follow us on

The Landscape of the Personal

On Mark Padernal’s contemporary impressionism through the years, and what we ought to take away from his 2021 exhibition of portraits, ‘Unguarded’

Spontaneity is at the heart of impressionist painting. The idea that the mundane and unremarkable in the everyday are worthy of capture, precisely because these are fleeting. For the impressionist artist, it is also an act of seeing not just the moment in front of them, but of everything that the rest of us might not care to see: how the light falls on a body, when the wind changes, how the slightest movement alters the scene. It is unique in its insistence on capturing what is natural, unstructured, extemporaneous.  

Portraiture as the art of capturing the likeness of the living is a challenge to impressionism. It is not to say that it is impossible, as it is to insist that one puts the other into question, where likeness must be seen not as a literal rendering but an abstract one, and what is spontaneous cannot simply be about the transience of movement and the faded moment. 

It is this space that Mark Padernal inhabits in his art, where the predisposition towards the portrait is made to contend with a clear impressionist influence, a combination that can be brought in many directions, across multifarious possibilities.

Obfuscation into movement

When one sees Mark Padernal’s early 2018 work, it is not so much impressionism as it is abstraction that one first sees. The tendency at erasure, the faces that seemingly melt into unfamiliarity, the bodies that dissolve into stark backdrops. The point of interest is the solitary figure dominating the canvas, but the character is defined not so much by detail, but by its obfuscation. The space within which the figure exists is empty, if not rendered as well in mystification.

Working as a part-time artist, one can plot loosely how his work changes every time he goes back to the canvas. In 2019 what we would see of Padernal’s work on social media is dominated by the portraits he created for friends, who happen to be celebrities. The parent and child portraits are an interesting set of works, albeit done for different people, because these reveal a decision to play with detail—a clear shift towards conventional portraiture. But what is even more interesting is how this would surface more clearly his impressionist inclination, where the bold broken strokes in his backdrops distinctly carry not just a sense of movement, but also of a more specific context.

Portraits Padernal did of Vilma Santos and Edu Manzano, both with son Luis at very different moments in his life | @markrochapadernal

This is particularly true for the separate portraits Padernal did of Vilma Santos and Edu Manzano, both with son Luis but at very different moments in his life. The Santos portrait shows her tending to Luis as a child, where the backdrop is a familiar enough urbanscape: a playground, a party, the school? The subjects are shown not caring much for an image being taken, the mother’s attention drawn to what the child is drawn to: an object in his hand. The Manzano portrait with an adult Luis meanwhile speaks to a contemporaneity, where the backdrop of a cityscape is clearly of the present, and the moment captured is of father speaking to son, an act of stillness amid the evening buzz that surrounds them. 

The photographic influence

Many artists in the present are interested in, and employ the techniques of, impressionism. But the more unique among them will expand on its conventions: go beyond ordinary scenes, explore possibilities for different settings, experiment with capture that is informed by newer forms of making.

For Padernal the contemporary influence is the technology of photography. The 2019 portraits reveal this more than the earlier works as it obviously takes from old photographs. It is interesting that the impressionist style is what brings it to contemporaneity, as much as it highlights the multifarious possibilities for this kind of artmaking.

Photography brings to Padernal’s work a particular kind of portraiture that could lead to his own brand of contemporary impressionism. The keen awareness of depth of vision in photography. The inclination towards a subject, as the lens focuses on what it deems is central to a given scene. And contingent to that, the surfacing or blurring of detail.

Padernal’s skills are in his unique transposition of these images to the canvas, not as a hyperreal painting, or an obvious rendering into another medium. Instead, he does so in ways that surprise and excite, as it reveals a kind of playfulness and experimentation, heavily influenced as he remains by the impressionist impulse, and an obvious interest in humanity that photography and portraiture live off.

Natalia Zobel

The personal as landscape

For his 2021 exhibition of portraits, titled 'Unguarded', Padernal engages in a process that hews closely to traditional portraiture. The artist met these women in their homes, had them sit where they wanted, built a conversation and rapport with them, with the specific goal of painting portraits of them.

But instead of lugging his canvas and paints, and spending hours in the home of each woman, forcing her to sit still, Padernal carried his camera.

But instead of lugging his canvas and paints, and spending hours in the home of each woman, forcing her to sit still, Padernal carried his camera.

Armed with both a sense of capturing images through photography and the artistic vision of what might make for interesting representation on canvas, he becomes both a spectator and active participant in these sessions. The decisions made about where to sit, what to wear, who or what is brought into the moment, all comes from the subject. But the ways in which the conversation would unfold, the way the rapport between subject and artist is built, how the natural movement and familiarity evolves between strangers, is spontaneous. It is in this moment that a sensing of character and humor, values and ideals, is captured. 

It is here that Padernal outdoes himself. On these canvases are not just portraits of women, and not just figures in repose. It is not just a photograph taken and made into a painting. Instead, the most detailed figure of the woman is one that tells a story: she’s looking away, or about to speak; she has a twinkle in her eye, or is about to break into laughter; she is staring straight at the camera but not speaking to it, she is deep in thought.   

Joanna Preysler-Francisco

While each woman is in their natural element, each home is not just seen as a backdrop but as a landscape. Here is where Padernal’s contemporary impressionism flexes its muscle, deciding as he does on which elements of the scene deserve depiction or obfuscation, which parts of it dissolve into the sunlight or darkness, which pieces disappear into the mix of color and broken brush strokes.

The thoughtfulness of these decisions is what excites because it reminds of an artistic sensibility that is bound to an independent vision. Where the camera decides on its focus, and technology dictates the details we might see, in Padernal’s hands, these moments are transformed into the artist’s imagination of what are ongoing, ever-shifting conditions of a subject’s present. To some extent, it is a denial of capture, an insistence that what is here is ever-changing and always in flux, not despite but because of the woman at the center of each image.

Tootsy Echauz-Angara

Consistent with his impressionist roots, what Padernal surfaces in these depictions is how each particular moment is only ever experienced by chance. It is transient and ephemeral, even as it is dynamic and vibrant. It is of this present, even as it is of the past. The woman as such is also rendered in movement even when she is unmoving: she is caught in-between all that she needs to do, all that she functions us, all that she already is and has yet to become. Here is a portraiture that delivers a landscape of the personal, one that is bound to home and the woman at the center of it.

In this present one can also see this as a depiction of our modern (pandemic) life, where we are limited to these spaces we claim as ours, and through these portraits, we discover how solace and comfort can cut across the spaces we inhabit, even as it might carry very different elements for becoming and survival.

Veronne and Chloe Magpayo

This brings me back to a 2020 work of Padernal’s called Opus No. 1. It is of a woman who has turned to look at the camera, but whose face and body are blurred in movement, and dissolves into a background and foreground of graffiti. The persona as bound to, as disappearing into, her landscape comes from the same impulse as the surfacing of the individual in the context of flux.

Opus No. 1

This impulse is the space within which so much of Padernal’s contemporary impressionism can still evolve into powerful, resonant work. And in a landscape like the present that is always redefining who we are and what we can become, he will never be without subjects—both those that deserve detailed depiction, and those that warrant obfuscation.

Mark Padernal's 'Unguarded' virtual exhibit with Provenance Art Gallery opens on November 6, 2021, Saturday. Provenance Art Gallery is located at Shangri-La at the Fort, 30th St. corner 5th Ave., Bonifacio Global City, Taguig. For information, call (+63) 917-825-2041. For updates, follow Provenance Art Gallery on Facebook and Instagram