SO NEAR YET SO FAR. April 6, 2008 -- West Gallery

Spiritual Remittance: One Warrior Under God

By Jay Bautista

For The Kingdom

Two years ago, Mark Andy Garcia and a handful of young artists of his age joined the throng of 3,000 Filipinos who leave everyday to work in Saudi Arabia. The 830,000 square mile desert is home to 28 million people including 1.5 million Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) who hope that one day to return to their country and fulfill their dreams for better and dignified lives not only for their families.

The story of how Andy found God in the most unusual and unlikeliest of places is witnessed in these seven works on canvas and 12 works on paper. In a way, the exhibit celebrates the portraits of people of the Metropolitan Bible Baptist Church which has been continuing their mission for almost 20 years now. The church is located in Al-Khobar, a town near Dammam, where Andy worked and stayed. A few pieces are metaphors of what Andy experiences as a Christian and themes of what he perceives are things to come. Overall, the works are examinations of how an artist observes other milieus and cultures dealing with religiosity, politics, and identity. 

Instrumental to his conversion, this wealth of images in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has made a strong impression on him and eventually to his art to this day. It shines more than when the sun reflects on the oil in the desert. They are heavier in meaning than all the weight of the luggage when Andy went home. More than the dollars he has earned, this spiritual remittance makes him even richer than cost of all the barrels of oil combined. 

When Andy returned to the Philippines, he wasn’t clad in material gold which is sold cheaply and abundantly there, he brought home with him a bible. It is in this context that you have to view Andy’s first exhibition.   

The Power

Most of the portraits of people (including him) are accompanied by his favorite verses in the Bible. Consider the centerpiece work Self Portrait with Double-Edged Sword which came from Acts 1: 8. It alludes to how the Holy Spirit fills you with passion and power when it descends upon you. With this strength, you will be witnesses for the Lord in the places you will go such as Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria then and to the ends of the earth now. Andy’s double-edged sword could be his being a Christian and artist at the same time. Such dual role makes him one artistic warrior for the One who occupies the throne seat on top of Andy’s heart.

Self Portrait with Double Edged Sword”oil on canvas, 48 x 36 inches - 2007


This double-edged sword is once again symbolically used in Kuya Gani and His Double-Edged Sword. This time it represents the Word of God as all those who listen Kuya Gani every time he speaks, thus, wield his sword. The congregation never fails to be awed and enthralled by him. Inspired by a verse taken in Hebrews 4:12 referring to the Word of God being alive and active, it is sharper than any double-edged sword. It cuts all the way through where the souls and spirit come together. It judges the desires and thoughts of the heart. 

"Kuya Ganie with Double Edged Sword”oil on paper, 30 x 22 inches - 2007


Preacher Kuya Louie is someone Andy looks up to like the older brother he never had. Kuya Louie’s sole strict business is whether you will go to heaven or not. Such seriousness Andy has captured especially how the pastor actually seats on his favorite chair beside the lampshade. A typical style of Andy is how he writes reminders to himself on the works, like the time of day or what he remembers of that person for example his skin color or inherent gestures. They would form part of his art works. On the far right notice the hour for which he had painted this.  

"Preacher Kuya Louie”oil on paper, 30 x 22 inches - 2007


You will immediately find Andy’s portraits as both personal and highly spiritual. The personal is drawn from his experiences with the church members. The spiritual is full of symbolic meaning of his walk with God.

Kuya Gerry And His Mansion is Gerry, the current deacon of their church. Having devoted more than half of his life to the church, he confided to Andy that he longs for the simple life as represented by the school of fish that swim in harmony, unmindful of banality and stressful demands of everyday life. The conscious act of fishing could also be a symbol of his being a fisher of men as a pastor. As he is continuously being blessed by the rewards of his vocation, Kuya Gerry’s mansion is not being constructed anywhere here but somewhere up there and not by anyone but the great carpenter in Jesus Christ. In the painting, the biggest rose refers to his biggest supporter Ate Charlene, his wife while the two small ones are his children. 

"Kuya Jerry's Mansion”oil on paper, 30 x 22 inches - 2007


Old Man With Bible has Andy yielding his blots and bold strokes in full bravura. He praises men who even in their ripe old age, fading in their graying years, still faithfully read the Holy Scriptures every single day. These somewhat possessed believers still find meaning despite having read it over and over. The beauty of this piece is that it presents a solitary being, softly textured by impressions of a monochrome of browns with other colors giving it its purified and transcendent quality, which only emerges after a long hard look.

