My friend, the visual artist Gromyko Padilla Semper, is having his first one-man show today, in the Philippines. In honor of that show, I thought I’d post this casual interview we had via instant messaging and Facebook. I think of Gromyko as primarily a surrealist, although he seems to suggest differently at one point in our talk. He’s certainly one of the most prolific of artists I know, full of undaunted energy for his work.
The selection I’ve posted here doesn’t come close to showing the range of his work, which includes pen and ink, digital collage, woodcuts, and other forms, and often consists of a re-working and warping of Western European artists such as Durer, Bosch, Michelangelo, Velasquez (see above) and many others–always supplying his own profane visions.
Gromyko: Jean, dear friend
Jean: Gromyko—when is your show?
G: Oct 23rd, Saturday, at Kulay Diwa Gallery (Paranaque, Metro Manila)
I wish you could be here to grace the affair. . .
J: Me too, but—too far away! How many pieces are going to be in the show?
G: Many. I’m currently finishing 10 12x18in, 4 30x40in, and many paintings, and installations too—and some sculpture assemblages
J: That’s a lot. But then you are an incredibly prolific artist!
G: …plus smaller drawings and paintings—and a big 5x8feet mural
J: How do you fit all that into your apartment?
G: My house (our house actually) is cluttered, paintings everywhere; I work in the dining area, on the dining table, on my homemade easel.
J: Yes, I saw the photographs [on Facebook]
G: Paint mess everywhere. . .
J: When I was a kid, my father gave me art materials to play around with, and because of that I started making art at a very young age. What was your earliest impetus to create art?
G: I can still remember the time when my tita (auntie) used to show me picture books. The earliest memory of me being active in playing “art” was during nursery. . .my teachers noticed how I could render (though using stick figures) things. I still have a stick drawing of chickens in a farm. When my parents noticed my “talent” for drawing (I used to scribble around on almost any piece of paper I could find) they gave me the usual crayons, pencils, and coloring pens. Drawing cartoons and anime’ was my early training in drawing, especially figurative works.
J: So, what artists (visual artists, sculptors, or writers) influenced your interest in surrealism?
G: Well, it might surprise you, but majority of my influences are not surrealists. For painters: da Vinci, Michelangelo,particularly the last judgement, Raphael, Pontormo, and there’s that visionary work of Andrea del Sarto, and of course Botticelli. . .
But there are also a horde of German and Netherlandish artists that really pulled into the deepest recesses: Heironymus Bosch, Matthias Grunewald, Hans Memling, Pieter Brueghel and Albrecht Durer. For sculptors I see a close ally in Bernini,’ in Donatello, and other unknown Grotesque artists. But that’s the Western influence; other influences come from Angkor Wat, the Egyptian heiroglyphs, and also Japanese art.
J: There’s definitely a grotesque element to a lot of your paintings. Also, a lot of your images seem to be about metamorphosis… beauty morphing into death…
G: My first real encounter with surrealism came from a book which shows a painting by Giorgio De Chirico. Then came an encounter with Dali, and Max Ernst.
J: I don’t know your earlier work, but De Chirico is not an artist I would’ve associated you with. His lines are so classical…Your work strikes me as more baroque. And sometimes it reminds me more of Bosch…
Dali really is my stepping stone. If you could see my early works, you’d see they are more like Dali than Bosch. What drove me to like Dali is my fervent interest in reading.
I’m interested in cosmology, myths, the Bible (mainly), and science; then there’s the occult, the writings of Jose Rizal (especially the novels), and religious history. Also anthropology and archeology. So it was really the ancient and the old that fascinated me.
J: Rizal seems so far away from surrealism to me…
G: Rizal attacked the priests. I think he is more surreal than any other writer of that time!
J: How so?
G: To be a surrealist is to step upon the taboos of your time. If you have read Breton (founder of surrealism). It’s to go against the grain, against the prevailing view.
J: Satire is what stands out to me in Rizal’s novels — something that I also see in your paintings and drawings, in full measure.
G: He eulogized individual precursors of surrealism ranging from Blake, Goya, Rimbaud, Apollinaire, Jarry. . . not only to revolt but also to illuminate, to show not just one side of reality, but deeper. While most romanticists indulge in the pleasures of nature, the precursors of surrealism regressed and found beauty inside. . .
J: Inside — the subconscious, you mean…
G: Yes the subconscious. Goya greatly said it well in his etching, “the sleep of reason produces monsters.” Now with Rizal—and in my own work—are attacks against Catholic dogma, and any other religious dogma; he showed the “monstruas,” the monsters of society during his time—which led to his eventual martyrdom.
J: And that’s one of the connections, then, with your own “monstrosities,” which also function as satire (I love that Goya print by the way).
G: Many may refer to my art as atheistic heresies. But I am first and foremost a religious person; I believe in God, and that makes me not a surrealist.
J: Then I’ve assumed incorrectly. You’re a believer then?—Um, is that why you’re dressed up as a Catholic pope in one of your photos? (laughs) I have noticed, though, that you call yourself a mystic.
G: . . .since many surrealists believe more in communistic dogmas or Nietzschean nihilism
I call myself a mystic madman because I border between the madness of the world and magic of it—and that makes me more human. An equilibrium so to speak.
J: Living on the border. . .
G: Living in both worlds—and yet they can contain both at the same time. That is my credo in art and life. The sacred contains a portion of the profane, as the white tadpole of the I Ching has a black dot, and vice versa—to become sacred there must be a taboo of the profane, reversely the profane is the breaking of the taboo of the sacred
J: Any other Filipino influences?
G: I am not a fan of Filipino modernism. I don’t like the overt intellectualism of Edades. Not at all! And I don’t like the pastoral colonialism of Amorsolo and Luna. But I do like Botong Francisco, and Enteng Manansala. Other than that— none.
I’m also interested in the mystical rites of the Ifugao, and the Mindanaoans. . .the alibata.
I do love the pre colonial history [of the Philippines].
J: How do the rites of the Ifugao figure in your work?
G: I have tried to include the icons of the Bulul in some of my works. In other drawings you will find an Ifugao native hiding in between the lush [details] of my works
J: What are the titles?
G: I used the term, Bathala, in my revision of Durer’s God, replacing the limbs with kawayan and palayok.
I’ll get them [for you] as a link. . . wait. . .
J: Wonderful. Good luck with your show!
Gromyko has also illustrated a novel, The Found Diary of Avery Alexander Myer, by Michael Fink, soon to be published.