Leslie de Chavez: “Self-censorship will only hinder an artist’s ability to convey their thoughts” – S.E.A. Focus

Leslie de Chavez: “Self-censorship will only hinder an artist’s ability to convey their thoughts”

A look at his multifaceted practice and artist-run initiative Project Space Pilipinas

At the heart of Leslie de Chavez’s practice is a deep concern for the role of art in society. Taking different forms from intense paintings to texturally-rich installations, his works capture an incisive take on Filipino society and history. In addition to his artistic practice, Leslie is also the founder of Project Space Pilipinas (PSP) which first opened in 2007 in Mandaluyong, Metro Manila. PSP is a platform for creative interactions, where he aims to have a meaningful presence and engagement with his local community. Leslie’s two-pronged approach considers both the realm of representation in art as well as the forms of direct action through which culture can bring about change.

Leslie de Chavez, ‘State of the Nation II’, 2018, oil, gold leaf, decal on canvas, 170 x 200.5cm. Private Collection. Image courtesy of the artist and Arario Gallery.

In Leslie’s paintings, pictorial space is a battleground for meaning. He co-opts the tradition of European religious painting as a means to speak about history. This approach is evident in the use of Christian motifs, as well as Leslie’s treatment of the painting surface.

Leslie de Chavez, ‘There is Not Enough Pain and Pleasure in the World to Permit Giving Any of It Away to the Greed of Mankind’, 2022, oil, acrylic, spray paint, paper, decal, metallic leaf, on paper, 228 x 186cm (set of 12 framed panels). Image courtesy of the artist and Arario Gallery. 

In recent works such as ‘State of the Nation II’ (2018) and ‘There is Not Enough Pain and Pleasure in the World to Permit Giving Any of It Away to the Greed of Mankind’ (2022), sensuously rendered figures populate a shimmering gold leaf background. Leslie conjures a stark contrast between the splendour of illuminated manuscripts and the violent scenes depicted in dramatic chiaroscuro. For him, the Western technique of glazing is a metaphor for the “stain” of colonisation. In painting his figure’s dark skin using this technique, the artist tells a story that connects the legacy of imperialism with contemporary issues in the Philippines.

Speaking truth to power

Indeed, Leslie is not an artist who shies away from sensitive topics. His solo exhibition ‘A Lonely Picket in the Balcony’ (2021) at Silverlens, Manila, is a striking example of his active commentary. The show lamented the socio-political decline caused by the country’s former administration and their handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Leslie de Chavez, ‘A Lonely Picket in the Balcony’, 2021, exhibition view at Silverlens, Manila, Philippines. Image courtesy of the artist. 

‘Latigo at Tinik Nang Bitukang Halang’ (2021) is a large sculpture which takes the form of a rosary. However, the rosary beads are replaced with the heads of Philippine presidents Rodrigo Duterte and Ferdinand Marcos. This chain of power is connected to a crucifix composed of .38 calibre guns commonly found in crime scenes related to extra judicial killings. The artist’s layered use of symbols mirrors the complex entanglements in the underbelly of corruption.

Leslie de Chavez, ‘Latigo at Tinik Nang Bitukang Halang’, 2021, fibreglass-reinforced plastic, bamboo, brass, rattan, iron, plaster of Paris, installation, size variable. Image courtesy of the artist.

When asked if he is concerned about the threat of political resistance, Leslie says it is secondary to his initial intention of responding to the urgent issues. “My diverse art practice has always been about attending to the many conceivable ways of thinking and doing things,” he elaborates. “Self-censorship, in my opinion, will only hinder an artist’s ability to effectively convey his or her thoughts to an audience.” Implicit too is a respect for the audience and their role in completing a work of art. 

Audience development as social practice

On that note, audience development is a core mission at PSP. As Leslie shared in this 2022 SEAspotlight Talk on art spaces, PSP began as an artist residency (Neo-Emerging Artist Residency, or NEAR Manila), which collaborated on exchanges, exhibitions, and projects with local and international partners. Now situated in the town of Lucban, it is managed by a small team which includes Leslie and two local artists. Their vision for PSP is a space where locals can expand their imagination, discover effective means of expression, as well as cultivate a critical eye to unpack artworks and discern problems that concern the community.

Exhibition walkthrough and workshop conducted as part of ‘Hitherto VI: Notes on Impermanence’ at Project Space Pilipinas, 2022, Lucban, Quezon, Philippines. Image courtesy of Project Space Pilipinas. 
‘Hitherto V: Mothering from a Distance’, 2022, exhibition view at Project Space Pilipinas, Lucban, Quezon, Philippines. Image courtesy of Project Space Pilipinas. 

Its 2023 thematic programme ‘Thinking/ Doing in Terms’ is centred on the re-examination of local rituals, traditions, and narratives. One upcoming community participation project is ‘Project Paglalarawan: Sandaang Mukha ni Hermano Puli’. It is an open call for 100 portrait drawings of a known local historical figure Apolinario dela Cruz, or Hermano Puli. He was a religious leader who led the first major revolt in the Philippines against the Spanish. Interestingly, no images of Hermano Puli exist and thus the project draws upon Lucban’s community imagination. Through this open call for portraits, it is also an opportunity to engage with colonial history and what it means to decolonise. The notion of social practice comes alive in such activities.

Career milestones

Looking back at his two-decade-long career, Leslie considers two major turning points in his path as an artist. The first came in 2001 when he made the decision to leave his position as a graphic designer at a museum, to focus solely on his artistic practice. It was a time of introspection, of contextualising his place as an artist within the larger community.

Leslie’s studio in Tayabas, Quezon, 2023. Image courtesy of the artist.
Leslie’s residency studio at IASK Goyang Art Studio, 2005, as part of the Asian Artists Fellowship Programme organised by National Museum of Contemporary Art, South Korea. Image courtesy of the artist.

Another turning point was his residency in Seoul from 2005 to 2006, which he cites as “a fruitful occasion that completely changed the course of his career”. This was a time when artistic activities in the Philippines were limited, with few galleries and collectors interested in emerging artists. As such, the Seoul residency opened exhibition opportunities and expanded his network of contacts for future partnerships. Among the most consequential relationships is the one with Arario Gallery, which today operates spaces across Seoul, Cheonan and Shanghai, and has exclusively represented the artist since 2006. Reflecting on the pivotal moment, Leslie says he was at the right place, at the right time. Perhaps just as crucially, he approached it with the right attitude, taking it in his stride.

Learn more about Project Space Pilipinas and other art spaces in Asia in this SEAspotlight Talk with Leslie de Chavez, Eunice Tsang and Wang Ruobing, moderated by H.G. Masters.