"Old Man with Bible”oil on canvas, 48 x 36 inches- 2008


Andy is both informal and spontaneous in handling his subjects. Kuya Gerry Preaching the Gospel shows how the leader of their church can be true to form. His child-like inventive transformation of the people who influenced him have proved of his time and resources spent wisely in the twelve months he has stayed there.

"Kuya Jerry Preaching The Gospel”oil on canvas, 72 x 72 inches - 2008


A welcome respite from the plethora of intense images, the expressionist rendition of Kuya Jess, Kuya Louie, and Kuya Gary who sing praise and worship songs as The Singing Saudi Men Trio (C) at the start of their Friday service where all eyes are focused on them. Meanwhile the team of Kuya Gani and Tin Tin the Song Leader guides the throng of the faithful by alternating music and preaching as a form of prayer. 

"The Singing Saudi-Men Trio”.. oil on canvas, 48 x 60 inches - 2008

"Kuya Ganie and Tin-tin The Song Leader”oil on paper, 30" x 22" - 2007

"Kuya Jess Friday Morning Concert”oil on paper, 30 x 22 inches - 2007


A work which inspired Andy to paint like the Italian artist Modigliani is Kuya Jess Friday Morning Concert. Another music leader Kuya Jess, whose neck has been elongated, plays the rhythm guitar as if it were part of his body during their Friday worship (For those who don’t know, Friday is the only free day for OFWs in Saudi Arabia and for the faithful, it is the only day they could attend Christian fellowships like this). The songs have become classics as Kuya Jess rendered the songs in a concert-like manner. Although it has taken a while, Andy is not sure how he perfectly looks like (hence the note negro hehe which he erased but you can still read). 

The positive visual testimonies of these portraits are that they could relate to you or your neighbor's stubborn agnostic relative who avoids you when you invite him to read the Bible. His Kuya Gani and Ate Charlene could be your Tito Gil and Tita Baby. The value of Andy's works captures the very faith that passionately made them.  

A master of spontaneity even at his young age of 23, Andy respects the nature of his materials letting the paint drip as it dries while he works on it. Andy's works on paper were the first ones he made when he got back and fastest to finish. Not only were they accessible but the size was something Andy was comfortable to handle. The Steadfast is a fine example. Here the poet in Andy shows this image of Jesus as a tree with many eyes, being omnipresent. He sees all and knows all things that happen.  

"The Steadfast”. oil on paper, 30 x 22 inches - 2007


Angelo was Andy’s roommate who got even more homesick as the day of their departure drew near. Andy vividly remembers Angelo's blank stare to his every inquiry. Andy exaggerates the asymmetry, eyes are blank but intense, as the face look aggressive even brutal to the point of threatening him. In Saudi Arabia, homesickness is a killer disease. They say you will never know homesickness until you are actually feeling it, one cannot fathom the concrete pain of being away from one’s love ones. Angelo could endlessly stare at an empty wall for long hours that it totally frightened, and even a cause for concern to Andy. As a postscript, Angelo even went ahead before their actual day of departure. 

"Angelo”oil on paper, 30 x 22 inches - 2007


Crucifixion is a very moving image that Andy has depicted which shows how he has surrendered and committed to Jesus as His Savior that he even desires to be crucified with Him. Here he cries with Him as he carries His pain and suffering. Andy is also moved by John 11:35, Jesus wept, the shortest verses in the Bible and most touching. He would be more than willing to weep for and with the Lord than be happy without Him.

"Crucifixion”oil on paper, 30 x 22 inches - 2007


Notice how Andy’s images haunt us of guilt as we are transformed into a mirror as we look ourselves. These encounter turns into recognition of one’s identity with a reluctance to overcome in the healing act of acceptance.

In the other works, Andy continues to explore the mysteries of his faith and art that the battle between good and evil has often been depicted. In The Preacher and the Pagan Andy feels obligated to people with this dual being. To contextualize what has been said in Romans 1:15, one is obliged to preach to the civilized and to the savage, to the educated and the ignorant, including art lovers and to the layman, as well. Sometimes you would think that Andy doesn’t have control over his images, you could feel his faith in every work.  

