In an era of rapid modernity and ecological destruction, the idea of an unpeopled world might seem like a good thing, reminiscent of an undefiled Eden. But in the works of Jason Montinola, Kaloy Sanchez, Lec Cruz, and Luis Santos, the absence of people is something “obscene”, horrible, lonely, sad. In their paintings, the familiar becomes uncanny, as if we have trespassed into someone’s house while they were not home. The word “absence” can only be defined in the negative, as the state of not being present, and the full effect of the exhibition requires the consideration of that which is not there (uncanny), or cannot be seen (paranoia), or perhaps no longer is (sad).

The inanimate objects that make up our lives can sometimes represent us more accurately than the words we speak. We have a long history of using objects to stand in for our humanity, such as presenting roses to signify love, or driving certain cars to signify wealth. But consider the smaller, more subtle ways that objects speak for us, such as a shirt hanging off the back of a chair speaking perhaps to a state of haste, or disorganisation. In the silence and unconsciousness of objects, there is often more truth than in the conscious words that come out of a person’s mouth. The state of a room can be a truer answer to the question, “How are you?” than a person’s actual response.

Indeed, there is a history of unconscious objects being used as a substitute for people. In the late 90s, Felix Gonzalez-Torres made Untitled (billboard of an empty bed) (1991) and Tracey Emin produced My Bed (1998); both using empty beds that still retained imprints of their sleeping owners to speak to the truth of themselves, or to a larger truth of humanity. When the private and personal is turned into a spectacle, it becomes uncanny, as if the owner has been betrayed by their own bed. Like in the hit Pixar blockbuster, Toy Story, it would be as if Andy turned around and caught his toys speaking, instead of the automatic deadness they “pretend” to in front of him. It’s the uncanny feeling that the objects that make up our lives have lives of their own, that they are not as dead as we think, and that they are more identifiable as us than we could be. (My bed is more me than I am me.)

The obvious difference between Gonzalez-Torres’ and Emin’s beds with the works of Obscene Presence of Absence is that the two former show the actual beds, while the current exhibition presents artistic depictions of objects thus adding another layer of separation between the objects and our grasp of them.

Our absence is pronounced and becomes obscene. Perhaps because of the uncanniness of objects designed primarily for human use being depicted without the people who would fulfil their utility, such as in Santos’ dark, directionless staircases or Sanchez’s mute chairs. Our absence becomes obscene because of what the traces we leave behind suggest about us, such as the identities of Montinola’s figures, or Cruz’s painting of Andy Warhol’s print of an electric chair. Our imaginations are left with the task of filling in the blanks, such as by wondering what kind of person would invent an electric chair. 

More than an exploration of that which is not, the exhibition embraces absence, silence, and emptiness, as being more telling than presence.  

Text by Ellen Lee

Curator's Note

There is a deafening silence in a roomful of space and a handful of stories to be told from an unoccupied void. In Obscene Presence of Absence, Jason Montinola, Kaloy Sanchez, Lec Cruz, and Luis Santos investigate themes and narratives concerning figures and how their absence in the frame affects the content and context of a work.

Jason Montinola attacks his neo-classical inspired portraits by omitting certain portions or leaving them blank. It leaves the question to the audience of whether the eyes or hand gestures are enough to manifest a certain totality—a narrative able to complete a thought. Known for his figure paintings, Kaloy Sanchez focuses on the painter’s vantage point and allows the empty chairs to fill up the role of his sitters. Introspectively, it begs the audience to question the significance of the chairs themselves in his past works, his sitters, and everyone else who has ever sat on those chairs. Lec Cruz intervenes with images from artists Andy Warhol, Francisco Goya and Lucian Freud. In it, he removes the macabre in Goya’s tree with hanging human limbs, manipulates Warhol’s print of an electric chair, and leaves Freud’s studio empty. Luis Santos uses scenic views from early 20th century set designs of Adolphe Appia, who contributed in creating dynamic use of space and light in theatric performances. Santos’ works echoes this idea by focusing on the emotive semblance of these designs with the aid of contrasting light sources in his paintings.

Obscene Presence of Absence arrests our attention with the vacancies in abandoned places; the taunting negative spaces; and the relenting notion of absence. The attenuated presence of human figures in every work does not render their absence meaningless, rather it reveals narratives and human experiences only heard through the silent spaces, spoken in whispers and echoed into the void.

Text by Lec Cruz