Thursday, March 18, 2010

Of Barbie Dolls and Art Speculation


Yesterday afternoon we joined a group of friends for a private tour of an art gallery in Pasay. We'd almost never imagined going to this part of the city for art, but someone had organized an afternoon of wine and pica-pica, and we liked the people (mostly serious wine drinkers!) who had confirmed attendance, so we decided join in the fun. The email said bring wine and snacks to share, so we arrived with a red and a white, and a platter of cheese and cold cuts.

Getting there was a major hassle of narrow roads and EDSA traffic. However, once we drove past a bright red gate, we were instantly transported to another era and an utterly charming place where civilized living and gentility reigned. It was probably a lively and happy post-war family compound in a past life, with its wooden clapboard two-storey houses, iron grills and all; but now it's a community for artists and designers that is maintained with great taste rather than lots of money, and an oasis of quiet amidst the chaos of this old and rather rundown part of town.

We were immediately enamoured. And the giant photographs of flowers on the house’s whitewashed walls -- this month's exhibit -- weren't bad either.

Then we met the very charming gallery owner, who then took us up to see half of his collection. Everyone was going on a full tour in a while, but I had asked for a sneak preview of some works since I was on a tight time deadline to make it to the Ballet Philippines Gala closing cocktails at the Peninsula Manila, which also included an auction of over 200 designer-clad Barbie dolls. Having been a big Barbie doll fan many centuries ago (I was one of those little girls who saved all their allowance to buy Barbie dolls at the International Bazaar), this was something I definitely wanted to see.

But upstairs in the gallery, a striking painting by the modern master Lao Lianben -- a quiet version of his Buddhist television series -- and a pair of wooden sculptures of a couple in some kind of yoga pose by a Filipina artist based in Germany, caught my eye. The Lao, in particular, was just what I was looking for to partner with a Buddhist TV series already hanging on my dining room wall.

"I'd like to think about this," I told the gallery owner, and gave him my business card. He looked at my card, then quizzically at me, and asked, "Did you study art as a child?"

I said I had studied art as a child. I'd gone to Saturday art school for years.

"I remember you!" He almost exclaimed. "You used to throw sand on my paintings when we'd go for on-the-spot painting sessions. Our teacher would bring us somewhere like Tagaytay and advise us to paint closer to nature – and instead you’d throw sand at our paintings to make these closer to nature!"

Somehow I didn't recall the sand escapades, but I did remember the wonderful art workshops conducted by Fernando Sena, that shaped my eye (and the eye of many young students, some of whom have become very famous like the now highly-sought after Elmer Borlongan, who sat next to me drawing still life for years) for design and appreciation for the beautiful. And right there and then, a friendship going back 30 years -- if you can call throwing sand at someone's paintings a form of friendship -- was re-kindled in five minutes.

Unfortunately, it was then time for another kind of event so I left the group with hurried goodbyes. I rushed over from Pasay just in time for the Ballet Philippines event organized by board chair Margie Moran-Floreindo, who was one of my travel mates to South India several weeks ago. The Barbie dolls on display were just beautiful, and every future fashionistas dream. I spied many lucky little girls, brought by their mothers and aunts, already holding paddles and waiting eagerly for the auction to begin.

There were so many masterpieces, but I remember especially the bejweled Barbie -- probably the most expensive in the lot -- created by jeweler Hans Brumann. Those of you who've read the latest issue of Travelife Magazine (please pick it up at the bookstore! we're releasing the new issue in a few weeks and this really wonderful Feb-March issue will be off the stands) may recall that Hans and his wife Maria, and my friend Marivic and myself, had spent a wonderful summer painting the picturesque lakeshore towns and hilltop villages in the Ticino region of Switzerland. We'd done lazy days by the lakes, watched a spectacular performance of the Aida in the open-air ampitheater in Verona, and even managed to hit both the flea markets in Zurich and the summer sales in Milan. Regarding the latter, Marivic and I had done so much credit card damage -- at 70%, wouldn't you do so as well? -- that Hans had had to help us close our overstuffed suitcases for the flight back to Manila. This trip still ranks as one of the most wonderful and enjoyable trips I have ever taken.

