Abstracting a Life in Art

My love for art began as a young teenager. To keep us out of trouble during the summer, my parents would send my sisters and me to a different country every year, and for those two months, we would visit museums and cultural sites or watch live theater. These experiences have formed me in a way that could never be taught at school. Decades of looking developed an intuition that guides me in knowing when a show is well presented. Sometimes a fresh graduate from Arts Management would ask me what I consider when hanging a show, but it is difficult to condense decades of looking into a few sentences. For me, it’s been more important to ask, how can passion be passed on?

At my University, art theory was taught alongside literature, philosophy, metaphysics, sociology, history, and economics. This makes complete sense because art does not exist in a vacuum and must be understood in context with everything else surrounding it. As an adult, I continued the habit of spending a few weeks in the summer learning something new. One summer, I went to L’Ecole Van Cleef & Arpels in Paris to study the history and symbolism of jewelry. After class, I would rush off to the nearby Louvre to examine ancient Egyptian scarab jewelry, or crowns and scepters of the royals, some of which have been melted down and no longer exist, though immortalized in paintings by the great masters. There was an exhibition at that time at Les Arts Decoratifs on artist-made jewelry. It featured a collection by Diane Venet of over 200 pieces made by the likes of Picasso, Braque, Alexander Calder, Louise Bourgeois, and Niki de Saint Phalle, together with contemporary artists Ai Wei Wei, Jeff Koons, Grayson Perry, and Yayoi Kusama. This subject boosts my avid interest in the merging of several disciplines: craft, design, and art.

Another of my most important learning experiences was during a short course at the Sotheby’s Institute in New York. Our class would visit the museums with curators who would explain their theories and processes. The curator of the Met Breuer put together a show featuring artists from all over the world. Museums are trying to be more inclusive in their representation but realized along the way the large gap in conservation departments. Most conservation expertise is with paintings and drawings, but there is little knowledge of conserving materials, such as exotic wood or newly developed artificial materials. Yet what struck me most was what my mentors said about art writing: that it should be understandable to the general public. Some of them had regretted their Master’s degrees because it took years to unwind the automatic use of jargon and sound more like themselves again. It is crucial to make the art shine, not the writing, and even more crucial to never misquote an artist’s intentions. The curator of the MoMA gave us an account, too, of the meticulous planning behind wall text: it should give enough information but not be too long so that crowd queues are manageable.

I recount these because there is a general lack of awareness about the massive work behind the scenes in bringing art to the public. Much art writing focuses on the works of art themselves and neglects other kinds of work involved in supporting artists, which are equally important. I am referring not only to writers and curators, but also conservators, art handlers, installers, framers, administration assistants, and other such professions in the field. Each of them has fascinating stories and anecdotes on mounting exhibitions.

But how did I start? My entry into the field of Philippine Contemporary Art was uncommon. A technique I like to use when art writing is role-playing. I use several names when I want to remain anonymous. Sometimes I like to pretend that I am an 80-year-old philosopher, sometimes a young female writer. (For several years, Leeroy New thought that I was an old Czech glass master, and wondered why an old Czech guy was “liking” his Instagram posts.) “Spektacularis” is the name I would use as the organizer of a glass art project that involved bringing Filipino artists to the Czech Republic to work in the glassblowing studios. Our team traveled to the Czech Republic twice and produced 40 collaborative works for each visit. I presented these glassworks in Paris, Prague, Milan, Singapore, and the Philippines. Without a gallery team, it was a baptism by fire. Richie and Karen Lerma of Salcedo Auctions provided me with the first local window by offering that I show the works through their Private View platform at Art Fair Philippines. That is where I met the rest of the people whom I work with now.

The second question most often asked me has to do with my years as a competitive cyclist and triathlete and whether that relates to my love for art. Curators and artists do not just look at artworks; they consider everything else in the world. There was one time I joined an 8-kilometer open water swim race in the Caramoan Islands. That area has been declared a marine preserve, so it has no inhabitants. Swimming in its waters felt like being in Jurassic Park. During the swim, we were suddenly surrounded by thousands of jellyfish. While they were harmless, it was still completely frightening. I recalled this particular experience when writing about the concept of “the sublime” for Sam Feleo’s work. In 2019, I curated a group show titled “Phenomena” at Artinformal. Sam Feleo presented a work made of artificially grown crystals. Her idea behind the piece was the sublime, the simultaneous experience of extreme fear and awe as when atop a mountain or at the ocean floor, as it magnifies our finite place as humans in the universe. Such experiences like the Caramoan swim help me comprehend notions expressed in art and be more effective as a writer and curator.

Having knowledge of art and being able to install a show beautifully are two separate skills. On the one hand, it is not enough to be an “art nerd” but unable to layout a beautiful presentation; on the other, it is not enough to just install a show well and not write about it. With galleries now beefing up their online platforms amid the pandemic, I have taken on a new role of conducting live interviews and studio tours for Instagram or edited Zoom videos. I have realized that this is another skill: the ability to adapt to social media and converse with artists, engaging an audience enough to compete for attention among the millions of other digital content. In the Philippines, gallery programming did not grind to a halt during the pandemic. Curators and writers simply took the changes in stride, and it is exciting to see how the role will continue to shift in the next few years.

Artists and cultural workers: let people hear from you. Send drafts of your essays, career reflections, reviews, or your burgeoning ideas to elo.cartellino@gmail.com. Talk and feedback is free.