Collecting Young: Duncan Yu on His Beginnings into Art

We enter a condo unit in Wack Wack, Greenhills. Inside, nearly every square foot is adorned with a piece of contemporary art. On the dining table is a polymer clay centerpiece by Naomi Mendoza, immediately to our right is a life-sized apple green sculpture by Yeo Kaa stood beside a large canvas work by Tiffany Lafuente. A Johanna Helmuth taps our shoulders; it hangs by the door we just came in. Beyond the dining area, works by Jigger Cruz, Lynyrd Paras, Luis Lorenzana, Jojo Legaspi, and Roby Dwi Antono, to name a few, are scattered salon-style about the living room walls.

Tall, lanky, and clad in laid-back streetwear, 40-year old entrepreneur Duncan Yu hardly looks the part of a snobbish art connoisseur. He began collecting art in 2014 but was into hip hop, basketball, urban art, and toys before that. He was introduced to art collecting by one of Secret Fresh Gallery’s limited-edition toy lines, and he has not looked back since. We sat down with him one afternoon to talk about his beginnings as an art collector, his observations of the art market, and its promising future.

Duncan got into art early. He took Advertising at the University of Santo Tomas, during which he studied painting under the now art market star Ronald Ventura. Creating art, however, was not meant to be his calling; business suited him better. It wasn’t until years later that Duncan would first encounter the art market by way of pursuing a limited-edition toy by visual artist Jason Montinola, made in partnership with pioneering art and collectibles gallery, Secret Fresh. The busts, titled The Sensational Painter, were based on Montinola’s oil painting of the same name. Due to it being his first time purchasing an artwork, having some qualms with the price, and having no idea who Montinola was, naturally, Duncan purchased two – one black and one white. Undoubtedly, Duncan was a natural risk-taker.

Six years later, Duncan can hardly find space for his growing collection. “Before I knew it, I was already an addict,” he remarks in jest. It was only when he had a separate condo unit for artwork storage that he realized he had inadvertently become an art collector. “You might think [this is] just a slight cough, but it’s really already at the terminal stage,” he jokes, gesturing to the number of works that almost burst the seams of his condo. Even his guest bathroom boasts editioned vinyl figures by Hari Sonik and Spanish cartoonist Joan Cornellà.

“But thinking of it… some say they don’t know anything about it, but I feel like nobody escaped Art Walk.” Duncan’s buying beginnings may be traced back to Bigboy of Secret Fresh, but he first encountered the world of art galleries on the fifth floor of SM Megamall. “We’ve all been to SM Megamall, and at least once in our lives we wonder, ‘what’s on the fourth floor?’ I window shopped, but I never really went inside. Sometimes there were exhibits in the Art Center, but we didn’t know any of the artists, and we never bought anything. They might have been famous, but we had no idea.” Compared to the art world then, things have certainly changed. When once most Metro Manila galleries populated malls, many have now organized themselves into communes along Chino Roces or have broken off to set up shop in other less constrained places. Duncan says the new configurations allow galleries to freely express their identity: “When you travel abroad, [you see that] it’s how galleries are supposed to be like. Silverlens, Artinformal, all of them, West, Blanc, they all have their own character.”

And this character is honed by the discriminating selection process undertaken by galleries. “Everything you have, everything you buy represents you,” advises Duncan. This applies not just to the buyer, but to all players in the market as well: the artist carefully selects the gallery that will represent him; the gallery, on the other hand, is selective with their artist roster; and the collector is also particular about what he or she will buy.

Duncan himself loses sleep over a potential artwork purchase. “It should really attract my attention. My acquisitions are a collection of what soothes my soul. It’s like my emotional exercise.” His most recent cause for sleepless nights is a large resin-encased collage by Arturo Sanchez. Being a close friend of his, Duncan asked Art to send him photos of his ongoing exhibit, Matter and Spirit at the BenCab Museum’s Indigo Gallery. Upon seeing the work Faith Fake Fade, Duncan said to Art, “that’s it.”

The work is a wall-bound acrylic and collage piece in clear cast resin. An intimately familiar figure hangs in the middle, arms splayed out at ten and two o’clock, head lolling to the side, legs together. It is Christ on the cross composed entirely of cutouts of hands, save only for his own two hands and feet bearing the stigmata. Beneath him are a gaggle of hands reaching up towards him. Set against a patchy tar-black backdrop; the mass of hands is depicted in grayscale, while Jesus’ hands run the gamut from pale to kayumanggi to dark brown. “Look at this,” he points to a hand in the foreground, “it’s got a cigarette. [The work] signifies the people who are so into images that they feel that if they are able to touch them, they will be saved, they will be taken up. I’m still thinking about it.” Art’s piece is large, striking, and fits in well with Duncan’s existing collection: moody, dark—some, literally—dramatic, and sexy.

Looking at the current art scene, Duncan muses that “it’s nicer, but I feel like it’s more intimidating now for collectors. It has an image that it’s only for sosyal.” For people who don’t regularly go to gallery opening receptions, even entering an art gallery can be a major hurdle. “They think you always have to pay an entrance fee… [or] people think, ‘naku, I’m not buying anything, they might gossip about me behind my back’ but in reality, nobody really cares.” When asked to give some advice to collectors who are new to the scene, Duncan says, “you should really research a lot... Initially, you [might] think of it as decorative, but art should affect you.” He tells new collectors to research which ones are reputable galleries, and to avoid galleries that “are just galleries selling.”

For Duncan, who has been collecting art locally and internationally, he sees the Philippines as having a lot of artists that are at par, globally. “There are some that need more work, but there are a lot of new artists who have something about them. It’s as if they’re just waiting for the right time and avenue.” For him, the Philippines, being a diverse country with both Western and Asian influences, creates art that has universal appeal. “We still have a lot of room to grow,” he says. Duncan believes that one direction with ripe room for growth is the area of fine art prints. “There are a lot of people that want art that isn’t too expensive, but is still valuable, and the solution is prints. Avant Arte, for example, even has prints by Jake and Dinos Chapman. I don’t want to say that I’ll never have a Chapman Brothers, but for now, there are prints, and that’s the closest you can get.”

Despite his jabs at the increasing unmanageability of his collection, Duncan is clearly excited about art, its creators with their wild ideas and boundless creativity, and the endless possibilities of expression. He still enthuses about a Manuel Ocampo piece he’d just bought but is still out getting framed, giddily tells us about some new artists he has his eye on, Tiffany Lafuente and Doktor Karayom, and the works that he’s still on the hunt for: a Jigger Cruz canvas, and an old Ronald Ventura work. As history is made day-in and day-out in the Philippine art scene, it seems inevitable that Duncan will continue to enjoy many a sleepless night.

Photography by Abdul Mapandi
Additional photos courtesy of Duncan Yu
Special thanks to Francesca Testa