Nov 20, 2016

The polka-dot patterns formed by the rain on Blanc’s floor-to-ceiling glass windows seem to go on inside the gallery’s alcove, where Arturo Sanchez, Jr.’s installation had been set up. Dotting his massive, monochromatic and photorealistic paintings of catastrophic scenes that took over the three walls are little convex mirrors partially covered with images of infernos, looking like gigantic drops of water suspended in the air. Up close, a viewer will glean his own image on these reflective surfaces as part of a hellish mise-en-scene; should he look down on the floor, he’ll also see a similar view, with the glass tiles also depicting scenes of hellfire and brimstone. From afar, though, the whole room is magical, especially with the soft lighting that Sanchez’s ceiling-and-floor mounted installation “Heaven Sent” is emitting.

It’s opening night for Blanc’s latest three-man exhibit, with the two other rooms occupied with paintings by Jonathan Ching (“Tones and Tails”) and Anton Mallari (“Things Done”). Depsite the weather and the traffic, people never stop arriving and circulating. “Actually, all the works on exhibit tonight are sold already,” art consultant Miguel Rosales confides. “Even the installation—everything except the floor, so far.”

art gallery
Blanc Gallery owner Jay Amante and artist Jonathan Ching contemplate on the latter’s fabulist paintings.

The exhibit’s nearly sold-out status even before the gallery doors opened is an indication of the invigorated art scene in Manila. Though the Philippines has never lacked in artistry—even an era as repressive as the Marcos regime gave birth to social realist art—and the (select) people who appreciate good art enough to shell out money for it, there’s something fresh about the ongoing interest of a bigger public to support Filipino art, financially and otherwise. Beyond the controversies raised with every National Artist nomination is the increased awareness of Philippine contemporary art and everything else that touches on it. Case in point: this year’s Ateneo Art Awards, which focused not just on the artists and their works but also on the thoughtful discussion of them via a new category, the Purita Kalaw- Ledesma Prize for Art Criticism.

 “There are those who are really serious about collecting; though price is always a factor, they look for quality. Unfortunately, there are also those who focus on resale value: collectors that are flippers, buying to resell.” Miguel Rosales

Financially, it’s a boom. Yes, there was that hullaballoo last year that erupted between local auction houses Salcedo Auctions, Now Gallery+Auctions and Leon Gallery around issues of ethical practice and artwork authenticity, a controversy that revealed the “darker” underbelly of the art world, from the sniping between art connoisseurs to the numbers of figures that change hands locally with every art purchase—figures that were only heard of previously in the international auction scene. But that merely highlighted the strength of the Manila art market, of how it is becoming a player in the wider global market with its increasing number of collectors, both old and young, and the buzz it’s generating for Filipino artists. With Manila now able to hold auctions on its own shores, Filipino artists looking to sell—and thus sustain their art—have a more attainable avenue to do so, at less cost.

“We’re definitely one of the fastest growing art markets,” affirms Rosales, who frequently works with local artists to arrange gallery shows for them here and abroad. “There’s a lot of international interest in Philippine contemporary art. Of course, the moderns and the masters have always had a following, but [the contemporary art scene] in the last five years really turned around and changed. It became this really fresh thing for international buyers.”

Art critic and University of the Philippines’ Vargas Museum curator Dr. Patrick Flores has the same assessment, telling BusinessWorld last February 2013 (“Are we in a Golden Age of Philippine Art?”) that the current art market is “one of the strongest, if not the strongest… People begin to look at Filipino artists. They are intrigued. What art produced a Ventura?”

Ventura, of course, is Ronald Ventura, who set a record in the contemporary Southeast Asian art scene in 2011 when his hyperrealistic painting “Grayground” sold for $1.1 million at Sotheby’s Hong Kong; it was a feat impressive enough that the New York Times picked it up. And he’s not the only Filipino artist fetching big amounts: Geraldine Javier, Rodel Tapaya, Nona Garcia, Annie Cabigting, Winner Jumalon, Jigger Cruz, and Yasmin Sison-Ching have made killings in the Southeast auction block for the past few years.

Arturo Sanchez’s ”Phenomenal Field” portrays catastrophic images inspired by recent typhoons and the crash of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17.

There’s a similar picture forming within the local perspective, with more galleries opening, art fairs and auctions dealing with local art getting organized with regularity, and art competitions being held—all signs of a strong demand for Filipino art. “I would say younger people are supporting more compared to before,” Rosales says. “More people are open-minded about what they buy, what they choose, where they go to look at stuff because they travel a lot more. With the Internet, they also know what’s going on outside; they now look for certain things locally.”

