On the controlled chaos of Tof Zapanta’s portfolio

Excerpt from “The Poetics of Disparity”, published in Contemporary Art Philippines / Arts+ Philippines, March 2014

I Practice Detachment, installation view at the mezzanine of Picasso Boutique Residences, c/o Altro Mondo gallery. Photo grabbed from Tof Zapanta's instagram.
I Practice Detachment, installation view at the mezzanine of Picasso Boutique Residences, c/o Altro Mondo gallery. Photo grabbed from Tof Zapanta’s instagram.

[…]After a hard-won degree in Multimedia Arts from the College of Saint Benilde, Tof Zapanta now works as a Senior Designer and Art Director for TBWA Manila. Aside from his day job, Zapanta also participates in the commercial sector of art production through freelance illustration work, as well as exhibitions.

For I Practice Detachment, a two-man show of works on paper with Mano Gonzales, at Altro Mondo in Salcedo Village, Zapanta goes back to the drawing board—literally. After an extended period of “doing everything digitally,” he retraced the very fundamental techniques that attracted him to the craft in the first place by doing everything in pencil on paper. Exploring shared qualities and a common disposition, what resulted was not a blatantly collaborative effort between Zapanta and Gonzales, but a dialogue of notes on being alone despite being surrounded by people.

“We were going for something contemplative and melancholic, but some of my friends think these are creepy,” says Zapanta of the reactions to the pieces he created for Detachment. “I think they’re kind of soft though.”

The use of negative space and rendering of detail indeed invokes contemplation. While Gonzales is more measured and mathematical in framing his subjects, Zapanta tends to be more spontaneous in his composition, working with the contrasts between fragments of characters and sequences from his imagination. Both artists also demonstrate a technical virtuosity and familiarity with their medium that allows them to render depth and draw the viewer inward, despite the minimal (for Gonzales: nonexistent) use of color and ground. What materializes are traces of introspection, products of detachment cut short by the obligations to socialize and be part of a larger milieu—or in the case of the art world, a veritable institution.

Zapanta is no stranger to the operations of the art market and exhibition circuit. As a co-founder of the Bloom Arts Festival, it is becoming evident that Zapanta plays a role in the growth of an independent and informal art economy, removed from the hype and white heat of the auction houses and large scale art fairs. Bloom was conceived in 2012 with Samantha Samonte of Today X Future as a means to draw a crowd to the Marikina Shoe Expo (aka Cubao X), where the first edition of the festival was held.

“We had to use every connection,” shares Zapanta, of the painstaking logistics resulting from the verbal agreements and lack of a budget from which the first Bloom Arts Festival stemmed. Rather than enlist large galleries, Bloom was a means for artists all over the Philippines to represent themselves by answering an invitation to participate through email, sharing portfolios via Tumblr and Behance, and in the process setting a different kind of stage where independent practice and the fostering of a community are simultaneously encouraged.

It was through Bloom’s 2013 edition that Tokwa Penaflorida (a fellow illustrator and colleague of Zapanta) suggested him as a participant for Bloom, where Zapanta became familiar with Gonzales’s work and would later on pair up with him for a two-man show at Altro Mondo. Aside from similarities in style, Zapanta and Gonzales also shared a fondness for flowery language. This is evident not only in the phrase I Practice Detachment, a title chosen by Zapanta in order to explore the internal narrative of working with strangers (as was the case with Gonzales), but in the way Zapanta titles all his works.

While he refrains from calling himself a “literary type”, Zapanta’s process is heavily influenced by his reading list, in which the early works of Nick Bantock, Haruki Murakami’s mix of hard-boiled fiction and unrequited romance, and the correspondence from Dangerous Liaisons have all been conferred as canon. This may explain recent titles such as “It never feels right but sometimes it feels good” or “The companionability of nonexistence ”, but it also shines a light on how Zapanta composes his images.

“I tend to cram,” he admits, in describing the process in which themes or short phrases culled from his fascination with literary devices, need to come together as a fully fleshed-out image before he can get anything on the page, in the mix of both digital and analog media that have become his signature. It also appears that Zapanta’s advertising practice has permeated his non-commercial work, containing decades’ worth of images that were both consumed and produced for the sole purpose of peddling objects and ideas.

This gives his pieces the look and appeal of collage, even when they are rendered by hand. “I don’t really trust my talent,” he says; self-deprecation aside, these habits also testify to Zapanta’s capacity for capturing the big picture and retaining its more striking details, placing his work on the border between the impressionistic and the surreal. This evasion of categories and use of random subject matter is even more evident in his paintings, where seemingly disparate elements band together. Geometric shapes turn up beside softly toned swaths of color, wild animals and mythical beings peek out behind scenes from a fictive post-industrial wasteland.

Luminous, creepy, soft, contemplative: these disparities in description account not for simple matters of Zapanta’s technique or skill, but of an aesthetic that is necessarily disjointed and asynchronic. Much has already been written about the cut-and-paste culture of sampling and remixes, and Zapanta’s portfolio clearly exemplifies this contemporary form of collage, making him more similar to artists such as Martha Rosler and the Danish artist Asger Jorn, despite the traditional methods and materials he adopts for I Practice Detachment. This involves neither deriving nor simple appropriation, but a fully-formed concept of what should be in the frame—apparent in what Zapanta refers to as his tendency to “cram”.

“[L]et no one claim I have nothing new to say: the arrangement of materials is new,” wrote Guy Debord in Memoires, a manifesto on the culture of repurposing images and ideas created in collaboration with Jorn. Despite having been produced in 1959, Debord’s words and Jorn’s supplementary images could just as easily be applied to Zapanta’s own composition techniques, in which one can use the thick weft of nostalgia running through his work to pull at the running commentary hinted at by titles such as I Practice Detachment. If “detachment” might refer to the freedom of committing an unfinished thought to paper, then it’s the “practice” part in which, as Debord would state, we find something new in the form of Zapanta’s skill at composing pictures into poetry.

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