"We're going on another painting trip with Margarita," Hans told me, when I finally got him away from the throngs of well-wishers. Margarita was our art teacher from Milan. "But this time to the South of France."

Then I met Tippi Ocampo, who had generously and creatively designed about four or five very versatile looks. One of her dolls was in a lovely gown, for instance, while another was in a very modern get-up.

I saw some of my other India travel mates admiring dolls at the other end of the room and trying to decide which one to bid for. One of them, L, went for a Barbie in a striking gown with a puffed cream-colored skirt that had lines of poetry on it. Meanwhile M had placed a bid on a doll in a short gold-colored dress. I wanted one in a jusi creation, but there were just too many bidders already.

After the auction, I motored back to Pasay, hoping to catch up with the conversation and the wine. Unfortunately, all the bottles were empty and the long and very stately-looking table I had last seen at 5 PM that afternoon, laid out so lovely with candles and tableware, was completely and messily covered with tasting glasses. Everyone was in such a state of inebriation that I was surprised they actually noticed that I had walked in.

Apparently I had missed a very lively discussion on hotshot art collectors buying up art as investments and driving the prices up with their wealthy eagerness. One of my dear friends, for example, present at that discussion and tipsy, had just purchased a painting from an upcoming young and highly collectible artist, sight unseen. Such "statement" actions are bound to generate equally strong opinions from others. But personally, I think it’s hard to judge something like buying art sight unseen as indecent or unethical because it’s honest money and an honest hobby – and as my eloquent managing editor Jon Vicente likes to say every so often back at the Travelife office: “Hey, whatever floats your boat.” At the very least, my art investor friend was certainly keeping a couple of young artists alive and well.

And buying anything is highly personal. I don't think I'd ever buy a painting without seeing it first, but I can certainly imagine calling in my credit card details for a Birkin bag that fits my specs. I’ve been looking for a crocodile Birkin in old rose for ages – I saw it only once on the arm of a very fashionable-looking lady in the Upper East Side and instantly fell in love – and if my Hermes store in Tokyo had it, yes, I would fax my credit card without seeing the bag.

But this seemed to incense the art gallery owner who understandably didn’t like the very clinical approach to the business of buying creations that are supposed to move and inspire you -- not make you think of profits. In a way, it does change the art collecting landscape completely as prices are driven up and young artists are turned on their heads by the attention and the frenzied buying up of their works. Some of them become quite difficult when they realize the whole world literally wants them, and a couple of them are up to their ears in future orders. They haven’t even lifted a paintbrush and already there is a line of buyers for paintings that haven’t even been imagined – much less painted or seen. Indeed, that's got to affect art's quality control.

Anyway, by the time I reached the art gallery at about 930 PM, the furor had died down and the conversation had returned to jovial, more agreeable banter about food and wine. We all agreed it would be nice to have another meeting there, but this time a progressive dinner that moved from beautiful, art-filled room to beautiful, art-filled room, from interesting house to interesting house within the compound, with each course.

“I like that idea,” said my art investor friend, seated next to me, with a grin on his face. Ever the maverick, but a truly wonderful person and travel companion (we'd been to Paris together twice in a space of months and had a fantastic time, and we'd done an eating trip to Tokyo as well), he obviously had enjoyed throwing a monkey wrench into the evening's discussions. “Do you think he’ll invite me again?”

The gallery owner at the other end of the table overheard and he answered, more teasing than serious, before I could say anything else: “You’re always welcome to join us and enjoy an evening here. I still like you. Just don’t buy my art.”

PS: The photos of paintings here are not from the said gallery. I just thought this blog entry would look nicer with some art photos.

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