The late art critic Alice Guillermo considered Juanito Torres (b. 1977) as the leading figure of an emerging generation of brilliant artists, whose artistic pursuits seemed to follow the footsteps of respected figures in Philippine contemporary art today: Elmer Borlongan, Mark Justiniani, Neil Doloricon, to name a few. A grand claim, to be sure. Although, upon closer look, Torres can be seen to soon be standing on the shoulders of giants and this seems fated from the start.
Exposed to art early on through frequent visits to the National Museum as soon as apre-schooler, Torres was probably one of Juan Luna’s youngest admirers. When he wasn’t locked gazing at the grandeur of Spoliarium, the young artist would be attending the museum’s art classes, listening attentively at the front row.
Studying in the Philippine High School for the Arts on a scholarship only strengthened the artist’s resolve. Something of a ward to the late noted curator Bobi Valenzuela, Torres drew further inspiration from Valenzuela’s visiting guests — Karen Flores and Mark Justiniani, among others, as well as art groups Salinggwa and Salingpusa — who would paint large-scale works and murals on the spot. The undergraduate thesis he had defended in the University of the Philippines-Diliman, was to a panel comprising Patrick Flores, Dodo Defeo, Pam Yan, and AlredoAquilizan. Sowed in that thesis were the seeds of what would eventually become his first show, Tao Po, hosted by none other than Dr. Joven Cuanang at the Pinto Art Museum in 2006.
Where Torres’s biography can be made to chart a linear progression, the artist’s works appear able to do anything but. A large part of Torres’s oeuvre consists of large-scale historical paintings, a growing body that is nearly up-to-date. Instead of dramatic retellings of textbook history’s climaxes, however, Torres skillfully depicts episodes that highlight the Filipino people’s collective struggle whether this be against adversity such as his paintings on the COVID pandemic or the struggle for freedom. Hence his paintings of townsfolk brandishing bamboo sticks and rusted bolos as they charge into battle against their oppressor; of revolutionaries in close ties with the communities they defend.