Manuel Ocampo
Filipino/American born 1965, worked in Spain 1996–99

For the last decade Manuel Ocampo has been on a mission to attack painting itself and wage a more generalised assault on the art world as a whole. Aspects of his early work remain in A painting for a proposed sculpture for a monument to a crucified minimalist sculpture such as the crucifixion imagery, but the highly stylised Spanish folk art sensibility that characterised his breakout works of the early 1990s has been dispensed with for an approach that is truly his own, with a bit of a nod to Philip Guston’s figuration and the American maverick Peter Saul’s visceral, politically charged and hilariously offensive paintings, which, like Ocampo’s, often satirise art history as well as the very idea of painting. The verbose title of the work is a send-up of what the artist sees as the tired gestures of the avant-garde, the pompous language of contemporary theory and his own complicity in the entire endeavour.

Ocampo’s career was launched by the seminal 1992 exhibition of Los Angeles contemporary art, Helter Skelter: L. A. Art in the 1990s, curated by Paul Schimmel at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. That exhibition exposed other now-familiar names to a larger audience: Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy and Raymond Pettibon. The work by Ocampo included in this exhibition was rooted more in exploring the colonial influence of Spanish Catholic culture on Filipino identity than his current fixation with painting as self-cannibalisation. But that is not to say his early work was not visually charged. His account of the Spanish colonial legacy in the Philippines produced complex, tortured paintings embellished with symbols of oppression, such as swastikas, Ku Klux Klan figures or Catholic priests. Many of the paintings of the 1990s look like Spanish colonial/Catholic folk art in their composition and painterly style (Ocampo distressed the works to make them appear antiquated). Interestingly, as a young man, he had received instruction from a Catholic priest who asked him to paint replicas of Spanish colonial folk art. The priest then sold these paintings to American and European tourists as authentic works. This experience greatly contributed to the evolution of Ocampo’s painting style and his understanding of art as a commodity.

A painting for a proposed sculpture is an abject representation of a blob-like ‘figure’ crucified on a cross. That figure hides a variety of surprises, namely other bodies and body parts within its mucous-like form: flesh-coloured arms, legs, ears and teeth. References to bodily functions abound in the painting, from a defecating buttocks which peaks from beneath the globular figure to intestinal imagery and a commode. Ocampo not only represents the excremental but also literally paints scatalogically, soiling the canvas as if paint were faeces. The artist has seemingly abraded, rubbed and violently occluded certain areas of the painting, perhaps even having walked on it while wet, as if suggesting that creating and defiling art are aspects of the same pursuit. Overall, Ocampo’s methodology and choice of subject matter are mutually synchronised and, ultimately, offer a highly personalised take on abjection.

Alex Baker, Senior Curator, Contemporary Art, NGV (in 2010)