MANILART 2013: Two Women Artists

With traffic across the metro at a standstill on opening night of MANILART 2013 one could be forgiven for thinking that all roads led to the exhibit venue.  There was, I understand, a more prosaic reason for this: a bomb threat somewhere along EDSA held the city hostage to traffic gridlock. By the time my wife and I arrived after an hour and a half on the road (normally a fifteen minute journey) we were hungry and feeling bent out of shape.  Thankfully, our intrepid spirits were rewarded as we walked into the huge exhibition hall, which had been turned into a veritable candy store of paintings and sculptures.  While pop music blared in the background visitors moved about evaluating the offerings on display, artists and gallery owners alike eagerly discussed the merits of their works, while waiters weaved their way through the crowd offering trays of canapés and refilling empty wine glasses.  The participating art galleries put their best foot forward, exhibiting works by accomplished and familiar artists.  What drew us in though were the works of lesser-known but amazingly-talented painters who rendered their craft in unusual ways.

Our first purchase was a portrait of a pony-tailed boy by artist Taka Coloma.  Notwithstanding the subject’s long look the work is exuberance itself all done up in a riot of color.  What delights, however, is the artist’s chosen medium:  paper painted in primary and neon colors, rolled into small tubes, “mummified” in a solution to harden and preserve them (for life, claims Ms.  Coloma), then stuck onto a board jammed against one another, creating a tactile and pixelated, almost sculpture-like piece, the uneven lengths of tubes accounting for the contours of the subject’s face and adding “movement” to the work.  It is art like this (I found it in a small art gallery that was located away from the main part of the floor) that gives the fair its reason for being, viz., encouraging young artists to push beyond their creative boundaries while appealing to a broad but discriminating segment of the art market.

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Untitled, mixed media, by Taka Coloma

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My wife Ina, the artist Taka Coloma, and I. Behind us are her other paper creations.

The second piece we picked up is a painting by Italian artist Margherita Del Balzo.  Entitled Nalen, it is a profile of a beautiful Indochinese lady gazing into space.  She exudes a quiet but confident mien, detached from the noise and hubbub of the crowd, a female Buddha.  One doesn’t need to shout to be noticed, she seems to tell me.  The subject’s visibly delicate strength could only have been due to the technical drawing skills of Ms.  Del Balzo, who obviously has had extensive classical training.  Most unusual though is her use of a thick and rough paper colored with organic dyes, both materials of her own creation, I understand. The heaviness of the papyrus (I imagine that this is what paper looked like in ancient times) gives a permanence and solemnity to the work that does not undermine the subject’s serenity, but instead preserves it.

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Nalen, mixed media (48 cm x 67 cm) by Margherita Del Balzo. Source: http://margheritadelbalzo.com/?page_id=12

Hmm, looks familiar.

Hmm, looks familiar.

If there’s anything that Misses Coloma and Del Balzo have in common it’s their ability to express their considerable artistic talent through the creative use of paper and marry this with their visual art skills.  In their hands, paper is not just material on which art is expressed but is an integral part of the creation, imbuing it with character, mood and texture.  We came away from MANILART 2013 not just with great finds but, more importantly, with great hopes for what the Philippine art scene has to offer.

(Note:  I’m not connected with MANILART 2013 or any art gallery)

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Art Fair

This October 9, 2013 is the beginning of MANILART 2013, an annual art fair that’s on its fifth run and which has become something of a rock event among artists, dealers, buyers and art aficionados.  My friend Noli Romero, owner of Renaissance Art Gallery, gave me a couple of tickets to the gala opening and so my checkbook and I will be attending.  I’ve visited MANILART a couple of times and have not been disappointed in the wide selection and quality of the art on display.  One noticeable thing about the fair is that every year the number of exhibiting galleries increases.  Put it down to any number of factors – a growing affluent class of buyers, more artists willing to make their careers in art, and therefore more people who see the business angle of the whole thing.

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This is a good thing.  Some people think that art should be isolated from the profit motive, but I disagree.  After all, artists have to eat.  And so do art dealers.  Okay, so I’ve got a soft spot for the latter: I was once after all a Teenage Art Dealer.   This was in the mid-eighties (now I’m delving into ancient history).  I was in college, Marcos had just been deposed and it was early days into the Cory Aquino government, the economy was in a bad way and art was a luxury folks just didn’t think about.  Most folks, though, except yours truly.  It started when my buddy had a consignment of watercolor landscapes and pastel nudes by noted (later National) artist Cesar Legazpi.  With nothing to do between classes I would accompany him to sell his paintings to parents of friends or classmates.  After a few weeks “apprenticing” to him I figured there was nothing to it.  I sold works of Romulo Olazo and Mauro Malang Santos, to name a few, that I directly acquired from the artists.  That summer I took a job in Citibank not only to learn banking (which I did, a bit), but also to sell to upwardly mobile banker types who were building their first homes.  Eventually, selling paintings took a back seat to another venture:  putting up a modestly successful hamburger stand, but that’s another story (I’m tempted to say that there’s not much difference between selling art and hamburgers, but that would be trying to be clever.  They have absolutely nothing in common.)

Chicken by Mauro Malang Santos. Source: gerry.alanguilan.com/archives/407

The good thing about the proliferation of art galleries is that it makes art more available to the regular guy (present company included), stripping away layers of pretentiousness or exclusivity that the art community sometimes builds to keep others out, and prices up.  Art is there for the taking, if not at least for the viewing by anyone who, curious, wishes to understand the world and celebrate life through the eyes of the artist.

(Note:  I am not in any way connected with MANILART.)

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.

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.