Stephanie Dychiu CONTEMPORARY ART PHILIPPINES - Collector As Curator

By Stephanie Dychiu

Is it novelty or is it art? Who decides what can be called contemporary art? Is it the critic who shapes the taste of the public? Is it the dealer who paves the way to commercial success? Is it the scholar who bears the imprimatur of the cultural Establishment?

At a recent exhibit of the Finale Art Gallery, the arbiter was none of the above. Or in a sense, all of the above. Noted private collector Paulino Que, whose trove of Philippine art stretches from Juan Luna to today’s twenty-something wunderkinds, has long been a quiet but pervasive force in the local art scene. Prodded by Finale’s Vita Sarenas, he agreed to show 22 of the best works he acquired from young artists in the last ten years.

“There is no institutional collection of contemporary art in the Philippines today, so that makes [the Paulino Que] collection significant,” art historian Patrick D. Flores remarked during his talk on the exhibit, dubbed Figuring the Times: Philippine Art 1996-2009. “Most [institutional collections] start with the modern period, such as the CCP collection, but it stops with the 1980s.”

With contemporary art receiving little support from a cash-strapped government, and conservative private museums adopting a wait-and-see stance on work deemed too new and experimental, a private collection such as Paulino Que’s is crucial to knowing the art of our time.

Of the 22 works he chose for the Finale exhibit, half were created very recently, between 2008-2009. The artists represent a broad age range (22 to 50), but follow a tight set of themes: socio-political and religious oppression, disillusionment and existential ennui, parodies of urban/pop culture. If art is a reflection of life, these appear to be the issues of the day.

Opinionating about contemporary art is a thorny business, because it has become as much about concept as the actual physical object produced. It is rarely about beauty anymore, so aesthetics cannot be the sole gauge of quality. Even skill and technique are increasingly left out of the equation, as everything is reduced to The Concept (i.e. unmade bed nominated for Turner Prize years ago). The struggle to be accessible without being literal, thought-provoking without being incomprehensible, different but not lazy, often ends in a huffy cop-out: “You just don’t get it.”

That said, below we present our favorites from the Paulino Que contemporary art collection, because good art is universal, good art is intelligible, and good art should not require encyclopedic insider knowledge (or a kilometric title) to engage the dilettante mind and soul.

ROUNDTRIP OVERLOAD by Mark Justiniani (2009)
History is made not in the corridors of power but in the everyman’s colorum. A priest decides the church is toast; a farmer takes up the Katipunero struggle; a soldier looks out to an empty horizon; a young girl dreams of stardom, or marriage to a foreigner, whichever comes first. Flashpoints in Philippine history flicker on the tricycles’ rear view mirrors. The barefoot crowd’s aspirations bombard the frame: Nora Aunor, Mickey Mouse, Ronald McDonald, Wow Magic Sing. The incumbent leader is Ate Glow serving “Kape Barack” in an anti-diarrhea ad. Big Business looms behind. A gunman alights near the isaw stand to set things right.

BUBBLES ON HIS HEAD by Geraldine Javier (2004)
The banality of death creeps innocuously in this scene of a corpse drifting past fresh green grass under a bright blue sky. Life, like the bubbles floating over his dearly departed head, is here one moment, gone the next.

ONE-MAN SHOW by Elmer Borlongan (2008)
The usual suspects attend a Metro Manila art show. The well-dressed wino plots his next purchase. The camera-toting press shoot everything on display (or are they fellow artists reconnoitering?). The aging habituĂ© tries to keep his eyebrows down while chugging a beer. The sabit goes only for the food. The gossips’ eyes dart left and right as they whisper nonstop. And the newbie in the corner wonders what everyone else is thinking.

UNTITLED by Louie Cordero (2008)
Night of the Living Dead in neon—shit, guts, muscle, blood, eyeballs, teeth, and bits of human flesh acquire a strange toy-like appeal when bathed in fluorescent candy colors. I see Jason, I see Freddy, I see Chucky . . . a salute to the puerile appeal of monster movies, from a techniclolor zombie in souvenir statement tee.

What does the middling middle-class life look like? It is a sala stuck in the seventies with only a TV for company. Discarded “hobbies” lie pointlessly in one pile. Man is but a ghost of himself, his presence hardly missed.

(This article originally appeared in the April-May 2009 issue of Contemporary Art Philippines magazine.)