The Art of Innocence

Antiqueno at work in his studio. photo by Jude Defensor

Whereas some artists prefer to paint the shadows, Aladin Antiqueño chooses to paint the light.  He prefers the light of the children’s hour, siesta light, the time of day when most grown-ups are either at work or asleep, and children sneak out of their homes to play with each other.  Aladin or Alan attributes his particular fixation on kids at play to his unconventional childhood, growing up within the grounds of the sprawling De La Salle University campus where his father had worked as a carpenter.

“We were isolated kids.  My brother and I had each other but it’s different without the company of other children.  Our playground was so vast but it was really sad.  If I’m going to be sincere about it, loneliness was my inspiration.  I could just see the other children playing but I wasn’t immersed in the process of play.  So my view of it is very idealized,” he broods.

Cut off from other children, Alan became an observer, his eyes absorbing what would eventually become his predominant theme.  “I use children in my art to signify sincerity.  They may lack sophistication, but they’re free from guilt.  We should treasure that innocence because for me that’s where you’ll find perfect joy, bliss,” he explains.  “Weren’t we all at our happiest when we were children and not worrying about anything?”  Deprived of the usual childhood distractions, he was able to develop and further refine his painting skills, which he considered as his only outlet for expression.  Seemingly younger than he really is, and humbler than he ought to be, Alan is an artist who has truly worked his way to recognition.  Not relying on social shortcuts or lucky breaks like some children of privilege, he painted his way to his current standing in the art world through sheer talent, stroke by stroke, canvas by canvas.  All his painstaking exertions were driven both by necessity and ambition.

“Even in high school, I was already earning a bit.  During college, I’d get up at the same time as my father so I’d go to the Philippine Women’s University at 6 AM even if class started at 10.  That’s when I’d do my portraits,” recounts Alan.  “That’s what trained me.  I wasn’t aware then that it would really refine my technique.  Sometimes poverty is what enhances you.”

Behind the easygoing surface, flickers of the fiery artist’s temperament break through fleetingly.  Alan is no stranger to dangerous themes and principles.  For a while, there was some possibility of his pursuing a totally different ideological path.  “I have a group of friends whose orientation is a bit populist.  For a few years, I was immersed in their concepts of equality, egalitarianism, and the like.  But I began to feel that those ideas might be insincere.  They can promote subversion and doubt,” he clarifies.  “The philosophy that there is no spirit, no god, for me that will not be effective.  That idea won’t grow without faith in a supreme being.  I don’t want to return to those ideas anymore.”

Eventually, Alan fell in with the right crowd for him, a nurturing group of dedicated professionals, led by famed calado artist, Araceli Dans.  Through their companionship and encouragement, Alan started to show off his skills and personality.  “Artists are basically emotional and introverted.  We’re used to being inside in our studios.  Each show helps develop your social skills,” he recalls.  “Before I wouldn’t smile, but you need to during your show.  That’s the first thing I learned.”

Alan is very grateful for the guidance of maestra Dans.  The latter had even given him practical advice on how to keep track of clients and send out invitations, among other preparatory tasks before exhibits.  “She’s my mentor and I really like her work because she’s also a realist, and her themes are classical,” he adds.

At the moment Alan is on a somewhat puritanical bent.  “I want to try nudes, but because I come from a conservative family, it’s been ingrained in me not to do any lewd pictures.  But it also crosses my mind that I could do them some day,” he muses.  He prefers to stick to simple imagery that may be readily enjoyed even with a minimum of discernment.  The promotion of beauty and harmony is what he considers to be his noble goal.  Alan’s greatest desire, beyond that of fame and fortune, is simply for his images to be seen and his ideas remembered.

“A lot of artists don’t become rich but the good thing is they get to leave a beautiful legacy.  Their ideas are immortalized,” he says.  “I’d just like my clients to keep my paintings in view.”  According to Alan, most artists don’t like having their art passed around or hidden away as an investment.  He bemoans that often, the financial value of the artwork becomes more important than the art itself.

For the most part, even the artist in him has remained upbeat.  “I’m tired of the morbid.  It’s easy to shock people.  We’re saturated by the negative,” he observes.  “It’s now common in the art scene to always rely on sordid imagination.”  Antiqueno refers to himself as a “neutralizer,” noting how positive ideas attract positive conditions.  “It’s a domino effect.  It’s better to just promote love and beauty… there are no better ideas than these.  All we really want is to be happy.  We all have a bad side, but it’s better to focus on one’s good side,” he conveys.  “That’s what humanity is all about.”

Alan stands by his skills and sticks to his convictions.  A painter in the most honest sense of the word, his basic loyalty is to his brush as it touches canvas, and not to what other people may say of the results.  “Usually, the criticisms about my paintings are that they’re just snapshots, like I just took a picture.  In the art scene, the belief is that if there are more objects, it’s more meaningful,” he explains.  “But for me it’s easy to incorporate things and symbolism into a painting, but to capture life’s meaningful moments is hard.  You’ll seldom find one in a day.”

Alan continues to contemplate the ceaseless conundrum of craft versus concept, but for now, his stance remains clear.  “In the art scene, they always say that what is important is the idea, not the craftsmanship.  But for me it’s easier to convey a message if the work is well-illustrated.  It’s not subject to misinterpretation,” he says.  “That’s why I’ve avoided doing abstracts or non-specific art, because I’m apprehensive about my message being obscured.”

Relating back to his previously radical leanings, Alan explains that his choice of painting style is partly for democratic reasons.  He affirms the beauty of realism as one all classes of people can appreciate right away.  “It can stand alone without the artist,” he compares, “unlike abstract art where the explanation may need to be documented with the painting.”

And yet he also admits to an aggressively egoistic motive for his methods.  “I went into realism maybe because of my own arrogance.  I wanted to maximize the skills that an artist could reach.  That’s part of the motivation, to be the only one who can do this type of rendering,” Alan contends.  One realizes then that the designation of “artist” need not be equated with that of “slacker,” as has so often been the case of late.  Alan’s formidable drive definitely shatters that stereotype.  Even in advice to his fellow artists, he pushes a more pro-active work ethic.  “Improve your craftsmanship.  That’s what sets you apart from other professions.  Because if it’s just an idea and there’s no good execution, then anybody can go into it.  It’s important for both good ideas and good execution to be integrated.”

Antiqueno’s paintings. photo by Jude Defensor

In a world obsessed with immediate gratification, even the circles of high art have not escaped from the impact of an increasingly disposable culture, where strident chatter stands in for actual matter.  “There are fewer and fewer realists these days.  Because we spend more time alone perfecting our technique, our painting skills improve but our social skills worsen.  In the art scene they say it’s easier to sell abstract art, those who are into it are mostly intellectuals.  Many who are penetrating the scene now are abstractionists.  They are usually better at speaking compared to realists, most of whom are quiet.”

If still waters are supposed to run deep, then Alan’s serene child-scapes may be concealing something genuinely profound.  There’s a wariness to their approach, a melancholic undercurrent that runs beneath the surface and goes beyond what the artist himself can explain.  And like the crafty playfellow that he is, Alan doesn’t want to give the game away.

-text and photos by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Manila Bulletin, 2004

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