Why I Love Art

I love art.  I love paintings.  I love sculpture.  Photographs and prints, too.  I love many things about art:  splashes of color or shadows of darkness, brushwork, passion, pathos, humor.  An artist’s ideas and concepts, the snapshots in his mind’s eye, these I love.  I’m neither an art critic nor a historian, not a dealer but  – to use a rather by now predictable description – an art lover.

My first memory of art was of seeing my aunt, a summa cum laude fine arts graduate of UST, painting a still life.  Painstakingly, she recreated a scene of flowers and fruit where there had only been white canvas.  How she created shadow and the effect of depth with a dab of this or that color intrigued me.  She had completely transposed the objects on the table before her onto a flat surface without making them lose their fullness, indeed, making them even more alive.

Another early memory of art was when the National Artist Victorio Edades gifted my mother with a life-size portrait of her.  I remember clearly when it was delivered to the house as a commotion ensued.  Since the gift was a surprise about which she had no idea she did not leave word with the household help of its delivery.  She had ad nauseam hammered it into them that strangers were not to be let in the house in her absence.  One afternoon, the painting arrived borne by two men, its front and back boarded-up with plywood.  They insisted that they had strict instructions to see the contents of the boarded-up item into the house and onto a wall, while the help was adamant that she had strict instructions not to let anyone in. A shouting match ensued with both parties arguing over whose instructions were stricter.  The men left in a huff, leaving the painting on the street just outside of the gate, waiting for my mother to arrive.  It eventually found its way on the wall of our house and, two house moves later, still occupies pride of place.

The Sketch by Victorio Edades (1928) Oil on canvas, 96 x 117 cm. Photo from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victorio_C._Edades

My fascination with and greater curiosity about art was piqued in my college years at the Ateneo de Manila in the late 1980s.  I would study in the university’s art gallery which was located under the Rizal Library.  I liked studying there at first because it was the coldest part of the university with large airconditioners operating at full blast to protect the museum’s valuable collection.  And what a collection!  On display were large-scale Fernando Zobels, canvases by Ang Kiukok, Arturo Luz, Federico Aguilar Alcuaz, to name a few.  The quality of the work on display could only have been produced by these artists during their best and most creative years (When in Madrid once I spent an hour tracking down a Zobel in the Museo del Reina Sofia –  and was disappointed that it was nowhere near as impressive as those displayed in the Ateneo.  Arturo Luz’s works from the 1960s display an eagerness to experiment with linearity and subject matter, which I can’t say of his present works that seem to be coming off an assembly line.  Aguilar Alcuaz’s exuberance gave way in the late eighties to polite scenes of high class ladies gathered in upscale surroundings.  Very boring.)  Eventually, I found myself pleasantly distracted by the artwork.   Staring at them gave me a break from staring at my books.  Soon enough, they drew me in.

Dog Fight by Ang Kiukok (1982). Oil on canvas, 35″ x 35″. Photo from http://www.ateneoalumniassociation.org/?p=1896

The painting that struck me most, and which to this day I vividly remember, was a wall-size work by Antipas Delotavo who, like Edades, is a social realist.  It is a close-up of a laborer in kamiseta marching in a demonstration, his face and shoulder muscles painted in heavy-handed brushstrokes which emphasized his desperate lot.    Notwithstanding the coolness of the room, the painting’s harsh yellow and brown tones reflected the heat of the sun beating against the subject’s perspiring Malay skin.  You could almost smell him – amoy araw.  It is a powerful picture of a person of small consequence who is angry yet patient, frustrated but determined, at times alternatively resolute and uncertain.  This painting was to shape my preference for art:  bold, not timid; uncomfortable, not familiar; exuberant or forceful, not necessarily pretty, but not necessarily angry either.

Itak sa Puso ni Mang Juan by Antipas Delotavo (1977). Photo from http://bjanepr.files.wordpress.com/2010/03/antipasdelotavo-itaksapusonimangjua.jpg

These days I’m able to indulge my passion, not just because I’m fortunate enough to be able to set aside a modest budget for it, but also because the new breed of Filipino artist is continuously pushing new ideas and concepts beyond the limits of his or her canvases.  And that is what makes me love art all the more.

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An Auction

It was my first time to join an art auction and I was more curious than excited.  In my years of buying art I have always bid down and never up.  I have successfully gotten art dealers to agree to a twenty five to thirty percent discount off the quoted price and, once they agree, haggle for payment terms.  I suspect though that this was less because of my negotiating skills than the fact that the transactions took place in harder times, when art didn’t figure in peoples’ hierarchy of needs except, of course, if you were an artist.  Not so now with the economy clocking seven percent GDP growth, a condo building boom that has all the indications of a bubble, and Rolls Royce opening a dealership in the country.

