Light / Dark mode

Head in the Clouds

Sitting on a bench inside the cold halls of the Ateneo Art Gallery, the first modern art museum of the Philippines, I am pulled in by an abstract painting filled with strokes and splashes of pink, orange, red and grey. Coming from the top left corner of the canvas, a thick black haze spills down and masks most of the upper half of the piece, harshly contrasting the warm tones underneath it.

The dark presence—sharp, forceful and grotesque—overpowers the painting, so much so that it becomes hard for me not to linger, captivated by the enigma of its piercing intrusion.

The view from where I sat: Clouds of Conscience, Alfonso Ossorio, 1956. Photo by the author.

The piece I am looking at is Alfonso Ossorio’s Clouds of Conscience, a painting belonging to the permanent collection of the Ateneo Art Gallery. In its abstraction—absent of any distinct figures and covered in charged brush strokes, rough textures and provocative colors—the painting transports me to an inner world that is deep in tension and contrasts.

It is in fact, the inner world of the Filipino-American artist, Alfonso Ossorio. Born into a wealthy sugar baron family from Negros Occidental, the Philippines, Ossorio grew up ( in his own words), in a world of “being taken care of.” At the age of eight, he migrated from the Philippines to study in a Catholic preparatory school in England, spending his summers living in idyllic European towns with his family. As a teenager, he moved to the United States, studied in a school run by Benedictine monks, and later pursued the arts in spite of his father’s objections. He graduated with a Fine Arts degree from Harvard, and by the age of 24, staged his first solo show at the Wakefield Gallery in New York City.

The Last Judgment (Angry Christ), Alfonso Ossorio, 1950. This mural is his biggest, most famous work, which he was commissioned to paint for a chapel built by his family in his hometown of Victorias City, Negros Occidental. Photo by the author.

While lush on the surface, Ossorio’s life was far from antiseptic.

In 1943, Ossorio was drafted into the army as a medical illustrator, where he would spend his time in hospital rooms, sketching doctors performing surgery on brutally wounded soldiers. As an adult, Ossorio transitioned into a life that broke free from his conservative childhood. Coming from a strict Catholic family from a rural town in the Philippines, he then entered the liberal and bohemian world of modern art in postwar New York, and later settled down in an East Hamptons mansion with his partner, Ted Dragon. These complex juxtapositions inevitably resulted in inner turmoil for the artist, which pierced through and haunted his works.


Top row: Ted Dragon, Polish poet Kasmir Wierzynski, Josephine Little with infant Abigail, Joseph Glasco. Bottom row: Horla the poodle, Alfonso Ossorio, Halina Wierzynski, Jackson Pollock. Photograph © 2011 Ossorio Foundation, Southampton, New York.

Ossorio initially explored the subconscious world of surrealism, depicting vividly detailed, grotesque human figures with stiff, penetrating gazes. However, his works radically changed by the late 1940s, when he first encountered Jackson Pollock. Enamoured by his revolutionary style, he became one of Pollock’s first patrons and close friends.

Shortly after, Ossorio met French artist Jean Dubuffet, pioneer of Art Brut, or ‘raw art,’ and the two similarly forged a deep friendship. Ossorio’s ties with Pollock and Dubuffet undeniably influenced his art; which, by the 1950s, merged the spontaneity of Abstract Expressionism and the visceral, childlike forms of Art Brut. The freedom he found in both movements allowed him to break boundaries and explore the depths of his conflicts with religion, morality, sexuality, and childhood. From sketching the physical wounds of soldiers during the war, Ossorio turned towards the confrontation of his own personal, intangible wounds.

But no eloquent description of his practice or dramatic biography of his life will ever capture the raw intimacy Ossorio communicates directly through his works.

In contemplating Clouds of Conscience, I felt as if I shouldn’t be looking too closely—as if I had intruded on a secret place that had been kept hidden, lying deep within the interior complexities of another human being. So, instead of probing further into Ossorio’s life, I turned inwards.

A closer look at Clouds of Conscience. Photo by the author.

The longer I gazed at the black cloud on canvas, the more I became forced to confront the darkness. The way in which the black boldly pours over the painting moved me to similarly confront my inner world and wounds — why was I so captivated by this murky mess? What were the sources of tension in my own life, and what had caused these?

I discovered that so many of my fears were rooted not in finding the answers to these questions, but in merely acknowledging the presence of my own ‘dark clouds.’ Spending time in front of Ossorio’s painting offered a brief moment of comfort in dwelling in the unsure, the raw and unrefined, and the vulnerable elements within me. In a world that constantly shouts for our attention, Clouds of Conscience stands as a powerful call to pause, look within and stare at the dark with courage.

Soon enough, and as if emerging from a meditative trance or prayer, I stood up from the bench in that cold and quiet museum feeling a little lighter, and a little more liberated.

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