October 30, 2023
MANILA – When you walk into Jason Montinola’s studio, the sculptures and paintings lining the walls seem to awaken. In a corner, easels carry works-in-progress of a masked man carrying a crucifix, and an older portrait of a harlequin.
Resting on the shelves, skulls wearing Venetian masks ooze out tentacles. The artist tells us the sculpture’s background: The mask was thrown into the ocean in the 1800s. Under the sea, the octopus found the human face covering. Then, it assimilated its gelatinous body.
Through the art he creates and the figures he freezes in time, this is what Jason Montinola seems to do: He tells stories.
A Practice Crossing over Fiction and Art History
Over nearly two decades, Jason Montinola has been creating an imagined universe. Using centuries-old oil painting techniques, the portraits reference the Middle Ages, the Renaissance periods, and even before the 5th century.
While many of his portraits mirror his fascination with the arcane, Montinola also takes from more contemporary times. He works from his obsessive interest in the documentation of world encyclopedias. Much of his inspiration comes from the lexicons of “Lord of the Rings” writer J.R.R. Tolkien, where every tree and rock has a name. Give “The Silmarillion” a try and you’ll know what I mean. Many works also hold symbolic religious meaning.
Like with every world, it is not perfect. The artist says, ““May divisions kasi yung mundo. Ginawa ko yung heroes, villians sa kabila. May grey area.” (“There are divisions in the world. I made heroes, villains on the other side. There is a grey area.”)
In Montinola’s recent show at Finale Art File, Love, Sin, Salvation and Death, fellow artist and catalog writer Lec Cruz writes how the exhibit, “bridges the gap between myths and our realities; between intangible concepts and the power of art to represent them; between the familiar stories we have told and the narratives we can tell ourselves.”
After finding creative sparks from both solid reality and imagination, Montinola creates his own beings, each with their own fabled stories.
A Vortex of Created Characters
Hang around in the artistic vortex of Jason Montinola, and after a while, you’ll begin to know the quirks, qualities, and histories behind each character he creates.
In recent years, Montinola has been creating renditions of “Here Lies the Painter.” Going by an epitaph instead of a name, the character takes on the form of a nun, often faceless. While seemingly human, the character is actually a genderless creature. It is eternal, living throughout the centuries. Its role is as a muse to artists throughout history. Montinola tells us that the creature brings out inspiration from under its cloak. The artist imagines it started working with the first cave painters. Later, it presented the monsters in the gardens of Hieronymous Bosch. He says it is the original source for the inventions and sketches of Leonardo Da Vinci—working all the way to the ground-breaking Dadaist work of Marcel Duchamp.
Interestingly, many of Montinola’s characters are collected by doctors and enthusiasts of history and comic books. The artist reveals the behind-the-scenes worlds of collecting. He asserts the importance of understanding the artwork—especially in knowing the lore behind each piece:
“Nagmimili talaga yung viewer ko. Atsaka nagmimili din ang binibili. Dapat talaga mainitindihin niya. Kailangan alam mo yung kwento.” (“My viewers are very discerning. The discerning ones are the ones that buy. That’s how it should be. They should understand the story.”)
Jason Montinola at Present
Within the art world, Montinola is known for mentoring fellow contemporary artists. Now he is paying it forward even further.
Since graduating with a degree in Art Education from the Technological University of the Philippines in 2003, he has exhibited across Southeast Asia. In his time in Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia, he has worked closely and developed close relationships with local artists, many of whom he has brought to the Philippines to collaborate.
In the Philippines, earlier this year, he held a powerful solo exhibition Exit Light at Artinformal Gallery. After the recent success of his grand show at Finale Art File, the artist and his wife Victoria flew with their months-old baby Miguel straight to Japan for a group exhibition at Yod Gallery in Osaka. Montinola curated the show, Terrestrial Paradise, which is now ongoing. The artist brought together a range of work by artists from the Philippines and Indonesia all the way to Japan.
Perhaps Montinola’s most generous community work is Faculty Projects, which he runs alongside artist Valeria Chua, and their partner RG Gabunada. The artist-run collective is based on the artists’ background as former educators. They aim to emulate an academic environment in the art world. It gives that sense of halcyon school days, where artists are given the freedom of students to explore, create, and play, all in a supportive space.
Through his work, Jason Montinola creates from the strangeness of his subconscious, building paintings and portraits of figures with an element of secrecy, mystery, and the otherworldly.
There is something so appealing about imagined worlds. For centuries, readers and viewers have been fascinated by the available range of storytelling and world-building.
If there is something that can explain the appeal of these worlds, it might just be the presence of familiar and fundamental truths.
As Jason Montinola continues to create characters through sculptures and oil paintings, we are drawn even deeper into the endless possibilities he creates, which transcend far above the everyday.