ORLINA'S LATEST: A Salute to the Breast
by Eric Torres
"NING-NING", Ramon Orlina's exhibition of 30 new works at the Cultural Center of the Philippines' Bulwagang Fernando Amorsolo (Sept. 3-23), is all about one subject: the female breast. It is bound to take admirers of the country's only studio-glass sculptor by surprise. Nothing in the jagged, angular abstractions which have long been his hallmark prepares one of his current show. In fact, there's nothing abstract about his current fixation.
Ning-Ning, incidentally, is not a woman but Orlina's baby daughter. His last one-man show in 1988 at the Lopez Museum was named after his first-born, "Naesa". So this is the second time Orlina has named an entire show after a child of his, his second. But the title is misleading since it deflects attention from the model who served as inspiration of the new series: Ning-Ning's attractive Malaysian mother, Lay Ann, who ought to have been the dedicate of the show. So "Ning-Ning" is really about a young woman's -and nursing mother's - breast, bared for art's sake and for the greater glory of her husbands art.
Someone who first heard of "Ning-Ning" from the grapevine was skeptical about a show of nothing but dede. Wouldn't that be tiresome? What could be the rationale for a show like this other than an erotic, and exploitative, one? Shouldn't there be a sucking infant somewhere to give it some measure of "propriety" (not a bad idea, that: Orlina and his wife are advocates of breast-feeding, and initially the idea was on his mind).
Even if Orlina had access to studio glass big enough at least for a bust and a suckling babe, the technical demands would have been so complicated and the effort so Herculean as to rule out a Madonna-and-child theme on practical ground. So baby had to go. Studio glass is eminently more suited to simple representational subjects, and what could be simpler than a part of a woman's anatomy whose appeal is immediate and edifying?
THE FEMALE breast Orlina exalts is no mere object of voyeuristic prurience or macho fantasy. Though he makes no bones about its appeal as an erogenous zone in his new works, there is more to it than that. They fleetingly recall those stone fragments of cracked bust, heads and torsos by Scopas, Phidias et al. from the classical age displayed in museums around the world which make one wonder whatever happen to their missing parts. In Orlina's case the breast is no fragment of a larger whole but the whole itself, and his handiwork stands out in flawless physical condition.
"Ning-Ning" show Orlina, whose art has heretofore been entirely abstract and angular, coming to terms with a subject by being true to its natural appearance - and he reveals it at its prime, from glorious mound to areola to nipple. The result is all the more seductive for being life like and life-size, or in some instances bigger than life-size.
But to say it is "realistic" is to miss the point. "Idealized" better describes what "Ning-Ning" is about: a hymn to every woman generously endowed by nature. It is also a salute to the curve and the sphere as with an eye to perfection of form and the finish. The result is often astonishingly physical. No need to harp on its erotic aspect: it is there verifiable by touch with a palpable immediacy possible only in sculpture, which affords a more satisfying illusion of life than painting as Galatea's Pygmalion well knew.
The connoisseur of sculpture in fifth-century Athens would have had no difficulty recognizing Orlina's prodigious skill in homage to a part of woman's physiognomy. But he would have been bemused by the way Orlina has opted not to take the whole nude female figure as object of contemplation but to isolate instead a part from the whole and make a fetish out of it. He would have been equally bemused to see, in most cases, not breast coming in pairs of equal size as nature intended but a breast seen in splendid isolation or juxtaposed at odd angles or back-back with a second or third breast in the same composition.
Be that as it may, Orlina's breast are such buxom and robust clones that the urge to touch becomes imperative, and not to touch a venial sin.
To achieve as perfect a mimesis of nature as was humanly possible, the classical sculptor used the ideal material to give body and soul to the noblest Platonic objectives of classical art: marble. Its mass, grain and texture are especially responsive to the artist's mallet and chisel, contributing to that illusionism highly prized in the Golden Age of classical nude statuary. But to the classical artist, marble also had another expressive dimension: its natural "coldness", which perception of the spiritual in physical beauty. It was surpassed only by alabaster, a translucent medium.
Because of its transparent light-reflecting qualities, studio glass is perhaps a still greater medium in projecting the essential body/soul dualism of classical nude statuary, enabling Orlina to go beyond the sensuous into the metaphysical.