The room soon filled with people carrying their programs and paddles, each deliberately choosing his or her seat as part of a carefully planned bidding strategy.  I took my place near the front of the room – I figured that the less I saw of the other bidders the less personal the bidding process would be and the less likely that my competitive spirit would have me jump up and scream a winning bid consisting of my nine-year old daughter’s tuition until college.  Wealth was in the house.  From the actor whom internal revenue filed tax evasion charges against, to several young Filipino-Chinese males (who were each to win on bids equivalent to my daughter’s tuition all the way to MBA), to eager bejeweled and well-coiffed elderly ladies whom I suspect attended as sellers, not buyers.  I was not in my element.  I had arrived by cab.

“We shall start the bidding at the fantastical amount of…”. Photo from http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/08/arts/design/08auction.html?_r=0

Soon the bidding went underway as the British auctioneer took bids on the lots by peppering the crowd with ever-increasing prices. I had thought that he was contracted to lend the event a certain upper crustiness, but realized that he played a much more important role: that of ensuring that the auction proceeded in the most efficient and profitable manner.  With over a hundred fifty pieces on auction any foul-ups could result in the crowd becoming restless and impatient, dampen their ardor, thus resulting in less than satisfactory values.   The British auction house tradition embodied by Sotheby’s and Christies was alive that day in Makati.  In his self-deprecating manner – he mispronounced every Filipino title and painter – the auctioneer presided over and charmed his way into the participants’ acquisitive psyches and into their checkbooks.

Several attempts to get in on the action proved futile as I put in bids on a Lee Aguinaldo, a Malang, and an Olazo, whose prices went beyond my relatively modest budget. Fortune favors the bold, however.  I had been eyeing an oil painting by Emmanuel Garibay.  With the unlikely title “Town Fiesta” it shows a circle of dancers, their eyes closed, writhing as though in a trance, the scene reminiscent of a voodoo seance.  The artist’s muddy palette and elongated brush strokes conjures an ominous air without, however, slowing the frenzy of the dancers’ movements.  It is a frenetic picture.  Purgatory in the City, would have been a more appropriate title, as darkness and motion met to create a disturbing, yet strangely, redemptive scene of life in the city’s nether parts.

A world away from Amorsolo’s sunlit pastorals the piece’s unsettling tone was to work in my favor, limiting the bidding to just three participants:  myself, a distinguished gentleman whom I recognized to be a savvy investor, and an unidentified hand that kept popping up somewhere in the crowd behind me.  The opening bid was modest but, as I was to discover, the auctioneer was also a psychologist, playing us off against one another, luring us with reasonable increments and, as he saw surging urgency among the three of us, increasing the spreads between bids.  At that moment the epiphany that all serious bidders experience happened to me:  I had to have that painting!  It was, in fact, speaking to me to buy it!  I resolved not to leave the hall empty-handed.  With greater resolve (and a fair bit of hand-wringing – what was to be the winning price?  More importantly, what would my wife say?) I met the challenges of Mr.  Savvy Investor and The Hand.  At 4x multiple of opening price I was about to throw in the towel when I noticed the hand had stopped popping up and Savvy seemed to think long and hard about meeting my latest bid.  Finally, with a resigned air he shook his head at the auctioneer.  Down came the hammer.  Mr.  Savvy Investor turned to me and nodded imperceptibly.  I nodded back in understanding: the Bidding Warriors’ Code.

And so I own the painting.  Here it is.

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Emmanuel Garibay, Town Fiesta (1995), oil on canvas 36” x 48” (91.4 cm. x 121.9 cm.)

I was to bid on and win another painting that day, a delicate nude done with pastel on paper.  It now hangs in our bedroom, together with other nudes that my wife and I have accumulated through the years.  It’s quite charming – true to the painting’s nature the languor of the subject matched the more relaxed bidding pace.

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Serafin Serna, Nude, pastel on paper, 19” x  25” (48.2 cm. x 63.5 cm.)

In all, it was a good haul.  I realized that the challenge of the auction is to make careful choices in an environment of controlled chaos, all the while enjoying the thrill of the chase, whether it’s you or someone else doing the chasing.  Have I changed my art buying habits?  Put it this way: three days later I was at my regular art dealer cajoling him to bring down his price by forty percent on an intriguing abstract work.   I just had to have it.