One of The Philippines' foremost expressionist painters, the late Onib Olmedo has carved out a legacy for himself as an artist who can claim a portion of a person's soul within his vivid and enduring portraits. Working during a time when Filipino audience still preferred gentle landscapes, colourful genre scenes and beautiful still lifes, Olmedo's modernism-inspired technique and starkly honest perspective raised many an eyebrow by viewers who found his works extremely depressing and so overly realistic as to be shocking. Olmedo was drawn to characters of the street - musicians, prostitutes, and other disenfranchised personalities for whom he felt extreme compassion and an implicit empathy.
The figures produced by Olmedo are distorted, uncomfortably posed, with pronounced, even exaggerated facial appendages. They remind us alternately of Modigliani's mournful muses or Picasso's cubist experimentations. Yet upon closer inspection, Olmedo's works do not follow the formal rules of cubism either, choosing to abandon modernist strictures for a freedom of method which seemed natural and organic to the artist, and the themes he intended to illustrate.
Concert in the Alley is one of two inkwash works which won the artist an honourable mention at the illustrious Cagnes-sur-Mer international art competition in 1992. It is part of Olmedo's "New York Series", depicting a lone individual playing a violin on the fire escape of a New York apartment. The work exemplifies the tension between a passion for beauty and aesthetic culture as opposed to the griminess and harsh reality of urban life. The motorcycles parked under the balcony elaborate this theme, acting as a metaphor for the broken down city atmosphere, as well as modern society's obsession with speed. The other award-winning work at Cagnes-sur-Mer, The Apartment, dwells on a similar subject, depicting a two-storey poorly built shanty apartment which appears to be on the verge of falling down. A man crouched on the upper storey stares at the viewer with anguished eyes, while his downstairs neighbour plucks a plaintive tune on a guitar, his mouth agape as though having forgotten the tune to his song. The Apartment is a bolder, more brutal and discomforting composition portraying life at the bottom of the social spectrum; whilst Concert in the Alley, with its bricked residential block and refined violinist, is gentler, more melancholic and reminiscent of the trapped strata of working class folk who constantly have to keep their feet on the ground and noses to the grindstone to maintain a semblance of civilised life.
That the city musician, alone with his haunting tune, has no other audience but a host of grounded motorcycles in an alleyway is symptomatic of the world Olmedo perceives. Deeply humanistic, a collective of alienated individuals, yet possessing an unspoken understanding that there is still beauty and grace within the harshest and loneliest situations if one can only look hard enough.