A tale of two art fairs, two Filipino painters in Paris
As if art lovers needed another excuse to visit Paris, in January this year, the Réunion des Musées Nationaux-Grand Palais, otherwise known by its less-formidable appellation, RMN-Grand Palais, the French agency that operates the iconic events venue on the Champs-Élysées, shook up the global art scene by announcing that they would award the October slot for a contemporary art fair to the MCH Group, owners of Art Basel, the biggest, most prestigious art fair brand in the world.
RMN-Grand Palais effectively kicked out FIAC, the Fiore International D’Art Contemporain, which was Paris’ fair for contemporary and modern art for the past seven years.
Why would a city already replete with the most important museums and cultural institutions in the world accord the Swiss powerhouse the privilege to set up shop in the City of Lights? Despite the hordes that come to view Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile, a globally-recognized contemporary art landscape, braced by a pulsating gallery scene, seems to have eluded the French capital, something the country needed to complete their art ecosystem.
With London mired in the repercussions of Brexit and their messy politics, big gallery names started beefing up their Paris operations. Europe stood ready for another cool capital of culture, a counterpoint to the thriving artist enclaves of Los Angeles and New York across the Atlantic. Enter Paris+ par Art Basel.
To underscore its importance, no less a personage than the President of the Republic, Emmanuel Macron, took time to view the fair’s inaugural edition on the first full day it opened to the public.
With Paris+ par Art Basel breathing its energy, the city’s art week throbbed with heightened excitement. The vitality extended to the various museum shows, gallery exhibitions, and satellite events organized to coincide with the fair’s third week of October dates, including other art fairs. A welcome development for Asia Now.
Founded by Alexandra Fain in 2014, Asia Now has sought to connect Asia’s equally vibrant artistic milieu to Europe’s contemporary art audience. This year, the fair moved to a new venue, the beautiful Monnaie de Paris. The heritage complex encompasses a palace and sprawling courtyards, allowing visitors to weave in and out of exhibitions set up both indoors—with exquisite architectural details as backdrop to some booths—and outdoors, within tents that allow for natural light.
This art fair recognizes that Asia is vast and complex and disparate, with unique sets of art scenes that mirror these qualities. Thus, with 88 galleries participating, Asia Now, which ran from Oct. 20-24, delivered fun, vigor, variety, a dash of chaos, and some wonderful art.
As the sole participating gallery from the Philippines, Vinyl on Vinyl overcame challenges with lost luggage to put on a presentation that included gallery stalwarts Ciane Xavier, Martin Honasan, Iyan de Jesus, Teo Esguerra, Is Jumalon, and the digital artist TRNZ. Anton Belardo delivered the most notable work, however, assuming the persona of Jellyfish Kisses. With the performance piece, “Tiny Worlds,” the artist sat without speaking or uttering a sound, ensconced in a cubicle filled with paintings and soft sculpture true to the colorful identity of Jellyfish Kisses. At the strike of each hour, to mark the passage of time, Jellyfish Kisses would get up to take a stroll, returning shortly to once again continue the vigil.
The Singapore and Sydney-based Yavuz Gallery also featured artists from the Philippines, showing large-scale paintings by Leslie de Chavez and Ayka Go, as well as an assemblage of x-ray lightboxes from Nona Garcia.
Elmer Borlongan: ‘When Time Stood Still’
To celebrate Elmer Borlongan’s first solo exhibit in Europe, HE Ambassador Junever M. Mahilum-West, Philippine Ambassador to France, hosted a reception that brought together some of the artist’s collectors from the Philippines, members of the Filipino community in Paris, as well as friends and supporters of the Galerie Geraldine Banier, the Paris gallery that organized the show.
The previous evening, the gallery hosted their own opening night, unveiling the exhibit at their St. Germain space. Originally scheduled to open in 2020, but postponed because of the pandemic, Borlongan relates that he used the delay to prepare for the show.
“We came to view the gallery in 2019, traveling from a group exhibit in Milan," he said. "When I saw the space, I knew I could work with it, and we scheduled it for October 2020. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, but I used the time to prepare.”
Fourteen of Borlongan’s acrylic on canvas paintings and eight monoprints line the gallery’s patterned walls, lending an old world feel to his signature subject, the Filipino everyman. “The show’s title, ‘When Time Stood Still,’ mirrors our collective experiences during the pandemic. It was a unique time, and I hoped to capture some of that with my works here.”
As every Filipino art fan knows, Borlongan draws every day. His mantra: no day without a line. A good number of those drawings serve as studies for his exhibition works, usually transformed into paintings.
One can imagine that the works in the show started out as sketches in a notebook, a visual diary of the past two years: days spent in lockdown or on Zoom, furtive meetings with loved ones, getting through anxiety.
“I was attracted to Elmer’s work because it is unique,” shares Geraldine Banier, owner of the gallery. “Elmer’s paintings are very strong. They move you. His paintings show a very talented artist, sensitive to current issues and their impact on everyone. Elmer Borlongan has the stature of an international artist, so I had to do a solo show. He is an artist committed to his community, with a deep humanism, who never stops transmitting to younger artists. He is in perpetual motion, and I am happy to have been able to also present his first series of monotypes, which announce the arrival of other explorations.”
Mark Nicdao: ‘Microscopic Amphigories’
Mark Nicdao, who has cemented his reputation as one of our foremost fashion and portrait photographers, presented an exhibition of paintings, “Microscopic Amphigories,” a solo show with the Paris-based Rivoli Fine Art. While he has been a visual artist for more than 20 years, this exhibit at Asia Now is only his second as a painter. He completed all 13 pieces on canvas in Paris, working through the summer at a studio in the city.
“When Jeffrey Cadayong of Rivoli Fine Art told me he would be applying to Asia Now, and submitting my name as his artist, I told him I would go there to paint. It would be a perfect way to spend my vacation, and it wouldn’t matter whether we get into the fair or not. An exhibition in Paris is a dream come true, so I stayed from July to the end of September and worked on this show," Nicdao said.
Nicdao’s brightly colored drips, swirls and trails of paint, reminiscent of Florentine handmade marbled paper, belie a deeply reflective practice. “My insecurity is on another level. Sometimes I’m here, sometimes I’m down. Painting pulled me out of a creative plateau. And I told myself, I have to take the opportunity offered to do this. So if you look at my paintings, they look like they’re alive, beating, moving like waves, lines that sometimes move up or move down, like anxieties. But they show how we have to look at these another way, not to allow ourselves to spiral.”
The response to his paintings, which range from 5,000 to 15,000 euros in price, have been phenomenal. He sold out his first solo exhibit in Manila earlier this year. Only two pieces of his Asia Now show remained available on the last day. Most of the buyers had been familiar with his work before, but a few encountered his paintings for the first time at the fair.
“Lucky!” Nicdao laughs wryly at his obvious success. “But I do wonder what I will do next? Maybe I need to stop and try something new? Perhaps a full-length feature film? I’m still trying to figure that out.”