Initially, there’s a bit of a disconnect between Mike Adrao, the soft spoken guy shyly taking you through his sketchbooks, and Mike Adrao, the artist who completed the suite of eight huge drawings hanging on the walls of Tin-Aw Art Gallery for Decoy Decay. As your conversation progresses, however, you get a sense of the grit behind the jaw-dropping pieces, the quiet obsession that pushed charcoal and pastel to cover every inch of paper with complex detail.
Mike has drawn faceless figures captured in the process of morphing into something else, eaten up by organisms that resemble serpents, or melting away into a mass of pustules. They are dark images of fantastic and sinister creatures, rendered with great technical skill.
Surprisingly, this is Mike’s first solo exhibit, and his journey certainly took a circuitous route. The 39-year-old studied art in the 1990s with the likes of Mariano Ching, Geraldine Javier, and Riel Hilario, and even belonged to the original group that first set up the artist-run space Surrounded By Water. A lack of confidence in himself, plus the practicalities of needing to earn a living, saw him choosing employment as an illustrator for Adarna Publishing over working on his art full time. This despite coming under the mentorship of artistic greats Elmer Borlongan and Roberto Feleo, and receiving guidance from the late legendary Hiraya Gallery curator, Bobi Valenzuela.
Mike kept pace with the art scene through the careers of his friends, following their progress and their critical and commercial successes. Always most comfortable using pen and ink, he continued filling up sketchpads with his highly detailed drawings, a habit that began in his schooldays.
In 2008, he ran into artist Leslie de Chavez at an exhibit in the CCP. De Chavez, now represented by Korea’s Arario Gallery, took a look at Mike’s sketches and offered him a residency grant at his Mandaluyong studio and a slot in the group show, Matahati, bound for Malaysia. “At first, I didn’t want to do it. I felt that I couldn’t do big works. Leslie suggested I try magnifying my drawings in charcoal. He even bought me paper to use. It took me two months to finish one 3 ft. x 3 ft. drawing!”
After that, Mike rediscovered his stride. He secured another residency grant in Korea in 2009, and has never looked back. “I felt differently about my drawings once I saw them mounted in a space. I realized that I really enjoyed the work; this is what I missed. I quit my job and decided to risk it all just to do art.”
This long-delayed solo debut follows several group show appearances. Among them, Monumental, a major show that included superstars Jose John Santos III, Mark Justiniani, and his old friend, Borlongan at Manila Contemporary.
Originally, Mike wanted to call the show Eksorssimo. “I’ve been working on some of the pieces in this show for several years, since before Bobi Valenzuela died. In a way, I was trying to exorcise my demons. If other people write down their reflections, me, I draw them. These are like visual diaries.” Mike works the old fashioned way, first perfecting studies in pen and ink, and then translating them via charcoal into the life-sized works for this exhibit.
“Like me, my subjects are searching for their identities. I was also lost. But exorcism is a good thing. It’s a ritual of removing the negative.”
Decoy Decay runs from 14 September to 5 October 2012 at Tin-Aw Art Gallery, Upper GF, Somerset Olympia Makati, Makati City. Phone (632) 892-7522 or visit www.tina-aw.com
A version of this post appears in the September 2012 issue of Town and Country Philippines. Visit https://www.facebook.com/townandcountry