The growing number and buying power of local art patrons have been points of interest in many a recent discussion about the Manila art market: there was that astounding, nearly P6 million final bid made on the late Jorge Pineda’s painting “Las Buyeras,” sold, despite the controversy around it, at a Leon Gallery auction last year—an exponential increase from the starting bid of P700,000. There’s actor John Lloyd Cruz, whose burgeoning art collection merited him a cover story feature in Esquire in February. There was that piece on “Five People You Meet at Auctions” in Rogue’s 2013 art issue, which defined the kinds of buyers (and observers) filling up auction rooms. There are stories—all told hush-hush—of collectors making ridiculously high bids on new works from their favored artists just to jack up the value of the pieces already in their possession. With price tags on contemporary art ballooning, there is now a pointed focus on the buying audience and their influence on the market—and it’s not all positive.

Working with a variety of clients, from private individuals to hotels, and advising them on what art pieces to buy, Rosales has met his share of buyers and says they come in all types. “There are those who are really serious about collecting; though price is always a factor, they look for quality. Unfortunately, there are also those who focus on resale value: collectors that are flippers, buying to resell.”

Even though artists work with galleries in setting prices on their works, in consideration of the pieces’ market value, it’s not a wholly autonomous system anymore, especially with more local auctions happening. The sale of “Las Buyeras” won’t be the last of its kind, with the money it fetched doing little to downplay art’s potential resale value to buyers who look at it as investment—a mindset that ultimately creates an unsupportive environment for artists, especially those who aren’t “blue chip names,” as Rosales calls them. “There are artists who truly stand out. That’s why they’re recognized more, but there are also underrated ones who deserve to be rediscovered if they’ve been forgotten, or should be given a better platform.” He wonders, “Is it part of the mentality of Pinoys, that you have to be recognized abroad before you get recognized here?”

One of Anton Mallari’s works from his exhibit ”Things Done” is made with oli canvas.
One of Anton Mallari’s works from his exhibit ”Things Done” is made with oil canvas.

Shortly after Ventura’s record-setting victory, Philippine Daily Inquirer published a piece by Rachel Mayo titled, “Yes, but is it art— or investment?” in which she traced this “art as investment” mindset to Andy Warhol’s commercialism of art in the US during the ’60s.

“Collectors then began buying art not for its higher intrinsic value, but rather as an object that is expected to increase in value in the future. This eventually paved the way for artists to fall into the consumerist trap that sadly began to influence artistic styles and establish trends.” Artist, gallery owner, and curator Manuel Ocampo is even more succinct about the growing power of auction houses and the danger they pose on subverting art’s real value, especially in what he described as an underdeveloped art market. “Not that I am against the market and auctions per se, it is just that the auction success story among a few in the Manila art scene established an auction house style… the dominance of the auction style bred comformity among artists whose sole purpose is to be ‘auctionable,’ veiling their lack of originality with second- rate craftsmanship,” he wrote in Rogue’s November 2012 issue (“Strange Poop in the Afterglow of a Misbegotten Sunset”). In place of real dialogue and connections within the art community, “we are left with artists working in cultural sweatshops creating consumer goods for the insatiable money-making machine,” he opined further to BusinessWorld (“Are we in a Golden Age of Philippine Art?” February 21, 2013).

Of course, not all artists are on the “auctionable art” wagon. “Yes, it’s hard to ignore the issue of patrons who look at art as investment,” Jonathan Ching admits. “It’s there at the back of my mind, but I try not to let it influence me and my work.” And in a global market that dictates a higher price on paintings on a canvas compared to other mediums (even a wondrous, all-encompassing installation as Sanchez’s), there are still the resolute ones who work with materials and concepts that fascinate them. Epjey Pacheco, who has forayed recently from oil and acrylic on canvas to ink on paper, says he keeps a step ahead of potential buyers by studying his current medium of choice diligently. “They always ask, ‘What materials do you use?’ because in their mind, there’s still a heirarchy among art mediums regardless of the end result.”

Helping their cause are gallerists who also block out the noise of what’s trending in the art scene. Blanc’s Jay Amante says, “I never produce exhibitions with trends in mind. Good exhibitions are good exhibitions; being boxed within a medium or content is a no-no, in my opinion. The take-off point at Blanc is not how the art pieces would sell, because the good ones will eventually sell.” An example is Sanchez’s latest work, though it got sold in trenches, the paintings separate from the LED lights; to be fair, only someone with a gallery- sized space could buy the work whole.

“There will always be people who buy with their ears, not their eyes, but hopefully, they’ll buy what they like,” Rosales says. For him, investing in art isn’t necessarily bad if it comes from a place of true appreciation. “If you will play that market, do your research,” he advises. “Go out there, meet the artists and gallerists, attend fairs.”

There may be plenty of dissenting opinions, but no one can deny how alive the Manila art scene is now. If anything, the checks and balances going on (at least on paper, no matter how catty) between the different sectors of the art community, from the artists to the buyers to the critics and all the rest, point to a growing consciousness of art as a whole: a cultural touchstone, a business to be sustained, a dynamic movement that’s both influential and influenced.

TAGS: art Blanc Gallery Jay Amante manila art Miguel Rosales nolisoliph