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EPICENTER | Sio Montera

Exhibition Catalog

Sio Catalog
Exhibition Review


Review by Cid Reyes


“If I were locked up in jail for the rest of my life, I would still be writing poetry.” Prolific diarist, novelist, and poet, the late lamented May Sarton, an intense gardening aficionada, firmly asserted. She insisted that she will never give up writing poetry for it is her saving grace, her connecting link to her sanity and soul, the source of her strength that will see her through her season of despair, even as she confronts the very real possibility of her impending, inevitable death. Even within the enclosure of the four cold walls of her prison cell, she could, she said, through her art of poetry, still travel back to her beloved garden which she was forced to leave behind, and continue to find herself in the nourishing embrace of nature.

Unimaginable Nightmare

Such precisely is the sentiment of artist Dennis “Sio” Montera. For it depicts exactly the same distressing situation he has found himself with the enforced quarantine engendered by the Covid-19 pandemic, a health crisis such as the entire humanity has never experienced, a nightmare that one could never imagine. 

As Wuhan in China was the epicenter of the  outbreak, so was Montera’s hometown Cebu, where he was born and bred, and to where he had recently returned after several years in Taiwan, taking up his post-doctoral studies. In fact, so avid, passionate, and committed is Montera to his art that he was immediately able to mount a homecoming show in Cebu. He gave the show the title “Finding Calm in the Midst of Chaos.” Living in a world of space-time, Montera is sensitively attuned to the unseen vibrations of a specific time and place. In Taiwan, a place of emotional dislocation but in which he had learned to settle down for the sake of his studies, he wilfully distanced himself from family and friends, knowing that it’s a small sacrifice to pay for his growth development, and maturation as an artist and a scholar. 

Field of Vision

Impressively, Montera is one of the few Filipino artists I have known, who lives the life of the mind. His art does not start and end with the skill of one’s hands, techniques that have become rote and mechanical, concerned only with the commerce and market of a product. That, on short, is art-making set on automatic pilot. Montera, on the other hand, plumbs from a deep well of emotion, giving a firm and coherent expression to the inarticulate and the inchoate. Montera arrives at a field vision that conveys the density of his thoughts, the depth of his meditation. Precisely, the works in his Cebu show was his reflection on the great divide between his hometown Cebu and and Taiwan, which still looms large in his memory.

Dam of Emotion

For Montera, Cebu has ever been “the still point of the turning world” – to borrow a phrase from T. S Eliot. And when his hometown, as if accursed, had been declared the epicenter of the outbreak, it was as if a dam of emotion had burst. At first welcoming the quarantine as a respite from academic pressure, a chance to devote himself full time on his art, Montera slowly felt himself succumbing to the insidious anxiety, dread, and depression caused by a long and sustained isolation.

Montera’s current exhibition at the Renaissance Gallery is titled, appropriately enough, “Epicenter.” The collective works are the visual synthesis of this artist’s renewed faith in the power of art to translate and transform emotion and insight into something visible and eloquent. They are like vehement outcries vented on the material and tools of his trade; indeed carrying such impassioned and tell-tale titles such as “First Came The Crisis,” “ Season of Ennui” “Fortress of Isolation,” and “Mortal Thoughts.” Montera has always worked in the non-figurative vein, freed from attachment to a literal and observable reality. His allegiance to the idiom of abstraction idiom has in fact already produced a succession of solo exhibitions. 

Wounded Heart

Montera uses a technique which he calls “excoriation” of the painting surface. Inescapably, the word brings to mind something physiological, such as the excoriation of human skin. This is characterized by repeated picking at one’s own skin which results in skin lesions. It’s as if the artist was unable to keep on picking at the scabs of his wounded heart, so encrusted with apprehension, unease, and disquiet. But to those who tend to avert their eyes from anything grim and grisly, the technique is akin to the act of distressing in the decorative arts, such as a piece of furniture or an object, to achieve an aged and wonderfully worn and weather-beaten look.

Invariably, one will sense in this show that the sensitive soul of the artist has been excoriated by this terrible pandemic, which, as health experts have already warned us, will be “long-lasting.” Indeed, we are being taught to “learn to live with the virus.” No doubt, we are now living in troubled and troubling times. 

But like May Sarton -  who averred that, even if  jailed for life, she will keep on writing poetry – Sio Montera will never give up painting. It is, after all, the epicenter of his life.

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