By Oz Mendoza
"The Life and Art of Lee Aguinaldo," a newly-released book about one of the Philippines' foremost modernist painters, shines a light upon the tumultuous life of a deeply fascinating and multifaceted artist.
In a speech during the Feb. 3 launch, co-author Ma. Victoria "Boots" Herrera described the unusual beginnings of the book project and its accompanying exhibit. "The idea," she said, "began after Lee Aguinaldo's life captivated Lisa Chikiamco, my co-author, who was then a junior marketing student in 2004." They decided that they wanted to hold a major exhibition of Aguinaldo's art. Unfortunately, before they could get the project rolling, Lee Aguinaldo died on January 16, 2007.
Herrera and Chikiamco decided to attend the artist's wake, even though they had not been in close contact with him or his family. It was, as Herrera put it, "a strange introduction." She recalled noticing the cool and tranquil atmosphere of the vigil room, and thinking to herself how it was definitely not a typical wake. "Lee's portrait and a few works were mounted in a corner behind the casket while jazz music played in the background—I think it was Miles Davis or Gil Evans," Herrera said. "We introduced ourselves to Melba Arribas, Aguinaldo's lifelong love and partner. She was puzzled at first why two strange ladies walked in and talked about an exhibition... not really the usual conversation in a wake nor the typical introduction. Admittedly, in hindsight, it was a bit out of place!"
Nevertheless, the unconventional encounter led the authors to push on with a retrospective exhibition of Lee Aguinaldo's work, which concluded recently, and with the publication of the book about his life and art. In the case of Lee Aguinaldo, the two were practically interchangeable.
Lisa Chikiamco shared some of the reasons she found Aguinaldo so remarkable. "He was very well known for doing abstract art," she said. "I found to my great surprise, he wasn't just doing that." Aguinaldo was something of a "restless artist" who kept changing his styles and methods. He originally did abstract expressionist paintings inspired by the work of Jackson Pollock, then gravitated to minimalist geometric art. Later, he experimented with frottage, an image transfer technique developed by Robert Rauschenberg. He also delved into photo collage and image appropriation. Aguinaldo's final exhibit before his death featured pen-and-ink "appropriations" of several famous
self-portraits by Rembrandt. "He kept doing different things throughout his career," Chikiamco noted. "You could not peg him to one particular style. He kept trying new styles and finding new ways to express what he wanted to say."
"He had a fascinating life," she added. Lee Aguinaldo came from a wealthy family; his father was a business tycoon who did not approve of his dream of becoming an artist. So he had the young Aguinaldo sent to military school in the U.S. Instead of vanquishing his dream, Aguinaldo's time in the U.S. instilled in him a lifelong appreciation for jazz.
Back in the Philippines, Lee Aguinaldo tried for some time to please his father by working for the family business. But one day, Lee's father became enraged when he came to a board meeting with long hair—and defended it by saying that Jesus Christ had worn his hair the same way. Aguinaldo was fired. Then in the '70s, his father's business
failed and the family lost its fortune. Aguinaldo was evicted from the family estate he had been living in. Through all of these ups and downs, Aguinaldo kept working passionately on his art, building a legacy that would outlast all that his father had built. It's a story
that's worth telling in full.
"The Life and Art of Lee Aguinaldo" gives us his biography along with essays about the significance of Aguinaldo's achievements. The contributions by Dr. Rod. Paras-Perez and Cid Reyes serve to situate Lee Aguinaldo in the history of Philippine art and the tradition of abstract painting. The book also includes material from Aguinaldo's letters, which Melba Arribas entrusted to the authors, and images of his art shared by private and institutional collectors—including works never before documented in print. The book is published by Vibal Foundation in partnership with the Ateneo de Manila Art Gallery.
You can read an edited excerpt from the book at this link:
Lisa Chikiamco shares several images of Lee Aguinaldo's work here:
You can read a press release about the book launching at: