opting to teach at UP instead, where he initiated an art-making process that triumphed idea over form. His stay at the institution also saw him founding a conceptual, alternative art group named Shop 6.

Although not (yet) a National Artist, Chabet is highly regarded for his massive contribution in the development and dynamic movement of conceptual art in the local shores. So essential is his oeuvre and his ideologies in shaping local contemporary art that last year found him mounting a number of exhibitions across different art spaces in Manila, Singapore, and Hong Kong in celebration of his 50th year in the art world. Art critics and enthusiasts even christened 2011 as the year of Chabet. The year-long series of shows recently culminated in a colossal retrospective on all four levels of the CCP building.

But what is it exactly about Chabet's work that is so groundbreaking and memorable? Why is his artistic philosophy enduring and relevant? For one, Chabet's experimental works, from paintings, drawings, collages, sculptures and installations, are ahead of his time and yet of this time. Although they're made of the most quotidian and found materials, the artist's works are highly cerebral and well thought of, inarguably deemed as Western.

The beautiful intricacies of a Chabet opus lie not in its perceivable form but in its core meaning, the meaning assigned by the artist himself. His creative process maintains "a more inclusive approach to art, a search for the sublime not just in abstract but in the immediacy of the commonplace". As a result, Chabet's pieces marry abstraction and the ordinary, the transcendent and the everyday, the fantastic and the customary, creating artworks with new-fangled meanings, eschewing fixed notions about art and life.

Chabet's pieces can also be described as ephemeral and transitory. They can't be permanent museum fixtures and collectibles, seeing as his chosen media are almost always makeshift, things that couldn't possibly withstand wear and tear, materials which prove to be tedious to archive and document. Hence, one can say that art for Chabet is but temporary, only for the moment-the zeitgeist of the now. …

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