The Marks We Leave Behind | Sio Montera
THE MARKS WE LEAVE BEHIND: THE SCARRED SPIRIT OF SIO MONTERA
By Cid Reyes
Cicatrix is the Latin word, and its Anglicized term is cicatrice, but the more familiar word is scar – which means a mark on the skin after a wound has healed. For an artist like Sio Montera, the scar is like a spoor left behind by a hunted animal, pursued by the sinister forces of his destiny. The trails he has left behind in his art – an artist’s only defense for survival in a world assailed by situations beyond his control – are the only evidence that he once trod this merciless earth.
Sio Montera’s current exhibition at the Renaissance Art Gallery is titled “The Marks We Leave Behind,” after the American writer V. E. Schwab’s intriguing interrogative: “What is a person if not for the marks he leaves behind?” Just precisely what sparked this show?
A question arises: who, indeed, is Sio Montera, if not for his artworks that bear the marks of his distressed and despairing spirit? By no means accidental, his canvases are perturbed, agitated, and afflicted, bearing the brunt of the artist’s impulse to retaliate against the injustice of destiny. Indeed, it is one of life’s cruel but unanswered mysteries: Why do bad things happen to good people?
Adversities Hitting Home
As recent as 2020, the year the vicious virus struck, Montera held a solo exhibition, also at the Renaissance Gallery, christened “Epicenter.” Hailing from Cebu, the artist alluded to his hometown’s becoming the epicenter of the pandemic, reeling from the surge of coronavirus and a militant quarantine lockdown, one of the longest endured in the world. Wrote Montera: “As my heart bled for my hometown, I let my art express my feelings.” In these works, Montera painted with an objective, if sympathetic, eye. But the current works, however, emerged from a more personal vantage point: the adversities of destiny hit home - starting with the death of his father, who endured a protracted, lingering illness. Then nature struck the Visayas with Typhoon Odette leaving in its wake devastating consequences. Montera’s home was destroyed, and with it, his studio and his artworks. Through the mirthless Christmas holidays, the Montera family remained roofless.
And then came the final blow: the artist himself came down with the virus. All through the ensuing convalescence, Montera, by nature an introspective soul, mused on the fate that befell him, leaving him wondering whether art, which was the engine driving his existence, in fact, his very purpose in life, had an iota of relevance against the stark reality of his inescapable mortality.
Scourge of Fate
Still, Montera could only seek solace and strength from the only source at his disposal: his art. Fortunately, the artist survived, but like a felled animal licking his wounds - and no better metaphor is there for the unexpected experience that unsettled his soul – he was determined not to be diminished by this scourge of fate. Sure, a person has a right to unleash a long-repressed human howl. Indeed, while the physical body may have healed, the spirit is invariably scarred, leaving indelible memories that hopefully only time will heal.
Viewing these works, it’s as if one participates in the thought processes of the artist: as always, artmaking always starts with a confrontation with materials. As with a writer who fears most an empty white paper, an artist must wrestle with the pure, blank space of his canvas. And true to the American critic Harold Rosenberg’s definition of Action Painting, what must occur on the canvas is not a picture – but an event: a canvas is an arena in which to act. And so it was for Sio Montera: embattled survivor, triumphant combatant, a warrior supreme of Philippine abstraction.
Indeed, there is more to the art of Sio Montera than meets the eye. No doubt, there are abstractionists who can fill up every square inch of their canvas with a suffusion of the most delectable colors, guaranteed to satisfy the appetite of decorators and their moneyed clients. What are they but eye candy? As the French saying goes: chacun á son gout – to each his own taste. But for this intrepid Cebuano artist, the canvas – its immense pictorial space, its unknown wilderness, its impersonal solitude – is a metaphor for life for which one must be armed, and must learn how to flex the muscles of the spirit. The soul should not be allowed to atrophy, in a manner of speaking, despite the failings of mortal flesh.
In this harvest of recent works, the viewer is transported to the studio of Montera – yes, now restored with a brand-new roof - where we imagine him unleashing the pulse-quickening impulses of his hand and arm. Looking at these works, one wonders if the artist were not in fact engaged in a vengeful wounding of the canvas surface. Our curious eyes follow the rapid trajectory of his seemingly random and disjointed lines, whirling incisions inflicting injury with his painting instruments, leaving gashes and abrasions; bruises, scrapes, and lacerations. As viewers, we ask: will the assaulted canvas survive the onslaught of this artistic retribution?
Of course, artmaking is a private enterprise, and whatever motive lurks in an artist’s heart and mind will have to remain like the shadow of his own tribulations. But this show has rejuvenated, rekindled the artist, and, contra mundum, these are the marks that Sio Montera has left behind.