Even as it succeeds in a lifelike representation of the female breast, his art also aspires to another transcendent (the classical philosophers would say "higher") plane of aesthetic vision as well. Getting onto this second plane is facilitated by the nature of Orlina's medium itself, which goes even further than alabaster in embodying the classical aim mimesis and spiritualization in sculpting the human figure in the round. Its transparency dematerializes the subject with the one ambient element with which the studio-glass artist intimately works to create a "transcendental' effect - light. Fortunately, the quality of the cullets the artist is able to get this time from his one and only source - Republic Glass - is free from "holes" or "bubbles", so that "Ning-Ning" comes pretty close to the classical ideal of art as a means to contemplate Ideal Beauty or Pure Form by cullets free from imperfections. (If one wishes to nitpick, there are pinholes, but one must have magnifying for eyeballs to easily spot them).
The other worldly effect of light striking through the glass combined with finesse of craftsmanship is what lifts Orlina's idée fixe from the mundane. The icy monochrome green of studio glass also endows the mammary image with an aura of unreality, just as do the abstract planes of concaves and convexes that form its setting or matrix. Voluptuous as they are, the various images of the artist's obsession seldom fail to project an air of nobility or chaste composure.
TO SEE "Ning-Ning" as a series of variations on a theme is a key to its enjoyment. The breast rises from the glass block differently each time. Noticeably only a part of each sculpture - front, back, or both - is representational; the rest of it is abstract. In each case, a supple balance is achieved between the image and its image of irregular, asymmetrical geometric forms. These forms curvilinear and smoothly rounded at their square edges and beveled corners, don't clash with the image at all. Subtly evoking a ridge of shoulder here, a swell of hip or a ripple of ribcage there, they are made to blend elegantly with it.
Though each breast may have been inspired by the same model, no two are exactly alike, as they vary in size and shape ever so ingeniously or subtly, depending on the refractive ways light strikes and penetrates glass, as well as the angle from which one is looking at them. Appreciating them circumferentially presents surprises in optical illusion, especially in some pieces that allow a rear view of the breast, seen as "hollow" from the inside, as it were. Even the monochrome green of studio glass varies in intensity, from light to deep-sea green. And not all pieces are totally transparent: some are frosted while others have both clear and frosted sides, creating different effect. The image also varies in character or mood: proud, shy, mysterious, perky, lugubrious, ethereal or whatever.
Depending on the source of light and angle of vision, the first in the series looks like a giant petal. The second is a back-to-back double image, one marginally smaller than the other. The fifth is the profile of a breast, reverse of which is a graceful labial orifice. The twelfth is a frosted triple image, its finely grained texture cannily approximating that of a porous human skin.
The fourteenth is another double exposure with exposure with a difference: one is up front, an overt or "positive" image; the other a covert or "negative" image, formed by the sculpture's concave back seen through the "positive" side. The whole thing works like a trick mirror: while the "positive" remains constant in shape and size, the "negative" gets smaller or larger by magnification according to how far or how near one is to the sculpture, or whether one is viewing it frontally or laterally. In any case, the overt image rising from the front surface and the covert one submerged behind it undergo the delicate changes of light and shadow that make studio-glass sculpture the distinctive visual experience it is. The liquescent chiaroscuro, ever changing with each shifting of the light source, is a still photographer's dream.
Not all of the pieces, however, are the epitome of timeless, classic poise. Two depicting a natural pair of breasts show a touch of Pop art and attempts at humor. The last in the series No. XXXI (actually No.XXX, a result of superstitiously avoiding the number 13 in captioning), is a bosom cupped in a bra (with lacy embroidery etched on it - looking as it could use some air) No. XXII is meant to offer comic relief in an otherwise sober show: a third breast protruding from the back of a bosom turns out to be a representation of an obscenely outsize rubber nipple - a satiric poke at bottle feeding. Some may find in both works perhaps a slackening of imaginative impetus, an Orlina resorting to gimmickry in place of authentic inspiration. Others may well think otherwise: both reflect an artist undaunted to take risk and yet-untried expressive options.
On the whole, "Ning-Ning" shines forth a virtuoso performance by an artist in full control of his formidable medium. It also reinforces a previous assessment that Orlina's craft has reached a level of excellence that is truly world-class.
Sunday Inquirer Magazine
September 16, 1990