"The Preacher and the Pagan”oil on paper, 30 x 22 inches - 2007


Although Andy wishes to forget about this true account in The Atheist and the Preacher, he wants the viewers to witness how even his friend could turn against his desire for him to get to know the Lord. Not to be outwitted, the atheist comment of “Ano daw?” could be turned against him. For all you know, the viewer to this work could also respond to this work as such. 

"The Atheist and The Preacher”oil on paper, 22 x 30 inches - 2007


The Whole Armor of God is another Bible verse, Ephesians 6: 13-17 which states that people are not fighting against each other but against wicked spiritual forces in the heavenly world, the rulers, authorities, and cosmic powers of our dark age. Andy is warning us that there is a war out there. A conflict of morality and religiosity. As a Christian, one becomes a soldier in full-battle gear, cloaked with the precious blood of Jesus, armed with the buckle of truth, the shield of faith, the breastplate of righteousness, the helmet of Salvation, the shoes of peace and given the Word of God as the sword of spirit.    

"The Whole Armor of God”oil on canvas, 60 x 48 inches - 2008


Andy wishes to reclaim that we could be a big believer in the gospel and still create art. Even the framing of his works, he wants to show a sense of  “unfinishness” of his works which means his art is a continuing process, he just paints and paint for the Lord.

The Whole Armor of Light is variation of the Armor of God. When one has accepted God, one is a warrior for Him. Here Andy presents himself in full battle form complete with tanks which have been a recurring graphic device of Andy. The tanks signify the turbulence of the hostilities and how one should be prepared to conquer the enemy full force completely. The rigidity of the engagement of it is a perennial theme of Andy. These are desperate times and no rules apply. 

The Whole Armor of Light”oil on paper, 30 x 22 inches - 2007


The ironic yet romantic piece The Place I Hated Yet I Love presents a typically timid and unassuming picture as the way Andy is. You would be surprised in his meek appearance he could come up with these great assemblages of imagination. When Andy left for Saudi, only a handful of his friends knew. This is also one of the first works he painted when he arrived back in the Philippines.  

The Place I Hated Yet I Loved”oil on paper, 30 x 22 inches - 2007


Foremost art critic Alice Guillermo says “Andy has the innocence of the eye, without prejudice. He uses his own pictorial vocabulary and has his own spatial orientation and depth from foreground to background.” One can use an image just as a color or non-objective strokes to deepen a range of association in his painting.

In The Natural Man, taken from First Corinthians 2:14, Andy critiques the very people “near” him but “far” from God. Commonly referred to as the natural man, they are spiritually discerned because they are considered “fools” without God. 

"Natural Man”.. oil on canvas, 60 x 48 inches - 2008


The pictorial dialogue between Andy’s images and his spirit are intertwined at various levels of meaning. His brut yet painterly style seeps through and blends with the natural lineament of his characters. Composition is Andy’s most understated virtue. It creates a sense of emergence throughout time and spatial density. In Kuya Gerry and Ate Charlene Praying For Me shows raw-like distortion becomes a fine-edged tool how far one can expose the sensitive layers of nerve and muscle as evident in the hands tightly clasped in prayer. Andy will eternally be grateful for this couple and to their devotion the house of worship. Andy feels so blessed that they continuously pray for him everyday, as they are committed to do for every single member of their Church who go back to the Philippines after their working contract in Saudi Arabia expires. Andy is protected by God by this devoted couple’s continuous intercession.

“Kuya Jerry and Ate Charlene Praying for Me”. oil on canvas, 48" x 60" - 2008

And The Glory 

In Simon Schama’s book Power of Art, he mentions “masterpieces are thugs. Merciless and wily, the greatest paintings grab you in a headlock, rough up your composure, and then proceed in short order to rearrange your sense of reality.” Andy’s achievement is to have brought back the sacred to contemporary dialogue in Philippine art. He has provided a rare interaction of the personal with the religious; of his family, friends, church elders, and the common audience; Andy’s art is fully loaded with meaning, direction, and confidence that his broad strokes are of renewed expressionism, abstraction and mixed media. Indeed it is evangelical. 

It is ironic that most of those in Andy’s portraits are still living in Saudi Arabia today they will not be privileged like you to see this exhibition. They are “so near” Andy yet “so far” from him. And to the viewer, Andy will not even bother if you are a believer on his side. As if you have a choice.